Beat, Meter, and the Time Signature

While not a requirement for all music, most music we hear today has a repetitive pulse that we can tap our foot, snap our fingers or nod our heads to. This constant pulse is referred to as the beat. The beat usually occurs at regular intervals, and can be communicated to listeners in a variety of ways: the strumming of guitars, the plucks of a bass, the hitting of drums, and where a singer (or rapper) places her lyrics in time.

In many ways, the beat is the glue that allows musicians to play in groups; when they all feel the same beat they are easily able to play in sync with each other. But beats alone aren't enough to make music rhythmic. A ticking clock, someone's footsteps, or a heartbeat all meet the basic criteria for being a consistent pulse, but something more is needed to truly create rhythm. The next step is to organize the beats into groups. The most common way to create these groups is to make some beats louder than others. This allows our minds to divide the music into smaller, more comprehensible sections. Meter is the term we use to define how beats will be grouped.

Meter is how we refer to the organization of the beats in a given piece of music. The primary means of organizing the beats is by having a regular pattern of strong and weak beats. The first beat is always the strongest in the pattern and is often referred to as the downbeat.

Most of the music we listen to falls into one of three categories of meter: duple, triple, and quadruple. Duple meter is a pattern of two beats, triple meter is a pattern of three beats, quadruple is a pattern of four beats. Marches tend to be in duple meter, a waltz is always in triple meter, and the most common by far (the meter used for rock/pop/hip hop) is quadruple meter. Each of these has its own organization of strong and weak beats. The table below summarizes these traits. Click the examples and try to count along with the music. You might notice as you listen that there is very little difference between duple and quadruple meters.

Table of Simple Meters
Meter Beat Pattern Counts Example
Duple Strong - weak 1, 2
Triple Strong - weak - weak 1, 2, 3
Quadruple Strongest - weak - strong - weak 1, 2, 3, 4

In order to notate meter, we use  two main elements in the notation:

  • We place a pair of numbers at the beginning of the piece to show which meter will be used, this is called a time signature
  • We place vertical lines called barlines in order to separate measures in the music, to show where the pattern of beats repeats

There are two parts to every time signature. The top number sets the number of beats in the meter, a 2 means duple, a 3 means triple, a 4 means quadruple, etc. The bottom number is what type of note will represent one beat. The number 1 represents a whole note, a 2 represents a half note, a 4 represents a quarter note, an 8 represents an eighth note, and so on. Once a time signature is set, each measure within the piece of music should add up to the exact number of beats indicated by the signature. 

In today's music, quarter notes are the most common note used to represent the beat, but this is by no means a requirement. For instance, we might have 4 beats in a measure, but we might choose to have half notes represent the beat instead of quarter notes. This means our top number would remain a 4, but the bottom number would then be a 2 (a half note). Click the examples in the list to see the beats represented for different time signatures.

  • 3/4 ~ 3 beats, quarter note gets the beat
  • 3/2 ~ 3 beats, half note gets the beat
  • 2/4 ~ 2 beats, quarter note gets the beat
  • 4/2 ~ 4 beats, half note gets the beat
  • 4/8 ~ 4 beats, eighth note gets the beat

Finally, there are two symbols that occur frequently as replacements for two common time signatures. A letter "C" is often given to represent a 4/4 time signature (you can think "C" for "common"), and a letter "C" with a slash though it represents 2/2, and is often referred to as "cut time."

Here are some more "real world" examples of duple, triple, and quadruple meters.

Table of Duple, Triple, and Quadruple Meter Examples

Duple Meter Examples

Symphony No. 5, Mvmt. IV ~ L.v. Beethoven
"Brain Stew" ~ Green Day
"Mr. Tambourine Man" ~ Bob Dylan

Triple Meter Examples

"Manic Depression" ~ Jimi Hendrix
Symphony No. 90, Mvmt. III - Minuet ~ J. Haydn
"Under The Moon" ~ No Knife

Quadruple Meter Examples

"Goodnight and Go" ~ Imogen Heap
"Lucky Denver Mint" ~ Jimmy Eat World
"C-Jam Blues" ~ Duke Ellington

Feeling like you need to go over that just one more time, but in a slightly different way? Check out these great explanations of the same concept: