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Beat and Meter

Posted by Robert Thomas on 16th February 2011

A Beat is the basic pulse of a musical passage. The Beat Unit is the note value which receives one beat. The rate at which beats occur is called the tempo. Tempos are usually indicated using words (often Italian) or metronome (MM) markings, which indicate the number of beats per minute.

Beats tend to be grouped into patterns that are consistent throughout a passage; the pattern of beats is called the meter. Groups of two, three, or four beats are the most common, although other meters (and even ameter) may occur. Each unit of meter is called a measure and is delineated with a vertical bar line.

Since groups of two, three, and four beats are the most common meters, they have specific names. A two-beat meter is Duple Meter, a three-beat meter is Triple Meter, and a four-beat meter is Quadruple Meter. Of course, the pattern can be continued for other beat patterns: a five-beat meter is Quintuple Meter, a six-beat meter is Sextuple Meter, and so on.

Beats generally divide into either to or three equal parts. When beats are divided into two equal parts (for instance, a quarter note beat divides into two eighth notes), the music is said to be in Simple Time. When the beats are divided into three equal parts (for instance, a dotted quarter note beat divides into three eighth notes), the music is said to be in Compound Time.

Care should be taken not to confuse beat type, which refers to how the beat divides (simple or compound), with meter type, which refers to how the measure divides (duple, triple, or quadruple). The metric characteristics of most music can be easily and precisely described by combining the various beat and meter types, e.g., simple duple describes a two-beat meter where each beat is divided into two equal parts; compound triple describes a three-beat meter where each beat is divided into three equal parts, etc.

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