What is Meter?
“Meter” is the underlying structure of a musical beat. It refers to the “count” of a song, or how many individual beats you would count out if you were tapping your foot to the beat. Most commonly, the meter will be a 4-count, meaning it has a pattern in which you count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. However, many other songs have a 3-count or a 2-count meter. More rarely, you may find songs with a 5-count, 7-count, or all kinds of other numbers. These meters can be very difficult to follow if you’re not trained in music!
Meter is one of the main components of a song’s backbeat. The beat, however, also includes other components such as tempo, the speed of the count.
The term “meter” is used in both poetry and music, but in both areas it means basically the same thing. Meter is easy to see when you’re reading classical poetry — just count the number of syllables per line, notice which ones are emphasized, and try to find the pattern. Here’s an example from Shakespeare:
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
Meter is what makes the poetry sound musical — as you read these lines, you almost want to tap your foot along with them. Notice that each line has 5 emphasized syllables and 5 non-emphasized ones (you have to pronounce the words “jewel,” “pressed,” and “flower” a little strangely because Shakespearean English had a different sound to it). Each emphasized syllable comes right after a non-emphasized one, and the pattern is very consistent. Modern poetry often has a much looser meter, or sometimes none at all!
So in a single song, you might have two different meters: one for the lyrics and one for the underlying structure of the song. In hip-hop, for example, the “beat” is usually very steady and easy to count out — almost always a 4-count meter. But the lyrics usually have a much looser meter, which generally does not correspond to the meter of the beat. Take this example from Eminem:
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
If you listen to the backbeat, you’ll find it’s very easy to count. Definitely a 4-count. But the lyrics have a loose 5-count meter, with 5 emphasized syllables in each line. As the song goes on, this lyrical meter changes constantly – a very complex musical and poetic meter! But while all that complexity is going on, the 4-count meter stays exactly the same in the drums.
Meter vs. Rhythm
Meter and rhythm are very closely related terms, but “meter” is a little more technical. Meter is the most basic component of rhythm — how many beats you count out when you’re tapping along. But the rhythm of a song is more than just the pulse of beats in the meter. Rhythm also involves the way a composer (or performer) creates an additional pattern by playing around with the meter, going in and out of time or choosing which parts of the meter to emphasize.
For example, reggae and folk music both typically use a 4-count meter, but reggae emphasizes the 2 and 4, while folk emphasizes the 1 and 3.
Reggae: 1-2-3-4 Folk: 1-2-3-4
You can hear the difference by listening to a pair of Bob Marley songs. In “Could You Be Loved,” he strums the guitar on 2 and 4, so the song sounds like what you expect from reggae:
But in “Redemption Song,” he strums 1 and plays around the 3, creating a folksy rhythm with a reggae edge. Yet these two very different rhythms are built on the same meter!
Meter vs. Time Signature
In Western music, there are a handful of standard meters, and the vast majority of Western music uses one of these options. Meters are written out in time signatures at the beginning of a song. A time signature has two numbers in it, but to know the meter all you need to do is look at the top one. It will tell you how many beats are in a measure, which is the same as the “count” of the song. In this example, the time signature is telling you it’s a 3-count meter.
The simplest meters are 3- and 4-count. The previous section had several examples of songs with a 4-count meter. Meanwhile, 3-count meters are slightly less common, but still pretty easy to count: try counting along with “Heartbreaker” by Alabama Shakes.
The 3-count meter is used frequently in classical music — this is part of the definition of a “waltz.”
More Difficult Examples
Most popular music is in 2, 4, or 3 counts, or some multiple of these (such as 6). However, 5- and 7-counts are also found occasionally in popular music, especially more experimental genres like alternative rock or heavy metal. “15 Step” by Radiohead has a 5-count meter, and it’s very easy to tell that the meter is unusual — try to count along with the performance and you might have a hard time keeping the beat. (Tip: try going 1-2-3-1-2, rather than counting all the way to 5)
Nonstandard meters don’t necessarily sound weird, though — in “Them Bones” by Alice in Chains, the opening riff doesn’t sound too unusual at first. But try counting along with it, and you’ll find that 3-count and 4-count meters don’t work. That’s because the song has a 7-count verse with a 4-count chorus — a very complicated meter that changes as the song goes along!
Why is Meter Important?
Rhythm is the most basic feature of music, and meter is the most basic feature of rhythm. Meter is the underlying skeleton of all music, the orderly structure that everything else is built on. If you couldn’t sense the meter of music, you wouldn’t be able to predict the flow of the beat, meaning you wouldn’t be able to dance, sing along, or even tap your foot! Fortunately, for most people the meter is very easy to sense — your brain automatically calculates it even if you aren’t trained in music. But if you want to play music, or analyze what you’re hearing, you have to be able to take that automatic, instinctive calculation and work it out consciously. And for that you need a solid understanding of meter.
How to Identify Meter
If you want to know the meter in a piece of sheet music, look for the time signature written at the beginning of the piece. The first number in the time signature tells you the song’s meter.
You can also go through and count up the total number of beats per measure, but this can be challenging if the song’s rhythm is complicated. This makes sense if you think about it — a simple rhythm would just play on every single beat of the meter. 1–2–3–4, and so on. But if the music is rhythmically complicated you’ll have some notes dropped, others subdivided into smaller notes, and all sorts of other features that make the rhythm sound interesting. So in order to add all those drops and subdivisions into a meter, you’d have to do some mental math. Better to look for the time signature, or just use your ear!
Most of the time, it’s very easy to hear the meter of a song — you’ll just find yourself counting along, and usually you’ll find that the meter is a 4-count. If that doesn’t work, try a 3-count. If that doesn’t work, you’re probably dealing with one of the more unusual meters, like 5- or 7-count. These can be very difficult to identify, since your ear is not used to hearing them.