The metre (Am. meter) of music is its rhythmic structure, the patterns of accents heard in regularly recurring measures of stressed and unstressed beats (arsis and thesis) at the frequency of the music's pulse.
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 classical ancient 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.
- 1 Metric structure
- 2 Frequently encountered types of metre
- 3 Metre in song
- 4 Metre in dance music
- 5 Metre in classical music
- 6 Hypermetre
- 7 Polymetre
- 8 Examples
- 9 See also
- 10 Sources
- 11 External links
The term is not very precisely defined (Scholes 1977). MacPherson (1930, 3) preferred to speak of "time" and "rhythmic shape", Imogen Holst (1963, 17) of "measured rhythm". However, 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 measure 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). "Once a metric hierarchy has been established, we, as listeners, will maintain that organization as long as minimal evidence is present" (Lester 1986, 77).
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).
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 (measures, 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 (Cooper 1973, 30). 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). Senza misura is an Italian musical term for "without metre", meaning to play without a beat, using time to measure 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 measure contains two (2) quarter-note (4) beats, and with the time signature 6
8, each measure contains two dotted-quarter-note beats. Corresponding quadruple metres are 4
4, with 2 × 2 = 4 quarter-note beats per measure, and 12
8, with 2 × 2 = 4 dotted-quarter-note beats per measure.
Triple metre is a metre in which each measure is divided into three beats, or a multiple thereof. For example, in the time signature 3
4, each measure contains three (3) quarter-note (4) beats, and with a time signature of 9
8, each measure 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 measure 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 measure contains three crotchet (quarter note) beats, and each of those beats divides into two quavers (eighth notes), making it a simple metre. More specifically, it is simple triple 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 (chiefly British variation), is a metre in which each beat of the measure 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 measure 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 quavers to each measure, but by convention connotes a simple triple time: 3 crotchet beats.
Examples of compound metre:
8 (compound duple metre) has two beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, and a subordinate accent on the fourth quaver.
8 (compound triple metre) has three beats divided into three parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, and subordinate accents on the fourth and seventh quavers.
8 (compound quadruple metre) has four beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, a secondary accent on the seventh quaver, and subordinate accents on the fourth and tenth quavers.
4 and 6
8 are not to be confused, they use measures 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" from West Side Story, as can be heard in the prominent motif Play (help·info):
Some works with compound metre:
Counter-examples, not in compound metre
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 measure. Where the tempo is slow, however, all six beats may be performed.
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 measures 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 measure. 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.
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 measure 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 measure 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 measures act as beats" (Neal 2000, 115). For example, the four-bar hypermeasure 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):
With Polymetre, the measure sizes differ, but the beat remains constant. Since the beat is the same, the various metres eventually agree. (Four measures of 7
4 = seven measures 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 measure 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 measure preserving—the beat differs and the measure 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). The Swedish metal band Meshuggah makes frequent use of polymetres, with unconventionally timed rhythm figures cycling over a 4
4 base (Pieslak 2007).
- sample of how 1
4 metre (help·info) sounds at a tempo of 90 bpm.
- sample of how 2
4 metre (help·info) sounds at a tempo of 90 bpm.
- sample of how 3
4 metre (help·info) sounds at a tempo of 90 bpm.
- sample of how 4
4 metre (help·info) sounds at a tempo of 90 bpm.
- sample of how 5
8 metre (help·info) sounds at a tempo of 120 bpm.
- Metre (hymn)
- Metre (poetry)
- Triple metre
- Duple and quadruple metre
- Composite rhythm
- Counting (music)
- Hymns and hymn tunes
- Hymn tune
- List of musical works in unusual time signatures
- Anon. (1999). "Polymeter." Baker's Student Encyclopedia of Music, 3 vols., ed. Laura Kuhn. New York: Schirmer-Thomson Gale; London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-02-865315-7. Online version 2006: Archived 27 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Anon. . "Polyrhythm". Grove Music Online. (Accessed 4 April 2009)
- Berry, David Carson, and Sherman Van Solkema (2013). "Theory". The Grove Dictionary of American Music, second edition, edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-531428-1.
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