The Truth About Meter in Music

2011Symposium_1_2I don’t think many of my students think about meter when they are listening to music. They are aware of a melody, of the tempo, of the beat and rhythms, but they are not so aware of the meter, at least not consciously. I’ve noticed that meter is not so much something that must be taught as something that students must be made aware of. Music exists rhythmically in several levels all at once. A child listening or singing a song and asked to show the beat with his or her hands may move to a quarter note, eighth note, or even sixteenth note beat without any prompting. I am often fascinated to watch my four-year-old students when I ask them to show me the beat with a patsch. Most will show me the quarter note beat, but some will intuitively patsch eighth notes. This is especially true if the song begins with eighth notes as, for example, the French folk song “Pierrot” does. If the child taps the rhythm, tapping quarter notes when they occur and eighth notes when they occur, then that is a different thing; but when the child maintains the eighth note patsch through the quarter notes, he or she is audiating the eighth note beat; what Gordon calls the micro beat.

Micro beats are divisions of the beat. Going in the other direction, their are elongations of the beat. Both of these terms assumes a single “beat” to which shorter and longer durations are compared in determining whether they are divisions or elongations; however, another way of looking at this is that there are several levels to the music. There is an eighth note level, a quarter note level, and half note, whole note (in common time), one-measure, two-measure, phrase long levels, and so forth. This view was stated in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Lerdahl and Jackendoff. In establishing the one-measure level, the listener intuitively perceives a recurring pattern of strong and weak beats, and assigns a metrical structure to the music based on the perceived pattern. Because much of our Western music is in duple meter, Westerners tend to have a bias toward duple meter, and will favor duple meter in the seconds it takes to establish a pattern. If duple doesn’t “fit” the listener will try another way of organizing the beats, continuing until the right match is found. When I am teaching the concept of meter to my students, I try to bring this intuitive process to the surface; instead of telling them what the meter is of the music they are singing or listening to, I have them try both duple and triplemeter signatures patterns either with conducting or chanting, and let them discover which pattern fits and which one does not. The wrong meter is usually obvious to nearly everyone, because the perception of metrical structure is, as I said, intuitive and therefore subconscious for a listener familiar with the musical genre to which he or she is listening.

Familiarity then, becomes the most important strategy for teaching meter. In other words, as students listen to more and more music of a particular idiom, they will intuitively become more and more successful in detecting the meter of music from that idiom. They can be helped with singing, chanting, playing, and movement activities, but the basic ability to perceive metrical structure is already there. This is important to keep in mind, because meter in this context is natural and self-evident through the music. Meter should never be an unnatural concept that is taught with a theoretical definition and a forced demonstration of unmusically exaggerated strong beat, distorted to make an obvious demonstration of the definition. Strong beats are not just the product of performed accents. Although nearly all music has meter, very little of it has explicitly accented notes on the first beat of each measure. Remember, the music is what is heard, not what is written. Strong beats are more the product of relative duration, parallelism, articulation, and rhythm patterns, than just accents.


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