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Meter or metre is the measurement of a musical line into measures of stressed and unstressed "beats," indicated in Western music notation by a symbol called a time signature. Properly, "meter" describes the entire concept of measuring rhythmic units, but it can also be used as a specific descriptor for a measurement of an individual piece as represented by the time signature, for example 2/4 time, 3/4 time, 6/8 time, 12/8 time, 3/2 time, and so on.
In Western music there are two basic metric characteristics; duple meter and triple meter. A meter such as 4/4 time or 9/8 time, are in effect compounds of these two basic metric components. Time signatures generally appear as a fraction. The first of the two numerals in a time signature signifies the number of beats in a measure or bar. The second numeral signifies the note value that is being used as the basic note qualifier. For example, a time signature of 4/4 indicates that there are four beats in the measure and a quarter note (4) is the value qualifier. A time signature of 3/8 indicates the there are three beats per measure and the eighth note (8) is the value qualifier.
Prior to the twentieth century, the use of asymmetrical meters in musical compositions, such as 5/4, 5/8 or 7/8, was very rare. The second movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was one of the first examples of music written entirely in an asymmetrical meter, 5/4 time. As the twentieth century progressed, composers would often change meters in rapid succession in order to achieve a varied rhythmic pulsation. This practice became an important rhythmic aspect in progressive jazz in the second half of the century as well.
When the organization of beats into regular groups is called meter, this organization creates an order within the musical composition which is like the tenet attributable to the concept of order from the Divine Principle. This principle organizes the attributes of polarity, harmony, and order to achieve a oneness in whatever action is undertaken. Meter thus assists in achieving rhythmic unity within a musical composition.
Early rhythmic notation
As early attempts at notation developed in the Middle Ages in Europe the neume system arose from the need to notate songs, usually for religious music in the form of chant. The exact timing (rhythm) was initially not a particular issue, as the music would generally follow the natural rhythms of the Latin language. However, by the tenth century, a system of representing up to four note lengths had evolved. These lengths were relative rather than absolute, and depended on the duration of the neighboring notes.
It was not until the fourteenth century that something akin to the modern system of fixed note lengths arose. Beginning in the fifteenth century, vertical bar lines were used to divide the musical staff into distinct sections. These did not initially divide the music into measures (bars) of equal length, but appear to have been introduced as an aid to the eye for "lining up" notes on different staves that were to be played or sung at the same time. The use of regular measures (bars) became commonplace by the end of the seventeenth century.
Rhythm is distinguished from meter in that rhythms are patterns of duration while "meter involves our initial perception as well as subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythm surface of the music as it unfolds in time" (London 2004, 4). There are four different time signatures in common use:
- Simple duple (2/4)
- Simple triple (3/4)
- Compound duple (6/8)
- Compound triple (9/8)
In some regional music, for example Balkan music, a wealth of complex compound meters are used. This has influenced some Western music as well, for example, Béla Bartók, and Paul Desmond, composer of the jazz piece, Take Five.
|Beats divided in two||Beats divided in three|
|Two beats per measure||simple duple||compound duple|
|Three beats per measure||simple triple||compound triple|
If each measure is divided into two beats, it is duple meter, and if three it is triple. If each beat in a measure is divided into two parts, it is a simple meter, and if divided into three, it is compound. Some people also label quadruple, while some consider it as two duples.
Duple time is far more common than triple. Most popular music is in 4/4 time, although 2/2, or cut time (alla breve), such as in bossa nova, is also common. Doo-wop and some other rock styles are frequently in 12/8, or may be interpreted as 4/4 with heavy swing. Similarly, most classical music before the twentieth century tended to stick to relatively straightforward meters such as 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8, though some variations on these such as 3/2 and 6/4 are also found.
In music of the twentieth century, it became relatively common to change meter frequently—the end of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is an extreme example—and the use of asymmetrical rhythms where each beat is a different length became more common. Such meters include quintuple rhythms as well as more complex constructs along the lines of 2+5+3/4 time, where each bar has a 2-beat unit, a 5-beat unit, and a 3-beat unit, with a stress at the beginning of each unit.
