Where’s the Beat?

March 1, 2010

The term, “meter” can be defined as a repetitive pattern of strong and weak beats in an arranged rhythm. This does not imply that the rhythms themselves are necessarily repetitive, but a repeated pattern of pulses or beats is clearly evident. Duple meter in the music will feel like “strong/weak/strong/weak.” Triple meter in the music will feel like “strong/weak/weak,” and quadruple will fell like “strong/weak/weak/weak.”

Symmetrical Meters
When teaching middle school students how to recognize different meters, remember to emphasize that the beats and their subdivisions are all equal and even. In my experiences in working with young musicians, the tendency is to rush the upper beat or the “and” of the count. If all of the syllables are evenly spaced, like “1and2and”, simple duple would be the correct meter of choice. But if it is more comfortable to count “1anda2anda”, compound duple would be the correct meter of choice. Remember to emphasize to the student that the numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) always come on a pulse, or the strongest part of the beat. This may take some practice. These exercises may be very beneficial for a young musician learning to read advanced level music and is confused by meter changes in a composition.

Identifying Various Meters
Simple and compound are the two main categories of meters. In a simple meter, each beat is basically divided into two parts, 1, and the quarter note should be constant. In compound meters, each beat is divided into three parts, 1a, and the eighth-note should be constant.

Constant Note Value

Quarter Note Eighth-Note
Two beats per measure Simple duple Compound duple
Three beats per measure Simple triple Compound triple
Four beats per measure Simple quadruple

Compound quadruple

The table below illustrates the most-used symmetrical meters.

Symmetrical Meters
Meter Beats/Pulses Time Signature
Duple Simple (1and)(2and) 2
Triple Simple (1and)(2and)(3and) 3
Quadruple Simple (1and)(2and)(3and)(4and) 4
Duple Compound (1anda)(2anda) 6
Triple Compound (1anda)(2anda)(3anda) 9
Quadruple Compound (1anda)(2anda)(3anda)(4anda) 12

Asymmetrical Meters
Many composers of today are using meters that are asymmetrical. This occurs in music when you have an odd number of subdivisions, which means that the measure cannot be divided into equal pulses or beats. There have been a number of different methods used for notating asymmetrical meters; the more traditional method of notating these time signatures is commonly preferred like (5/8 and 7/8).

Making asymmetrical meters easy to recognize is the top number of the time signature. In many cases it is an odd number, for example (5/8 and 7/8). Asymmetrical meters can be counted in the same manner as compound meters. In order to determine the best possible group pattern, young musicians must pay careful attention to the beams provided above or below the notes. Where possible, each beat is divided into three-note groupings. One beat or pulse will have one less eighth-note, thus making the meter asymmetrical.

Many musicians overlook the effect that meter changes will have on the conductor. Conductors use different conducting patterns to successfully conduct many different meters. The conductor’s pattern should emphasize a strong downbeat. This may aid many young musicians in keeping their place in the music. Watching the conductor is extremely important when dealing with asymmetrical meters.

Another compositional method used in many of today’s concert band music is the alternation between simple, duple, triple, quadruple and asymmetrical meters. Many young musicians of various experience levels frequently play these rhythms incorrectly because they don’t realize that they’re only rearranging the eighth-notes to create a different pulse or beat. In return the asymmetrical meters are often rushed, especially the beat or pulse with the fewest notes. For example, if the grouping of an asymmetrical measure is (3+2), the last count with only two notes would usually be rushed, as well as any following simple, duple, triple or quadruple metered measure.

Young musicians will see that the second beat or pulse has one less note than the first beat or pulse and will automatically assume that there must be a need to compensate for the missing note by speeding up the note value of the first pulse or beat. Remember, the eighth-note must stay constant. Before you have the students play any rhythm, have them count the rhythm first. I would usually stress the pulses or beats in each measure while the students would count the entire rhythm in each measure. For more reinforcement, I would have a percussionist play steady eighth-notes on a snare drum and have your students count the rhythm in each measure. Select a slow tempo to start this exercise and gradually work your way up to the performance tempo. This method of teaching will ensure that all notes are being played evenly.

The table below illustrates the most-used asymmetrical meters.

Asymmetrical Meters
Meter Beats/Pulses Time Signature

5/8 is considered Asymmetrical Duple, because it contains one compound pulse.
(1a), and one simple pulse (1), or vice-versa; (3+2) or (2+3).

