The Definition of Meter
Rhythm is connected with meter but they are not the same thing. Meter is the natural division of rhythms into equal sized groups. Here is an example of this.
The six quarter notes above can be grouped together in various ways, using what we call “bar lines”. By placing a bar line every two notes, these six notes can be grouped into three sets of two.
By placing a bar line every three notes, the six notes can be grouped into two sets of three.
We call the space from one bar line to the next a measure. In the first example there are 3 measures. And in the second example there are only 2 measures. We are measuring time through beats.
When someone say that a piece of music is “in 3”, it means that there are 3 beats between each bar line (3 beats in each measure). The preceding example is “in 3” because there are 3 beats in each measure. The example before that is “in 2” because there are 2 beats in each measure. (Remember, the quarter note has been designated as the “unit” or “beat”).
It is very important to understand that 2 “beats” per measure does not necessarily mean 2 “notes” per measure. For example, although there is only one note in the second measure above (the half note), it is equal to 2 beats. Therefore, every measure above contains the same number of beats (2) but not the same number of notes.
In the preceding example there are 4 notes in the first measure, 1 note in the second measure, and 2 notes in the last measure. When adding up the total number of each measure, it can be seen that there are 4 beats in each. This is an example of music “in 4”
Meter is always indicated at the start of a song by two numbers. We call these two numbers a time signature.
As you can see from the preceding diagrams, the top number indicates the number of beats in each measure. The bottom number indicates which notes has been designated at the unit of measurement. In each of the time signatures above, the number 4 appears on the bottom. 4 stands for “quarter”. It is indicating that the quarter note has been designated as the unit of measurement (I.e., assigned a value of 1).
The time signature “4/4” can also be written using the letter “C”.
The letter “C” stands for “common” time. This is due to the fact that majority of music has been written in “4/4” time.
Occurrence of Strong Beats
Meter was defined as “the natural division of rhythms into equal sized groups”. It was previously demonstrated that through placement of bar lines, music can be divided into equal sized groups which contain the same number of beats.
As we saw previously, these six notes can be grouped into sets of 2 or into sets of 3 using bar lines. Bar lines are placed based on where the strongest pulses in the music “naturally” occur. When the strongest pulse occurs every two beats, then the six quarter notes above will be grouped into sets of 2.
(Chapter 3 – Audio Sample 1)
When the strongest pulse occurs every three beats, then the six quartet notes will be grouped into sets of three.
(Chapter 3 – Audio Sample 2)
Music that has a strong pulse every four beats will be written in 4/4 meter. Note: Musicians will often times place a strong pulse on the first beat of each measure and a slightly less strong pulse on the third beat of each measure.
(Chapter 3 – Audio Sample 3)