Metre (music)

Metre is the measurement of a musical line into measures of stressed and unstressed beats, indicated in Western notation by a symbol called a time signature. Properly, "metre" describes the whole concept of measuring rhythmic units, but it can also be used as a specific descriptor for a measurement of an individual piece as represented by the time signature—for example, "This piece is in 4/4 metre" is equivalent to "This piece is in 4/4 time" or "This piece has a 4/4 time signature".

A measure has two purposes in Western traditions of music, the first is to block out a series of beats, and the second is to form the building block of larger sections of music, such as a phrase. Time signatures imply strongly accented beats, and others that are less accented, changing time signature changes the pattern of emphasizing notes, either by playing certain notes louder, or by sustaining them as in swing or rubato. A measure is similar to a metrical foot in poetry.

There are four different types of metre in common use:

If each beat in a measure is divided into two parts, it is simple metre, and if divided into three it is compound. If each measure is divided into two beats, it is duple metre, and if three it is triple. Some people also label quadruple, while some consider it as two duples. The latter is more consistent with the above labelling system, as any other division above triple, such as quintuple, is considered as duple+triple (12123) or triple+duple (12312), depending on the accents in the musical example. However, in some music a quintuple may be treated and perceived as one unit of five, especially at faster tempos.

Duple: Triple:
Simple: beats divided in two; two beats per measure beats divided in three; two beats per measure
Compound: beats divided in two; three beats per measure beats divided in three; three beats per measure
Beats divided in two: Beats divided in three:
Two beats per measure: simple duple simple triple
Three beats per measure: compound duple compound triple

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The piano intro to "Take Five", a jazz composition in 5/4 – Listen to this piece.

"Once a metric hierarchy has been established, we, as listeners, will maintain that organization as long as minimal evidence is present." (Lester 1986, p.77) Duple time is far more common than triple (Krebs 2005, p.16). Most popular music is in 4/4 time, though often may be in 2/2 or cut time such as in bossa nova. Doo-wop and some other rock styles are frequently in 12/8, or may be interpreted as 4/4 with heavy swing. Similarly, most classical music before the 20th century tended to stick to relatively straightforward metres such as 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8, though variations on these such as 3/2 and 6/4 are also found. By the 20th century, composers were using less regular metres, such as 5/4 and 7/8.

Also in the 20th century, it became relatively more common to switch metre frequently—the end of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is a particularly extreme example—and the use of asymmetrical rhythms where each beat is a different length became more common: such metres include already discussed quintuple rhythms as well as more complex constructs along the lines of 2+5+3/4 time, where each bar has a 2 beat unit, a five beat unit and a 3 beat unit, with a stress at the beginning of each unit—there are similar metres used in various folk musics. Other music has no metre at all (free time) such as drone based music exemplified by La Monte Young, feature rhythms so complex that any metre is obscured such as in serialism, or is based on additive rhythms, such as some music by Philip Glass.

Metre is often combined with a rhythmic pattern to produce a particular style. This is true of dance music, such as the waltz or tango, which have particular patterns of emphasizing beats which are instantly recognizable. This is often done to make the music coincide with slow or fast steps in the dance, and can be thought of as the musical equivalent of prosody. Sometimes, a particular musician or composition becomes identifed with a particular metric pattern; such is the case with the so-called Bo Diddley beat. Some examples:

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March rhythms

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Polka rhythms

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Siciliano rhythms

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Waltz rhythms

Polymetre is the use of two metres simultaneously, or in regular alternation. Examples include Bela Bartok's "Second String Quartet". A stunning example from the rock canon is "Kashmir" by the seminal British hard-rock quartet Led Zeppelin, in which the percussion articulates 4/4 while the melodic instruments present a mesmerizing riff in 3/4. 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, and the alto sax blowing his nose."

Metric structure includes metre, tempo, and all rhythmic aspects which produce temporal regularity or structure, against which the foreground details or durational patterns are projected (DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 3).

Rhythmic units be metric, intrametric, contrametric, or extrametric.

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. (DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 3).

Hypermetre is large-scale metre (as opposed to surface-level metre) created by hypermeasures which consist of hyperbeats. (Stein 2005, p.329)

A metric modulation is a modulation from one metric unit or metre to another.

Deep structure

C.S. Lee (1985) has described musical metre in terms of deep structure, where, through rewrite rules, different metres (4/4, 3/4, etc) generate many different surface rhythms. For example the first phrase of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night", without the syncopation, may be generated from its metre of 4/4:

    4/4                 4/4         4/4
   /    \              /   \       /   \
2/4      2/4        2/4     2/4  2/4     2/4
 |      /    \       |       |    |         \
 |   1/4      1/4    |       |    |          \
 |  /   \    /   \   |       |    |
 | 1/8 1/8  1/8 1/8  |       |    |
 | |     |  |     |  |       |    |
       It's been  a  hard    days night
(Middleton 1990, p.211).


  • DeLone et. al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ASIN 0130493465.
  • Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, Glossary. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195170105.
    • Krebs, Harald. "Hypermeter and Hypermetric Irregularity in the Songs of Josephine Lang".
      • Lester, Joel (1986). The Rhythms of Tonal Music.

See also

pl:Metrum (muzyka)


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