Understanding Simple Meter

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Many people are confused about what simple meter vs. compound meter is.

To make matters worse we also have meter that can be duple, triple and quadruple. And what time signatures are in simple time?

Don’t worry- here is help!

Simple Meter

Let’s Start From the Beginning

If you listen to a piece of music, you will notice the beat. This is what you want to move or stamp your foot to. The beat has some beats that are stronger than the others.

Just by emphasizing some beats a tad bit more than the others, a grouping of the beats occur.

This is called Musical Meter.

Simple and Compound Meter

Now, if we continue to listen, tapping along with the music, we may notice that the beat can have other, shorter beats on “top” of it.

There are many possibilities, but two subdivisions that have the most impact are when they are subdivided in 2’s and 3’s. This is called Simple meter (subdivided in 2’s) and Compound meter (subdivided in 3’s). 

Different time signatures are then classified as being either Simple Time Signatures and Compound Time Signatures.

Simple Meter Time Signatures

Simple time signatures are easy to learn. They are the time signatures where the top number is 2, 3 or 4.

The bottom number represents what note value is counted as 1 beat.

A time signature could in theory have any note value number here; 2 (=half note), 4 (=quarter note), 8 (=eighth note), 16 (=sixteenth note) etc. But here we will focus on the most common time signatures.

The most common simple time signatures are:

Simple meter: Time signatures

Duple, Triple and Quadruple Meter

The top number of the time signature tells us the number of main beats in each group/measure.

Time signatures with 2 main beats per group are called duple, with 3; triple, and with 4; quadruple. Easy-just look at the top number when you have simple time signatures.

So, for example a time signature of 4/4 is also called Simple Quadruple Time. 2/2 is called Simple Duple Time, and 3/8 is called Simple Triple Time.

A Caveat: The triple time signature 3/8 could- if played so fast that you have to “switch gears” to feel 1 beat per measure instead of 3- seem as if it would fall into the category of compound meter. If so- having only 1 main beat per measure (divided in 3 sub beats) it would be single compound. Not everyone agrees on this though...

So, what about the bottom number?

When listening to music, it is impossible to tell what the “bottom” number in the time signature is.

But you can easily learn to figure out if it is in simple time (main beat can be subdivided in 2) and if it is duple, triple or quadruple meter.

So you could listen to a piece and say (very snazzy!): ”This piece is in simple quadruple time, you guys!” How cool is that!

How?

  • Listen to lots of different music.
  • Find the main beat, the slowest one that kind of keeps it all together, but not too slow. Stamp to it or tap your hand.
  • Notice any stronger beats that you tap. Stronger beats are “1”, weaker are “2, 3, 4...” etc.
  • How many in each group? If you feel “1, 2, 1, 2” etc. it’s duple time. “1, 2, 3” etc is triple time, and “1, 2, 3, 4” is quadruple time.
  • Next you figure out, (if you haven’t already), if the main beat (the one you’re stamping) can be subdivided in 2 or 3: On each main beat, tap lightly with your hand either two or three shorter beats. If 2 fit nicely, the piece is in simple meter, if 3 fits it’s in compound meter.

Recommended Resources

You might like these

  • Time Signatures for Beginners

    It may seem that time signatures are not important to pay any attention to, but they do give us a lot of information that is useful as you learn a piece.

  • How to Understand Compound Meter

    Compound Meter is when beats in a musical piece are subdivided in three smaller beats. The time signatures will have the number 6, 9 or 12 on top.

  • The Music Bar Line

    The music bar line is a vertical line that divide the notes in a score into groups. The lines show us the most strong beats; the first beat after each.