METER and SUBDIVISION
music in the world has a pulse or beat (exceptions include shakuhachi music
from Japan, Gregorian chant from Europe, various forms of Arab music, some
Australian didjeridu music, etc.). Usually,
the pulses are organized (by the performer, listener, and composer) into
groups, usually from 2 to 5 beats in a group, and are usually regular (the same
number of beats repeating over and over, and the beats always the same length). This grouping is the general idea of
METER. Most music derived from European
sources falls into DUPLE (2 or 4 beats) or TRIPLE meters. Beats themselves can be SUBDIVIDED into
smaller parts, usually 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 even parts (duple or triple
subdivisions). Music derived from folk
music in the Balkans or from other sources such as
The organization of time in European-influenced the music usually is happening at at least three levels. The middle ground, the level to which we are most likely to tap our foot, is the beat (or pulse) which is grouped at a higher level into groups of beats known as measures or bars. Going the other direction, beats are subdivided into smaller parts. Sometimes it is difficult to decide what is the basic level or speed of the pulse (or tempo). For example, fast music in a triple meter could be heard as a slow or moderate tempo (60 beats per minute) with its beat subdivided into three parts, or as a very fast stream of beats (180 beats per minute) that are grouped into threes.
In music there is a play between repetition (pattern) and variety. The regularity of meter gives rise to a set of expectations, and these expectations can be manipulated to create emotion, motion, surprise, etc. For example, in a 4-beat meter ("4/4" or "common time"), the first beat is the strongest beat, and the third beat is the next strongest. The second and fourth beats are "weak" beats. Heavy accents on these beats create a feeling of surprise known as “syncopation.” Repeated heavy accents on the second and fourth beats create a feeling known as "rock 'n' roll." Another use of the strong/weak beat distinction is the relative degree of melodic closure; when the melody ends on beat 1 (the "downbeat"), it is called a strong cadence and has the greatest feeling of closure, finality, rest or completeness.
Difficult to detect pulse: some examples of Gregorian chant; some examples of recitation of the Koran
EXAMPLE OF PULSE WITHOUT A SENSE OF METER
Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, 1976
EXAMPLE OF PULSE WITH A METRICAL PATTERN LARGER THAN WE USUALLY RECOGNIZE
Burundi ingoma, pulse but no sense of meter for our small brains -- the meter is a pattern of 11 and 17 beats
Examples of duple meter (4/4)
"Sylvie," Ledbetter-Campbell, performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Serves to point out that despite the silences in the music, and these are not pauses, they are rests -- the meter is the representation, a prediction of a rhythmic grid, that exists in our listening minds.
"Body and Soul," Dick Heyman et al., performed by Benny Goodman et al. this example of suing shows how the different beats in a 4/4 measure –– 1, 2, 3, 4 –– can each have a specific function or feel or expectation.
TRIPLE METER (3/4) EXAMPLES (common)
Haydn, second movement from String Quartet in C, Opus 33 No. 2
Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, third movement -- minuet.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement -- fast triple time.
EXAMPLES OF TRIPLE SUBDIVISION
Viderunt omnes, Perotin – recognize the skipping rhythm indicative of triple subdivision
Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Ain't Gone ‘n’ Give up on Love" (blues)
BB King, "Stormy Monday" (blues)
EXAMPLE OF DUPLE SUBDIVISION
Chuck Berry as performed by the Beatles, "Rock’n’ Roll Music"
TRIPLE METER with triple subdivision (unusual)
This is comparatively rare, despite its potential associations with the divine Trinity. For example, of the over 80 movements in the Bach French and English Suites, only one is in 9/8.
"Ride of the Valkyries" from the opera Die Walkure, Wagner -- a famous example showing that 9/8 is a perfectly good time signature. Bach Safely Graze
4-BEAT (DUPLE) METER WITH DUPLE SUBDIVISION (the most common meter)
Youkali Tango, Kurt Weill -- the tango rhythm is clearly heard here. Rhythm is not to be confused with meter. We actually hear a rhythm; meter is a mental grouping/ordering of tempo pulses (beats).
Kyrie fugue -- the main fugue theme always enters on 1 or 3.
Confutatis -- the agitated men emphasize beats 2 & 4; the peaceful and at rest women enter on beat 1. The satisfaction/release of hearing a phrase end on the downbeat is delayed until the end of the fourth phrase.
2-BEAT (DUPLE) METER WITH TRIPLE SUBDIVISION (common; called “compound”)
English Suite No. 2, Gigue, Bach
FOUR BEATS WITH TRIPLE SUBDIVISION (also "compound," fairly common)
many blues styles
Lacrymosa, Requiem, Mozart -- fast 3 or slow 4? (12/8) What is the mood?
EXAMPLE OF 5
“Take Five,” Desmond, Dave Brubeck
EXAMPLE OF ADDITIVE (OR ASYMMETRICAL) METER
Ravel, String Quartet, mvt 1. 5/8 or 2+3 subdivisions (opening only; the piece later shifts to 3 for contrast)