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:
In music theory, musical meter is organized in different groups to help us understand and talk about it better.
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.
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.
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.
Practice how to feel the difference between simple and compound meter:
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: