Meter: The Scheme and the Pattern of It


I told you earlier that I had a friend who was a fiddler. He would play fiddle tunes which would make you want to dance. In addition, the tunes had just the right feel for dancing. There was a rhythmic pattern in the music which allowed and encouraged you to move to it. You could swing your partner and do-see-do! We've learned the first part of rhythm, that notes are long or short. Now, we're going to learn the next part of rhythm, that notes usually are in rhythmic patterns called meters, and these meters are indicated by time signatures.


Meter is that aspect of rhythm which organizes beats into patterns (or measures).

Types of Meter

There are several types of meter, with simple and compound meter, and duple and triple being the most common types.
Simple and Compound Meter
In simple meters, note values are typically divided into groups of two or multiples of two. In compound meters, these note values are typically divided into groups of three or multiples of three. We will concentrate here on simple meters.
Interpreting Time Signatures

In simple meters, we interpret time signatures the following way:

  • The top number indicates how many beats there are in each measure.
  • The bottom number indicates what note gets one beat.

    I call this the "simple meter time signature rule."

    So, let's look at an example.

    Example 1: a time signature:

    In this example, the two numbers have the following meaning:

  • The top number (3) indicates that there are three beats in each measure
  • The bottom number (4) indicates that the quarter note gets one beat.

    What we've done is use the "simple meter time signature rule," and come up with what we need to know about the meter of a score.

    How or why we interpret the bottom number my be confusing. Here's a tip in figuring out the "simple meter time signature rule." Take the bottom number and turn it into a fraction with 1 as the numerator and 4 (the bottom number of the time signature) as the denominator. That gives you a fraction of 1/4 (one quarter). So, the quarter note gets the beat any time the bottom number of a time signature is 4.

    Time Signature Review

    Duple and Triple Meter
    Example 1, above is an example of a triple meter, since it indicates three beats to a measure. Here's an example of a duple meter:

    Example 2: another time signature:

    Example 2 is a duple meter, since there are four beats to a measure (and four is a duple number). If we take the time signature of 4/4 seen in example 2, and apply the "simple meter time signature rule" to it, we come up with the following info:
  • there are four beats to each measure.
  • the quarter note gets the beat.

    Measures (Bars) and Lines

    What this means to a student who is just learning about how to read music is this:

    Example 3: music with a time signature, measures, measure lines, and beats:

    Music (at least the music we'll study in this class) consists of measures, which are divided by lines. Each measure has the same number of beats, and the number of beats is equal to the top number of the time signature. Each beat is equal to a rhythmic value which is indicated by the bottom number of the time signature.
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