Of all the structures and elements of music, meter is arguably one the most confusing. This is due at least in part to the fact that unlike rhythm and pitch, and to a lesser extent unlike dynamics and tempo, our Western system of music notation is often vague or imprecise when it comes to representing meter. To illustrate this, consider Beethoven’s famous “Ode To Joy” melody. For a person hearing this for the first time, or for a person hearing this without ever having seen it written down, the meter for this melody sounds like it is organized into alternating strong and weak beats, or what we would call two-four time. Every indication from listening alone supports this analysis. The music proceeds in patterns of strong, weak, strong, weak beats, and strong, weak measures. For us who have seen the melody written out, we know that Beethoven notated it in four-four time. So which is the correct meter, the one we hear, or the one we see? For most people, it is by necessity the one they hear, because most concert goers have never and will never read the printed music. I dare say that a great many classical music lovers don’t read music at all. To all of them, it matters not at all how Beethoven in his score, or Pearson, Sueta, Kinyon, or anyone else who has ever transcribed “Ode to Joy” for band, chose to write it down. All that matters to a member of a concert audience is what he or she hears, and how he or she interprets and understands what is being heard.
Before going on, it will be helpful to define meter. Meter is the grouping of beats into patterns of strong beats and weak beats. If every other beat is strong, then we call that duple meter. If every third beat is strong, we call that triple meter. The problem comes in the fact that any note duration can be heard as a beat. An eighth note can be a beat, or a quarter note, half note, dotted quarter, dotted half, and so forth. Any of these can be considered the beat of a given piece of music. Not only that, but several of these durations can be heard as the beat at the same time. In Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, we commonly consider the quarter note as the beat, but the half note or even whole note could also be heard as the beat. The designation of a quarter note as the beat is subjective and even somewhat arbitrary, because an equally strong case can be made for any of the other durations. We can choose to insist that the time signature is four-four so therefore the quarter note gets one beat, but of all the choices, that is probably the least musical of them all–it discourages the beautiful flow and friendliness we all love and associate with this tune.
The truth is, we give far too much importance to measures and far too little importance to meter. We can hear and experience meter, we can neither hear nor experience measures–they are a notational convenience that is at best an unreliable indicator of meter. What we really should be concerned with is how parts beats are divided into throughout the course of the music. No matter which of the durations we choose for “Ode to Joy,” when one beat is divided, it is always divided into two equal parts, and never into three equal parts; therefore, this melody is in duple meter, no matter what kind of note we decide gets one beat, an no matter how many beats we think are in each measure. The quarter note is divided into two eighth notes, the half note is divided into two quarter notes, and the whole note is divided into two half notes, which is divided into two quarter notes, which is divided into two eighth notes. We see from this that metrical structure is hierarchical, but not in a mathematical sense as implied by those rhythm hierarchy charts found in instrumental method books, but in a cognitive sense in that our human brains intuitively organize rhythm into the very sorts of hierarchies I just described. It is a perceptual hierarchy, not a visual one.
To explain this further, we need to recognize there are two kinds of beats. These were described by Gordon as tempo beats and meter beats. If you suppose that the half note is equal to the beat in “Ode to Joy,” then the half note duration is the tempo beat, sometimes also referred to as the ictus. The duration which is the equal division of the half note, as we have seen, determines what the listener perceives as the meter. In our Beethoven example, this was the quarter note duration, because two quarter notes divide the half note beat into two equal parts. The quarter notes, then, are the meter beats, because they determine the meter. There are two meter beats (in this case quarter notes) for every tempo beat ( in this case half notes), and so the meter is duple.
The difference between tempo beats and meter beats is most evident in the so called compound time signatures. Consider six-eight time, which is often referred to as compound duple. It is duple because there are two tempo beats per measure, and it is compound because each tempo beat is divided into three meter beats. The word “compound” is meant to point out that there are elements of both duple and triple meter present simultaneously. This is in contrast to “simple” duple, in which there are only elements of duple meter–two tempo beats per measure and two meter beats per tempo beat. But all of this brings us back to talking about measures instead of what the listener hears. No one really perceives the meter of “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman and the meter of Strauss’ On The Beautiful Blue Danube to be different, yet the former is written in six eight (compound duple) while the latter is written in three four time (simple triple). The number of meter beats in relation to one tempo beat is all that matters. The music can be notated in any number of ways, and it will sound exactly the same. The most sensible and uncomplicated way of understanding meter is to think of it as something we hear, an aural meter, and not something we see in notation.