Understanding Meter

Pulse – a regular unaccented series of musical clicks
Meter – a regular grouping of multiple interlocking pulses

Our music is organized in time through emphasizing certain musical moments over others. We play certain notes louder. We play certain notes longer. What’s interesting it that we choose to do these things in patterns. We emphasize every third note. We emphasize every fourth measure. We often count rests in groups of eight. And we extrapolate from all these rhythmic patterns and stresses the concept of meter.

Imagine three interlocking pulses. There is a fast pulse, a middle pulse, and a slow pulse. Each is twice as fast the previous one.


These interlocking pulses all align in such a way that we can count each of them as “one two one two.”


A piece of music that does just this is John Philip Sousa’s march “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Listen to the music and see if you can count along at various speeds and see if your counts line up with where the music places emphasis. (I recommend counting the middle pulse as the one the conductor is giving.)

Another possibility is to speed up the fastest pulse so there are three clicks for each middle pulse. Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” march fits this new pattern. (The conductor is again conducting the middle pulse.)


We can relate any of our interlocking pulses by two or three. For example, I’ll return the fastest pulse to twice as fast as the middle, but now the slowest pulse slows down, so the middle pulse is grouped into three. The third movement from Mozart’s Haffner Symphony fits this pattern. (Guess which pulse the coductor is giving.)


It is important that when you listen to music that stays in a consistent meter that you can tell how the various pulses are grouped into two and three. Now go read the page called “Meters” to learn about how we classify them into simple and compound and how we notate them.