Some music has no meter at all (free time), such as drone-based music as exemplified by La Monte Young. Other music features rhythms so complex that any meter is obscured, such as in some pieces using serial techniques, or is based on additive rhythms, such as some music by Philip Glass.
Meter is often combined with a rhythmic pattern to produce a particular style. This is true of dance music, such as the waltz or tango, which have particular patterns of emphasizing beats which are instantly recognizable. This is often done to make the music coincide with slow or fast steps in the dance, and can be thought of as the musical equivalent of prosody. Sometimes, a particular musician or composition becomes identified with a particular metric pattern; such is the case with the so-called Bo Diddley beat.
Polymeter or Polyrhythm is the use of two metric frameworks simultaneously, or in regular alternation. Examples include Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 2. Leonard Bernstein's "America" (from West Side Story) employs alternating measures of 6/8 (compound duple) and 3/4 (simple triple). This gives a strong sense of two, followed by three, stresses (indicated in bold type): // I-like-to be-in-A // ME RI CA//.
An example from the rock canon is "Kashmir" by the seminal British hard-rock quartet Led Zeppelin, in which the percussion articulates 4/4 while the melodic instruments present a riff in 3/4. "Touch And Go," a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5/4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4/4 (the choruses are entirely in 4/4.) In "Toads Of The Short Forest" (from the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh), composer Frank Zappa explains: "At this very moment on stage we have drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4, and the alto sax blowing his nose." The metal band Meshuggah uses complex polymeters; typically the songs are constructed in 4/4, with guitar and bass drum patterns in other meters such as 11/8 and 23/16.
These are examples of what is also referred to as "tactus-preserving polymeter." Since the pulse is the same, the various meters eventually agree. (4 measures of 7/4 = 7 measures of 4/4.) The more complex, and less-common "measure preserving polymeter," occurs when there exists more than one meter, but the measure stays constant. This is also referred to as polyrhythm. These terms are found in the writings of Keith Waters and Steve Larson. Waters' 1996 article "Blurring the Barline: Metric Displacement in the Piano Solos of Herbie Hancock" from the Annual Review of Jazz Studies" and Larson's 2006 "Rhythmic Displacement in the Music of Bill Evans" are two examples.
Perceptually there appears to be little or no basis for polymeter as research shows that listeners either extract a composite pattern that is fitted to a metric framework, or focus on one rhythmic stream while treating others as "noise." This upholds the tenet that "the figure-ground dichotomy is fundamental to all perception" (Boring 1942, 253) (London 2004, 49-50).
Metric structure includes meter, tempo, and all rhythmic aspects which produce temporal regularity or structure, against which the foreground details or durational patterns are projected (Wittlich 1975, chp. 3).
Rhythmic units can be metric, intrametric, contrametric, or extrametric.
Metric levels may be distinguished. The beat level is the metric level at which pulses are heard as the basic time unit of the piece. Faster levels are division levels, and slower levels are multiple levels (Ibid.).
Level of Meter is shown to be a spurious concept, since meter arises from the interaction of two levels of motion, the faster of which provides the pulses, and the slower of which organizes them in repetitive conceptual groups (Yeston, 1976).
Hypermeter is large-scale meter (as opposed to surface-level meter) created by hypermeasures which consist of hyperbeats (Stein 2005, 329). The term was coined by Cone (1968) while London (2004, 19) asserts that there is no perceptual distinction between meter and hypermeter.
A metric modulation is a modulation from one metric unit or meter to another.
Meter can be described in terms of deep structure, where, through rewrite rules, different meters (4/4, 3/4, and so on) generate many different surface rhythms. For example the first phrase of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," without the syncopation, may be generated from its meter of 4/4:4/4 4/4 4/4 / \ / \ / \ 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 | / \ | | | \ | 1/4 1/4 | | | \ | / \ / \ | | | | 1/8 1/8 1/8 1/8 | | | | | | | | | | | It's been a hard day's night...
