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Composer’s Forum: Musical Meters

Gerry Bassermann

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As music evolved, repetitions became patterns, and patterns became musical meters.

Meters are time signatures. While tempo is how fast the music goes, meter is how the music goes fast. Together they represent a temporal infrastructure for music. Since most meters have been codified into the canon of Western music for centuries, music lovers and audiences in general recognize and react to different metrical feels and are therefore fully engaged participants. Mere seconds into a waltz in three, a country two-step, or a four-on-the-floor club track, dancers and listeners alike are completely in the grip of the repeating patterns of the music. Meters are something you can rely on, that listeners and dancers alike can sink into.

Culture Club

Just as the mathematical divisions of a length of string produced the scales and intervals on which acoustic music is based, numerical groupings have also defined its rhythms. Meters are simply patterns based on groups of steps that repeat. That’s it. The truth is, most music is deeply based on mathematics. It turns out that musicians tend to be good at math.

The roots of these rhythms were pre-musical and regional, even specifically tribal. They initially served to communicate messages for the community—for example, an announcement about a village meeting. At such gatherings, the linguistic function of drumming served also to support cultural dancing and music.

Eventually, language (written language, in particular) took over these functional roles. Consequently, drum rhythms shed their functional complexities and began to repeat shorter, more predictable patterns that were natural for dance. Specific body movements became associated with particular kinds of rhythmic patterns. Many of these became the meters we use today. 

Musical Metrics

The most basic recurring pattern is a single beat played over and over again at a uniform tempo and volume. It hardly qualifies as a pattern, which would need at least another beat to have some innate motion. The single-beat metronomic “rhythm” functions well for a parade in which everyone wants to step forward together or rowers who need to row together. 

However, adding a second beat creates one of the seminal meters, sometimes called simple or duple time. It is the root of so many other musical meters based on its mathematical factors, notably four and eight. Similarly, adding a third beat creates the other seminal meter, triple time, with its family of factors like six, nine, and twelve.

Rhythmic cycles of four, in particular, have become so standard that we refer to them as common time. Sometimes written music denotes that by a large letter C rather than the more mathematical 4/4 time. Whether this meter presents with a metronomic beat (four-on-the-floor dance club) or hierarchal accents (strong beat/weak beat rock ’n’ roll) or includes syncopations, it has a proven track record as the foundation of many, many genres. That’s because it fulfills the basic role of every meter. That role is to revolve and repeat and keep the energy moving forward, keep it inevitable, keep the train on the track and all aboard. For sure, common time is responsible for some of the most uncommon music.

Uncommon Time

One way to redefine common time is to zoom into smaller components and hear it as 8/8. This allows you to reorganize the groupings (3-3-2, 3-2-3, 2-3-3) and change the feeling of the metrical rotation. It now becomes an uneven triple time in an even meter. That creates yet more ways to move the body, more ways to evolve the pattern while staying basically in four. Latin music celebrates this technique over and over againYou can also produce an uneven five pattern by keeping the groups smaller (2-1-2-2-1, 1-2-2-2-1). 

Similarly, when you restate 3/4 time as 6/8, you completely reinvent it. That changes from triple time 3 x 2 beats to duple time 2 x 3 beats. These can be easily alternated and serve as turnaround fills for each other. That creates the kind of horizontal hemiola Bernstein used so well in West Side Story, alternating 6/8 and 3/4 measures

Because they have the same repeating period, you can polyrhythmically play them at the same time. That creates a vertical hemiola or three-against-two feel. Listen to this polyrhythm and frame it in your head as now the three beats of 3/4 and now the two beats of 6/8.

Metrical Pairs

A more zoomed-out view of meters is how they work as pairs when repeated. If anything, the natural rotation of a metrical pattern becomes even more natural and compelling when paired: two measures of 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, etc. There is a special opportunity for the end of the second measure in the pair to be felt and played differently from the end of the first measure and lead back to downbeat more powerfully. These pairs act like miniature phrases. This is perhaps why common time (4/4) has such broad appeal: it is actually a pair of that most basic of even meters, two-beat duple time.

Prime Time

Other less common musical meters are based on prime integer roots like five and seven (others are 11, 13…). You can hear the natural rotation of a five-beat pattern in popular music such as “Take Five” and the “Mission: Impossible.” Pink Floyd had a hit with “Money” using the 7/4 time signature and putting equal energy onto each beat, and Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” rocks with its stop-and-go sevens. Of course, progressive rock and jazz has made good use of prime meters for decades.

Odd meters like these have some amazing qualities. When paired (played 2x), they can line up easily with even time signatures (given that any odd number times two is an even number). So when combined with common time, you can hear the first measure as downbeats and the second as upbeats. Here’s a polyrhythm with rotating 7/4 meters over 4/4 metronome.

As with the more duple and triple meters, regrouping the beats inside a prime meter completely changes the way they roll. Brubeck’s “Take Five” sounds easygoing and natural because the meter is grouped as 3 + 2 beats, which you can feel as half waltz and half two-step. Another Brubeck tune, “Blue Rondo,” is written in 9/8. Whereas that meter is normally three equal groups of three eighth notes each (3-3-3), though, Brubeck creates a sense of hurtling forward by adding a group (2-2-2-3). After three repeats of that altered 9/8 time, the fourth turnaround measure is straight 9/8. Check it out online, and remember to count.

Also keep in mind that you are not stuck in a single meter for the whole song. The idea of the verse being in seven and the chorus in four—or vice versa—is completely valid. Using prime meters can be quite hooky; the trick is to make it sound natural and not self-conscious. Outkast struck this balance perfectly with their hit “Hey Ya” that uses prime-number groupings in the context of a mainstream dance tune.

Next month, I’ll cover the remarkable tools available to electronic musicians to explore the world of pattern propagation and metrical manipulation. Count on it!

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