Adult Learners

What is Meter in Music?

By Jesse Preis
Learn all about meter in music with Hoffman Academy.

Explore musical meters in this article

In this article, we’ll discuss different types of musical meters. Early on in your music lessons, you will have encountered time signatures such as 4/4 and/or 3/4. These are types of musical meters, which organize the rhythms of a song or piece of music into beats that are easy to understand and internalize. 

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How to identify meter in music

Meter in music is defined as the organization of strong and weak beats within a measure. This creates a rhythmic pattern that helps to define the underlying rhythmic structure of that piece of music. Time signatures are normally written at the beginning of a song or piece of music, telling performers how many beats are in a measure and the value of each beat. Someone can identify meter in a piece of music by listening, feeling the beat, and keeping track of the strong and weak beats. 

Simple meter in music

Simple meter is defined by beats that break evenly into two equal halves. Time signatures that count as simple meters include 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 2/2, as well as others. 

Every measure of a song or piece of music is broken up into strong and weak beats. The strong beat is beat 1 and the weak beats follow. In the 4/4 time signature the weak beats are beats 2, 3, and 4.

Below is a diagram that shows how simple meter beats break evenly into two parts. In the case of the 4/4 time signature, the quarter note equals the beat and within each beat are smaller subdivisions. The quarter note breaks into two eighth notes, which each then break into two sixteenth notes, and so on.

Breaking up the beat within simple meters.

Compound meter in music

Compound meter is defined by beats that are broken into three equal parts. Time signatures that count as compound meters include 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc.

Just as in simple meters, every measure of a song or piece of music is broken up into strong and weak beats. In the 6/8 time signature the strong beat is beat 1 and the weak beats are beats 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Depending on the tempo of the music, there are two ways to count the 6/8 time signature. In a slow 6/8, the eighth note equals the beat so that each measure feels like it has six beats. In a fast 6/8, the dotted-quarter note equals the beat, which means that each measure feels like it only has two beats in it with each beat broken into three equal parts. 

Breaking up the beat within compound meters.

Mixed meter in music

Sometimes you may come across a song or piece of music that changes its time signature or meter. This type of music uses a technique called “mixed meter.”

Mixed meters in music.

Due to the shifting time signatures, mixed meters in music can add a feeling of unpredictability and excitement for the listener. Composers may switch between a variety of meters within a song or piece of music to make the music more engaging, complex, and memorable. An example of a piece that does this is Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” You most likely know this piece from Disney’s Fantasia.

6/8 measures have the same amount of eighth notes as a 3/4 measure, but are felt quite differently. “America” from West Side Story is an interesting song that slips back and forth between these two time signatures to create a really fun and rhythmic dance. You can see the sheet music and feel the slip back and forth between 2 and 3 beats per measure here:


See how the beaming changes in each measure? Some measures show three groups each beamed with two eighth notes (this indicates a 3/4 measure) and some measures show two groups each beamed with three eighth notes (this indicates a 6/8 measure).

Cut time in music

Have you ever heard the terms common time and cut time? Common time is another name for the 4/4 time signature, because it is the most commonly used time signature. Common time can also be indicated with a C instead of a 4/4. See the diagram below:

Common time vs cut time in music.

Cut time is the same as a 2/2 time signature and is indicated as a C with a line down the middle. In cut time or 2/2, each beat is equal to a half note. This means that the music is performed twice as quickly as what is written on the page and makes it feel as if time is “cut” in half.

Meter is an important component that helps to define the structure and rhythm of a song or piece of music. By organizing beats into regular patterns, meter allows for performers and listeners to understand and better perform their music. Whether it’s a straightforward time signature such as common (4/4) time or a more complex piece that uses mixed meters such as “America” from West Side Story, learning how to understand meter in music and perform musical meters with accuracy enriches our musical experience and opens the door to new rhythm possibilities.

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