Meter in song
Issues involving meter in song reflect a combination of musical meter and poetic meter, especially when the song is in a standard verse form. Traditional and popular songs fall heavily within a limited range of meters, leading to a fair amount of interchangeability. For example, early hymnals commonly did not include musical notation, but simply texts. The text could be sung to any tune known by the singers that had a matching meter, and the tune chosen for a particular text might vary from one occasion to another.
Importance of meter
The need for a rhythmic organization within a musical composition is fulfilled by its meter, the organization of beats into regular groups. Within a musical segment or measure, there are a fixed number of beats. A meter is then determined by the number of beats per measure. For example, when a measure has three beats, it is in triple meter wherein the count is '1'-2-3, '1'-2-3 with an emphasis on the first beat, or in duple meter wherein the count is '1'-2, '1'-2 with an emphasis on the first beat. The meter of a piece is the manner in which a composition is rhythmically and systematically arranged to create the order in the musical piece.
- Karpinski, Gary S, Aural Skills Acquisition: The Development of Listening, Reading, and Performing Skills in College-Level Musicians. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0195117859.
- Krebs, Harald, Deborah Stein (ed.). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195170105.
- Lester, Joel. The Rhythms of Tonal Music. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. ISBN 0809312824.
- London, Justin. Hearing in Time: Psychological Aspects of Musical Meter, Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195160819
- Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198166389.
- Wittlich, Gary E. Aspects of 20th Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. OCLC969737.
- Yeston, Maury. The Stratification of Musical Rhythm. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. ISBN 0300018843.
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Simple example of a 3/4 time signature, indicating three beats to a measure.
See also: Metre (hymn) and Metre (poetry)
In music, metre (Am. meter) refers to the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats. Unlike rhythm, metric onsets are not necessarily sounded, but are nevertheless expected by the listener.
A variety of systems exist throughout the world for organising and playing metrical music, such as the Indian system of tala and similar systems in Arabian and African music.
Western music inherited the concept of metre from poetry (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002b) where it denotes: the number of lines in a verse; the number of syllables in each line; and the arrangement of those syllables as long or short, accented or unaccented (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002b). The first coherent system of rhythmic notation in modern Western music was based on rhythmic modes derived from the basic types of metrical unit in the quantitative meter of classicalancient Greek and Latin poetry (Hoppin 1978, 221).
Later music for dances such as the pavane and galliard consisted of musical phrases to accompany a fixed sequence of basic steps with a defined tempo and time signature. The English word "measure", originally an exact or just amount of time, came to denote either a poetic rhythm, a bar of music, or else an entire melodic verse or dance (Merriam-Webster 2015) involving sequences of notes, words, or movements that may last four, eight or sixteen bars.
The term metre is not very precisely defined (Scholes 1977). Stewart MacPherson preferred to speak of "time" and "rhythmic shape" (MacPherson (1930, 3)), while Imogen Holst preferred "measured rhythm" (Holst (1963, 17)). However, Justin London has written a book about musical metre, which "involves our initial perception as well as subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythm surface of the music as it unfolds in time" (London 2004, 4). This "perception" and "abstraction" of rhythmic bar is the foundation of human instinctive musical participation, as when we divide a series of identical clock-ticks into "tick–tock–tick–tock" (Scholes 1977). "Rhythms of recurrence" arise from the interaction of two levels of motion, the faster providing the pulse and the slower organizing the beats into repetitive groups (Yeston 1976, 50–52). In his book The Rhythms of Tonal Music, Joel Lester notes that, "[o]nce a metric hierarchy has been established, we, as listeners, will maintain that organization as long as minimal evidence is present" (Lester 1986, 77).
