Musical Meter

Musical meter is how we measure the underlying beats in a piece of music. The beat or pulse in music will often form patterns, or groupings of beats.

So how can you find the beat?

Dance to it, sing it, and jog to it. When you do, you will instinctively feel that the pulse has some beats that are stronger, and some that are softer.

Depending on how these beats group themselves you get different types of meter.

In some music the underlying beat can be constant, like in techno, without any big difference in stronger or softer beats. Then other rhythm patterns or sounds are layered on top, and they create patterns and groupings.

We humans simply like to organize sound in patterns! (This is also how music itself could be defined, as "Sounds organized in time"). Otherwise it simply doesn’t make sense to us.

In music notation, the musical meter is written as two fractional numbers (and a couple of symbols) called a Time Signature in the beginning of the staff:

Simple or Compound Musical Meter

In music theory, musical meter is organized in different groups to help us understand and talk about it better.

First, we organize the meter in two main groups; simple and compound meter. This has to do with how the main beat can be subdivided.

Errrh?...

Well, once you have found the underlying beat or pulse in a piece of music, you will notice that there are smaller, faster beats that you can hear on “top” of each beat.

There can be many layers of course, just listen to any drummer and see how s/he layers different rhythms on top of the main beat (usually in the bass drum).

For simple and compound meters however, we’ll only focus on how the main beat can be divided in either two smaller beats or three smaller beats.

Why? Because this has a huge impact on how the music sounds, what style it is etc.

Difference Between Simple & Compound Meters

Example 1: Simple Meter

In the first example you can feel the basic pulse or main beat by stamping along with your foot. After establishing the underlying beat, now tap along with your hand two shorter beats on each main beat. Try to make it three! Didn’t work so well, did it? OK. This is simple meter, where the main beat can be subdivided in two.

Example 2: Compound Meter

In the second example you can hear how each beat is divided in three’s. This also gives a completely different “feel” to the music. This is compound meter, where the main beat can be subdivided in three.

One tip: In simple meter you often have to “work” a little to find the subdivision of the beat. The main beat is often easy to hear/feel. But in compound meter you often have to do the reverse; “work” a little to find the main beats, since in this music the feeling of three shorter beats are often “highlighted”.

Exercise

Practice how to feel the difference between simple and compound meter:

1. Listen to a lot of different styles of music.
2. Tap your foot or hand along with the beat. Try to find the larger main beat.
3. Tap with the other hand a smaller beat on “top” of the main beat.
4. Determine if it is better with two (simple) or three (compound) smaller beats.

Up to now you learned how the main beat can be subdivided. But the beats themselves also form groups.

Both Simple and Compound Meter can be either duple, triple or quadruple depending on how the beats are grouped. So let’s dig deeper: