Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that meter is a concept that many of my students really don’t understand. I discovered this because of improved assessment techniques, so I suspect that this has been the case for some time. As long as I was assessing understanding of meter with head knowledge such as asking what the numbers in a time signature mean, they appeared to grasp the concept perfectly. But when I started asking them how many beats were in the pattern of strong and weak beats in music they were listening to, everything changed. Some confused notes for beats, some didn’t hear any beats stronger than others, and only about one third could correctly perceive a pattern of strong-weak or strong weak weak. As a result of this discovery, I changed the way I teach meter. I started using movement, first prescribed to the meter, then created by the students to a disclosed meter, and finally created by the students to a meter they had to discover. I encouraged them to try different patterns until they found one that felt right in their body. I also stopped teaching time signatures until they could do all of this. Sound before sight, right? Once students have meter in their bodies, the numbers in a time signature make real sense. The big motion “heavy” motion is the beginning of the pattern. The small, lighter motions are the rest of the beats in the pattern. The number of lighter motions plus the one big motion equals the number on the top of the time signature. The number on the bottom is the kind of note they are moving to with their lighter motions.
That made meter more meaningful. Next, I wanted to connect musical meter to other things my students experience or perceive every day, but not necessarily in music. What other things that they use or hear have strong an weak beats? Though digital and computer clocks have largely replaced tic-toc clocks, most of my students still know what the latter are. Just the fact that we give different names to the two clicks suggests that they are different, and we naturally attribute more strength to the tic than to the toc. When we start a pendulum in motion, we have to exert a force onto it to produce the first tic, but it returns on the toc to its starting position without any effort on our part at all. Many young children are pushed on the swings by a parent. The parent pushes as the child swings away, but the swing and child return to the parent with no effort from the parent–strong going out, weak coming back.
Language is loaded with meter. Orff teachers use this property of language all the time to teach rhythms. Look up any word in a dictionary, and you will find that one syllable has an accent mark on it. That is the strong syllable when the word is pronounced correctly. When the strong syllable is misplaced elsewhere in the word, the word sounds silly and wrong. The word “apple” must have a strong first syllable and a weak second syllable. The word apple is a great illustration of duple meter. The word “pineapple” also must have a strong first syllable, but that first syllable is followed by two weak ones, making the word a great illustration of triple meter. If I’m working on duple meter with my students, I might expand that out with a sentence using the word “apple” and other duple meter words. For example, I might have the children say “apple cobbler tastes so good. I’d eat more if Mama would, let me have another plate, but she says it’s getting late.” Each phrase is chanted to the rhythm of du-de du-de du-de du. The children must audiate the micro beat on the “du” at the end of each phrase.
With older children, I like to use rap music to teach what duple meter is (or quadruple meter for you non-Gordonites). Most rap phrases are four beats long and end with a one-beat rest, so patterns of strong-weak-weak-weak are easily perceived. I italicized the third “weak” because it is at least secondarily strong compared to the beats that surround it, and often common time and 2-4 time are aurally indistinguishable. Nearly any clean rap lyric works well for this. The one on my mind now is Wiz Khalifa’s rap section to the song “See You Again.”
All the planes we flew Good things we’ve been thorough That I’ll be standing right here talking to you ‘Bout another path I know we loved to hit the road and laugh But something told me that it wouldn’t last Had to switch up Look at things different, see the bigger picture Those were the days Hard work forever pays Now I see you in a better place
From the rap song (or part of a song) it is helpful to extract the rhythm from the words. Depending on your class, this can either come off really silly or really fun. I start by chanting the rhythm of the rap on a neutral syllable to the class. My students are used to me doing silly things in front of them, so they either enjoy the performance, or humor me and listen anyway. Often I will draw them in with allowing them to move and/or make a “beat” (rhythm) to accompany me, and gradually students begin to join in chanting the rhythm. With the rhythm the same as the rap, if the rap had meter, the chant must have the same rhythm. From this I make the point that music without words still has meter, just as it has pitch, rhythm, tempo, and other musical elements.
Popular music is a good place to begin teaching meter, because the rhythm section (drums, bass) demarcate the metrical patterns so clearly in their repetition of a rhythm pattern and also with the use of cymbal and bass drum to mark the strongest beats, usually at the beginning of phrases or sections. There is a natural progression of less and less of this as one moves from rap to rock, rock to pop, pop to jazz, and jazz to classical. If I follow this progression in the music I present to my class for listening, then gradually they become more and more accomplished at continuing to perceive the meter, as it becomes less and less obvious. By the time I get to classical, instead of complaining that classical music has no beat, they understand that its beat is simply more subtle, and it is more up to them to catch the beat and audiate it as they listen.