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What is Meter in Music?

Music theory can be both simple and complex; it is not hard to learn, but it can difficult to thoroughly master because it presents intellectual challenges from time to time. Even though music is not an abstract concept, it can sometimes seem like it for students who start learning theory. At Prodigies, our curriculum and course designers take pride in being able to tap into the cognitive abilities of children for the purpose of fostering recognition of seemingly abstract elements such as meter.

Understanding Meter as Music Terminology

When you have a pattern of beats, you can put together a rhythm. When you arrange a rhythm meant to be played to a certain key, all you need to do is indicate tempo, time signature, and repetitive intervals in order to create a meter. We can break down meter as listed below:

  • Strong, mild, and weak beats.
  • Rhythmic pattern.
  • Tempo in beats per minute (BPM).
  • Syncopation and time signature.

There should be no ambiguity related to meter in music theory, but this is not the case when you enter the world of music producers and musicians, and this happens even among individuals who have been formally trained in music theory. Similar to how tempo and time signatures are often referred to as being interchangeable, the same happens with rhythm, meter, and beat. If you get a few seasoned calypso musicians together to play “Matilda,” for example, the band leader can just say “Belafonte rhythm” and everyone will play at a 4/4 time signature to the key of C major and with a tempo of about 86 BPM. The leader just gave meter instructions based on the famous Harry Belafonte version of an old calypso standard, but he referred to it as rhythm, which is only one part of meter. None of the musicians is going to question the leader because they all understand. Music educators may roll their eyes a bit, but this will not affect the band because meters are often called rhythms in Caribbean music genres.

More Meter Confusion

The same calypso band leader from our example above may notice that the piano player is getting slightly ahead of the bass, and he may say “slow it down a couple of bars,” when he actually means to say that the tempo should be reduced by a couple of beats; the piano player will understand because she is with Caribbean musicians as well. This can get more confusing with hip-hop and electronic dance music productions, where meter is seldom mentioned and the only terms that matter are samples, beats, rhythms, grooves, and BPM.

We can all agree that the 4/4 time signature took over the world during the previous century and has never let go, but we insist on calling it 4/4 beat, backbeat, four-on-the-floor, or four-to-the-floor. This time signature lends itself to standard dance music meters, but it is sometimes called rhythm by EDM producers because the bass drum hits every four measures. Then we have EDM artists and producers talking about rhythms that are actually percussion sequences and drum loops that can be created, loaded, and played by synthesizers, but each of these rhythms are eventually incorporated to musical pieces with specific meters.

A classic hip-hop rhythm, also known as a break, is taken from the 1973 soul song “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss; it is a catchy drum introduction that has been sampled dozens of times by artists who inherit the song meter. The EDM genre known as drum and bass was originated by the “Amen, Brother” break in an old soul song by The Winstons, and it is a four-bar percussion pattern that continues the backbeat for a couple of bars before hitting a snare, pausing a quarter of a measure before syncopating and following up with a crash cymbal ahead of the measure. This is called a percussion sequence, but EDM musicians call them drum loops and will sometimes treat them as meters.

Interpreting Song Meters

It is easier to think of meters as groups of beats broken into measures, which are called bars, plus the time signature that indicates the number of beats per measure. Additionally, the value of the beat is declared. A simple meter such as 2/4 is a double and the famous 4/4 is quadruple, but you can also compound meters so that the sheet music of a piece would read 6/8 and 6/16 at the beginning.

Prior to the use of numbers in music theory, European composers used to indicate meters as rhythmic modes, which were mostly based on three beats. From the 17th century until now, the layered complexity of musical compositions require compounding of multiple meters; in fact, composers such as Stravinsky are known for assigning different meters to each movement. When you see a time signature indicated as 6/8 you are looking at six eights within a measure; more specifically, six eighth-notes.

Meter vs. Rhythm

Even music theory authors sometimes fail to clarify the distinction between meter and rhythm. These terms should not be interchangeable in theory because of everything we have previously mentioned, but when you consult music theory books, you run into descriptions such as the ones below:

  • A meter is a group of beats.
  • A rhythm is the organization of beats within time spans.
  • Rhythms are articulations of beats.
  • Meters are patterns of strong and weak beats.

If you are confused about the definitions above, you are hardly alone. It is not surprising to know that modern musicians and producers conflate the two terms, and you could hardly blame them. We can expect music theory students to forget the difference between the two when they start composing and performing later in life. Music students who perform classical and jazz pieces will respect the differences, and a similar situation can be observed in piano learners, but most of the rest will likely conflate meter and rhythm. This is a minor concern because music does not stay the same forever; we used to have rhythmic modes and tempo through the Medieval period, now we have meter, time signature, and BPM.

To say that rhythm and meter will never merge into a single element would be to ignore the contribution of electronic music to the global musical canon. Maybe the EDM and hip-hop producers of today will define how music theory books are written in a few decades.

Teaching Meter and Rhythm

Music teachers have a powerful weapon they can use to avoid falling into the meter vs. rhythm trap. This weapon is known as accent, and it is only expressed or explained when referring to meter. Accents are also found in rhythms, but they are never discussed because you can always hear them; once you start talking about when the accent is struck, you are numbering beats and explaining meter.

Let’s consider a song like Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” from 1981. The introductory drums set a thunderous rhythm for the song, which is played on F major at 92 BPM. To a great extent, this composition calls to mind Queen’s “We Will Rock You” from 1977. The easiest way to explain the meter of “The Stroke” is to vocalize it as follows:

  • One-two-THREE
  • One-two-THREE

In this drum sequence, the kick drum hits twice at the same tone, but there is an accent on the third beat, which is when a snare drum is hit hard and with a rattle. Notice how you need to number the beats to indicate the accent that comes on the third strike of the snare drum. Band leaders talk meter all the time; the way they explain rhythms tends to be more practical and usually without numbering. Meter makes it easier to explain when the beats should be stronger, milder, and weaker in order to support the melody.

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