"Meter may be defined as a regular, recurring pattern of strong and weak beats. This recurring pattern of durations is identified at the beginning of a composition by a meter signature (time signature). ... Although meter is generally indicated by time signatures, it is important to realize that meter is not simply a matter of notation" (Benward and Saker 2003, 9). A definition of musical metre requires the possibility of identifying a repeating pattern of accented pulses — a "pulse-group" — which corresponds to the foot in poetry. Frequently a pulse-group can be identified by taking the accented beat as the first pulse in the group and counting the pulses until the next accent (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977). Frequently metres can be broken down into a pattern of duples and triples (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977).
The level of musical organisation implied by musical metre includes the most elementary levels of musical form (MacPherson 1930, 3).
Metrical rhythm, measured rhythm, and free rhythm are general classes of rhythm and may be distinguished in all aspects of temporality (Cooper 1973, 30):
- Metrical rhythm, by far the most common class in Western music, is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a fixed unit (beat, see paragraph below), and normal accents reoccur regularly, providing systematic grouping (bars, divisive rhythm).
- Measured rhythm is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a specified time unit but there are not regularly recurring accents (additive rhythm).
- Free rhythm is where there is neither.
Some music, including chant, has freer rhythm, like the rhythm of prose compared to that of verse (Scholes 1977). Some music, such as some graphically scored works since the 1950s and non-European music such as Honkyoku repertoire for shakuhachi, may be considered ametric (Karpinski 2000, 19). The music term senza misura is Italian for "without metre", meaning to play without a beat, using time to bar how long it will take to play the bar (Forney and Machlis 2007,[page needed]).
Metric structure includes metre, tempo, and all rhythmic aspects that produce temporal regularity or structure, against which the foreground details or durational patterns of any piece of music are projected (Wittlich 1975, chapt. 3). Metric levels may be distinguished: the beat level is the metric level at which pulses are heard as the basic time unit of the piece. Faster levels are division levels, and slower levels are multiple levels (Wittlich 1975, chapt. 3). A rhythmic unit is a durational pattern which occupies a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an underlying metric level.
Frequently encountered types of metre
Metres classified by the number of beats per measure
In duple metre, each measure is divided into two beats, or a multiple thereof (quadruple metre).
For example, in the time signature 2
4, each bar contains two (2) quarter-note (4) beats. In the time signature 6
8, each bar contains two dotted-quarter-note beats. Corresponding quadruple metres are 4
4, which has four quarter-note beats per measure, and 12
8, which has four dotted-quarter-note beats per bar.
Triple metre is a metre in which each bar is divided into three beats, or a multiple thereof. For example, in the time signature 3
4, each bar contains three (3) quarter-note (4) beats, and with a time signature of 9
8, each bar contains three dotted-quarter beats.
Metres classified by the subdivisions of a beat
Simple metre and compound metre are distinguished by the way the beats are subdivided.
Simple metre (or simple time) is a metre in which each beat of the bar divides naturally into two (as opposed to three) equal parts. The top number in the time signature will be 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.
For example, in the time signature 3
4, each bar contains three quarter-note beats, and each of those beats divides into two eighth notes, making it a simple metre. More specifically, it is a simple triple metre because there are three beats in each measure; simple duple (two beats) or simple quadruple (four) are also common metres.
Compound metre (or compound time), is a metre in which each beat of the bar divides naturally into three equal parts. That is, each beat contains a triple pulse (Latham 2002a). The top number in the time signature will be 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 24, etc..
Compound metres are written with a time signature that shows the number of divisions of beats in each bar as opposed to the number of beats. For example, compound duple (two beats, each divided into three) is written as a time signature with a numerator of six, for example, 6
8. Contrast this with the time signature 3
4, which also assigns six eighth notes to each measure, but by convention connotes a simple triple time: 3 quarter-note beats.
Examples of compound metre include:
8 (compound duple metre) has two beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quarter note, and a subordinate accent on the fourth quarter note.
8 (compound triple metre) has three beats divided into three parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quarter note, and subordinate accents on the fourth and seventh quarter notes.
