Charles O. Hartman


Charles O. Hartman — A Tutorial on Musical Meter





Meter in music is different from meter in poetry. (To learn more about meter in poetry, go to Tutorials on the course page and follow the "English Metrics" link.)

In music, meter is closely related to a beat. Beats are usually easy to hear — that's why this important tutorial can be so short. Different musical meters are basically different groupings of beats. Some common terminology: these groupings are called measures or bars. The most common ones in Western music are groups of either three or four beats, which are sometimes designated by time signatures like 3/4 or 4/4. These two basic kinds of musical meters are sometimes called "triple" and "duple" meters.

Here's an example of a slow 4/4 beat:
Emotionally Yours

Here's a faster 4/4 beat:
When the Ship Comes In

Songs in 3/4 time (sometimes called "waltz time") are not quite as common. Here's a medium-tempo example:
All I Really Want to Do

And here's a slow version of 3/4 time: I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Especially in American popular music, one more distinction can be important: "swung" versus "even" or "straight" time. This refers to divisions within the beat. "Straight" time subdivides the beat evenly. It's associated with styles like rock. Here's a slow example: Workingman's Blues #2

"Swung" rhythms are more associated with blues and jazz. (But notice that the previous example has "blues" in the title!) Here's an example, at roughly the same tempo as the previous one for the sake of comparison. The beat is divided in such a way that the first note (the note "on the beat") is about twice as long as the second, rather than equal in length. Pledging My Time

The take-away: If you can listen to a song and say whether it's "in three" or "in four," and whether the beat is "swung" or "straight," and whether it's fast or slow or medium or very slow, then you have said everything we need to know about the meter of the song.

Questions for further consideration: If you list all Dylan's songs in 3/4 time, do they fall into clear groups? Why doesn't Dylan have any songs in 5/4? If a song in swung 4/4 is slow enough, how can you tell it from 3/4 (four measures of quick 3/4 adding up to one slow measure of 4/4)?

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