Asymmetrical Duple (3+2) (1anda)(2and) 5
Asymmetrical Duple (2+3) (1and)(2anda) 5

7/8 is considered Asymmetrical Triple, because it contains two simple pulses (1and) and one compound pulse (1anda), such as (2+2+3), (2+3+2), or (3+2+2).

Asymmetrical Triple (2+2+3) (1and)(2and)(3anda) 7
(2+3+2) (1and)(2anda)(3and) 7
(3+2+2) (1anda)(2and)(3and) 7

11/8 is considered Asymmetrical Quadruple, because it contains one simple pulses (1and) and three compound pulses (1anda), such as (2+3+3+3), (3+2+3+3), (3+3+2+3) or (3+3+3+2).

Asymmetrical Quadruple (2+3+3+3) (1and)(2anda)(3anda)(4anda) 11
(3+2+3+3) (1anda)(2and)(3anda)(4anda) 11
(3+3+2+3) (1anda)(2anda)(3and)(4anda) 11
(3+3+3+2) (1anda)(2anda)(3anda)(4and) 11

Points to Remember
1. Thoroughly explain all meters: simple, duple, triple, quadruple, and asymmetrical.
2. If possible, have the children listen to the composition and clap only the strong beats: 1-2, or 1-2-3, or 1-2-3-4.
3. Ask them to identify the meter of the song, based on their clapping or counting.
4. Duple and quadruple meters may cause some confusion within the group. Don’t be alarmed. Sometimes young musicians will have trouble distinguishing between the two meters. Locating the strongest beats in each measure may resolve the problem.
5. If you have the ability, use new compositions when dealing with compound and asymmetrical meters.
6. Once they have found the beat, have them to count along with the music; (1and)(2and) or (1anda)(2anda).
7. To check for understanding, ask the following questions:

1. Can they quickly decide which meter is used in the music?
2. Is the meter simple, compound or asymmetrical?
8. When dealing with asymmetrical meters, remember, the eighth-note must stay constant. Young musicians will have a tendency to rush. Select a slow tempo to start this exercise and gradually work your way up to the performance tempo. This method of teaching will ensure that all notes are being played evenly.

Simple Songs in various meters
#149; “The Farmer in the Dell” (duple simple)
#149; “Five Little Ducks” (duple simple)
#149; “Joy To The World” (duple simple)
#149; “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (duple compound)
#149; “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (duple compound)
#149; “Green sleeves” (duple compound)
#149; “Three Blind Mice” (duple compound)
#149; “Found a Peanut” (triple simple)
#149; “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (triple simple)
#149; “Amazing Grace” (triple simple)
#149; “Home On The Range” (triple simple)
#149; “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” (triple simple)
#149; “Jesus Loves Me” (quadruple simple)
#149; “The Cat came Back” (quadruple simple)
#149; “Do Your Ears Hang Low” (quadruple simple)
#149; “Dry Bones” (quadruple simple)
#149; “Silent Night” (compound duple)
#149; “Humpty Dumpty” (compound duple)
#149; “The Muffin Man” (quadruple simple)
#149; “The Alphabet Song” (quadruple simple)
#149; “The Animal Fair” (compound duple)
#149; “The Ants go Marching” (compound duple)
#149; “The Bear went over the Mountain” (compound duple)
#149; “The Eensy Weensy Spider” (compound duple)
#149; “Pop! Goes the Weasel” (compound duple)
#149; “Hickory Dickory Dock” (compound quadruple)

Dr. Girtmon is currently director of Bands/Music Education-chair/associate professor of Music at Belhaven College, Jackson, Miss. He oversees all aspects of the Marching, Jazz, Symphonic Winds, and Pep Band programs, as well as the large and small ensembles in the spring terms.

Dr. Girtmon has large and small Woodwind Ensemble compositions with the following music publishers: Duma Music, Pender’s Music, Hickey’s Music Center, Grand Mesa Music, Mannerino’s Sheet Music, and Wehr Music. He has also published several scholarly articles in The National Association of African-American Studies (NAAAS) Monograph Series and The Dr. Estrella’s Abridged Dictionary of Composers. Dr. Girtmon has an active conducting schedule and is a frequent honor band clinician and adjudicator for concert band and large and small ensembles events.

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