8 (compound quadruple metre) has four beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quarter note, a secondary accent on the seventh quarter note, and subordinate accents on the fourth and tenth quarter notes.
4 and 6
8 are not to be confused, they use bars of the same length, so it is easy to "slip" between them just by shifting the location of the accents. This interpretational switch has been exploited, for example, by Leonard Bernstein, in the song "America":
Compound metre divided into three parts could theoretically be transcribed into musically equivalent simple metre using triplets. Likewise, simple metre can be shown in compound through duples. In practice, however, this is rarely done because it disrupts conducting patterns when the tempo changes. When conducting in 6
8, conductors typically provide two beats per bar; however, all six beats may be performed when the tempo is very slow.
Compound time is associated with "lilting" and dancelike qualities. Folk dances often use compound time. Many Baroque dances are often in compound time: some gigues, the courante, and sometimes the passepied and the siciliana.
Metre in song
The concept of metre in music derives in large part from the poetic metre of song and includes not only the basic rhythm of the foot, pulse-group or figure used but also the rhythmic or formal arrangement of such figures into musical phrases (lines, couplets) and of such phrases into melodies, passages or sections (stanzas, verses) to give what Holst (1963, 18) calls "the time pattern of any song" (See also:Form of a musical passage).
Traditional and popular songs may draw heavily upon a limited range of metres, leading to interchangeability of melodies. Early hymnals commonly did not include musical notation but simply texts that could be sung to any tune known by the singers that had a matching metre. For example, The Blind Boys of Alabama rendered the hymn "Amazing Grace" to the setting of The Animals' version of the folk song "The House of the Rising Sun". This is possible because the texts share a popular basic four-line (quatrain) verse-form called ballad metre or, in hymnals, common metre, the four lines having a syllable-count of 8–6–8–6 (Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised), the rhyme-scheme usually following suit: ABAB. There is generally a pause in the melody in a cadence at the end of the shorter lines so that the underlying musical metre is 8–8–8–8 beats, the cadences dividing this musically into two symmetrical "normal" phrases of four bars each (MacPherson 1930, 14).
In some regional music, for example Balkan music (like Bulgarian music, and the Macedonian 3+2+2+3+2 metre), a wealth of irregular or compound metres are used. Other terms for this are "additive metre" (London 2001, §I.8) and "imperfect time" (Read 1964, 147[not in citation given]).
Metre in dance music
Metre is often essential to any style of dance music, such as the waltz or tango, that has instantly recognizable patterns of beats built upon a characteristic tempo and bar. The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (1983) defines the tango, for example, as to be danced in 2
4 time at approximately 66 beats per minute.
The basic slow step forwards or backwards, lasting for one beat, is called a "slow", so that a full "right–left" step is equal to one 2
But step-figures such as turns, the corte and walk-ins also require "quick" steps of half the duration, each entire figure requiring 3–6 "slow" beats. Such figures may then be "amalgamated" to create a series of movements that may synchronise to an entire musical section or piece. This can be thought of as an equivalent of prosody (see also: prosody (music)).
Metre in classical music
In music of the common practice period (about 1600–1900), there are four different families of time signature in common use:
- Simple duple—two or four beats to a bar, each divided by two, the top number being "2" or "4" (2
2 … 4
2 …). When there are four beats to a bar, it is alternatively referred to as "quadruple" time.
- Simple triple ( 3
4 (help·info))—three beats to a bar, each divided by two, the top number being "3" (3
- Compound duple—two beats to a bar, each divided by three, the top number being "6" (6
- Compound triple—three beats to a bar, each divided by three, the top number being "9" (9
If the beat is divided into two the metre is simple, if divided into three it is compound. If each bar is divided into two it is duple and if into three it is triple. Some people also label quadruple, while some consider it as two duples. Any other division is considered additively, as a bar of five beats may be broken into duple+triple (12123) or triple+duple (12312) depending on accent. However, in some music, especially at faster tempos, it may be treated as one unit of five.
In twentieth-century concert music, it became more common to switch metre—the end of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is an example. A metric modulation is a modulation from one metric unit or metre to another. The use of asymmetrical rhythms also became more common: such metres include quintuple as well as more complex additive metres along the lines of 2+2+3 time, where each bar has two 2-beat units and a 3-beat unit with a stress at the beginning of each unit. Similar metres are used in various folk music as well as some music by Philip Glass. Additive metres may be conceived either as long, irregular metres or as constantly changing short metres.
Hypermetre is large-scale metre (as opposed to surface-level metre) created by hypermeasures, which consist of hyperbeats (Stein 2005, 329). "Hypermeter is meter, with all its inherent characteristics, at the level where bars act as beats" (Neal 2000, 115). For example, the four-bar hyperbar is the prototypical structure for country music, in and against which country songs work (Neal 2000, 115). In some styles, two- and four-bar hypermetres are common.
The term was coined, together with "hypermeasures", by Edward T.Cone (1968), who regarded it as applying to a relatively small scale, conceiving of a still larger kind of gestural “rhythm” imparting a sense of “an extended upbeat followed by its downbeat” (Berry and Van Solkema 2013, §5(vi)). London (2012, 25) contends that in terms of multiple and simultaneous levels of metrical "entrainment" (evenly spaced temporal events "that we internalize and come to expect", p. 9), there is no in-principle distinction between metre and hypermetre; instead, they are the same phenomenon occurring at different levels. Lee (1985)[verification needed] and Middleton have described musical metre in terms of deep structure, using generative concepts to show how different metres (4
4, etc.) generate many different surface rhythms. For example, the first phrase of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night", excluding the syncopation on "night", may be generated from its metre of 4
4 (Middleton 1990, 211):
The syncopation may then be added, moving "night" forward one eighth note, and the first phrase is generated ( Play (help·info)).
See also: Polyrhythm
With polymetre, the bar sizes differ, but the beat remains constant. Since the beat is the same, the various metres eventually agree. (Four bars of 7
4 = seven bars of 4
4). An example is the second moment, titled "Scherzo polimetrico", of Edmund Rubbra's Second String Quartet (1951), in which a constant triplet texture holds together overlapping bars of 9
8, and 21
8, and barlines rarely coincide in all four instruments (Rubbra 1953, 41).
With Polyrhythm, the number of beats varies within a fixed bar length. For example, in a 4:3 polyrhythm, one part plays 4
4 while the other plays 3
4, but the 3
4 beats are stretched so that three beats of 3
4 are played in the same time as four beats of 4
More generally, sometimes rhythms are combined in a way that is neither tactus nor bar preserving—the beat differs and the bar size also differs. See Polytempi.
Research into the perception of polymetre shows that listeners often either extract a composite pattern that is fitted to a metric framework, or focus on one rhythmic stream while treating others as "noise". This is consistent with the Gestalt psychology tenet that "the figure–ground dichotomy is fundamental to all perception" (Boring 1942, 253;[verification needed]London 2004, 49–50). In the music, the two metres will meet each other after a specific number of beats. For example, a 3
4 metre and 4
4 metre will meet after 12 beats.
In "Toads of the Short Forest" (from the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh), composer Frank Zappa explains: "At this very moment on stage we have drummer A playing in 7
8, drummer B playing in 3
4, the bass playing in 3
4, the organ playing in 5
8, the tambourine playing in 3
4,[clarification needed] and the alto sax blowing his nose" (Mothers of Invention 1970). "Touch And Go", a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5
4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4
4 (the choruses are entirely in 4
4) (Cars 1981, 15).
Polymetres are a defining characteristic of the djent subgenre of metal, first pioneered by The Swedish metal band Meshuggah frequent use of polymetres, with unconventionally timed rhythm figures cycling over a 4
4 base (Pieslak 2007).
Beat-preserving polymetre 5
4 with 4
Beat-preserving polymetre 5