Understanding Basic Beats and Meter

How Beats Are Used in Musical Composition

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Beats are used as a way of counting time when playing a piece of music, particularly in Western culture. Beats give music its regular rhythmic pattern or pulse. Beats can be strong or weak, fast or slow, and they can be grouped in a variety of different ways to create different rhythms.

Defining Meter

A measure is a musical phrase which contains a specified number of beats. Meter is the regularly recurring grouping of beats into measures. Measures, in Western notation, are separated by bar lines. A time or meter signature at the beginning of every piece of music (and sometimes within a piece of music) provides information about how many beats are in a measure. In general, the downbeat, or first beat, of a measure is accented—but this is not a hard and fast rule, as it is often broken in contemporary and non-Western music.

Time signatures are placed after the clef mark and key signature. They consist of two numbers, one over the other. The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure, while the bottom number indicates the value of the beat (whole note, half note, quarter note, etc.). Thus, for example, a 2/4 time signature means that there are two beats per measure, and each beat is a quarter note long.

It's important to remember that beats are not the same thing as notes. A measure in a piece written in 2/4 time might include one half-note, two quarter-notes, four eighth-notes, 8 16th-notes, or any combination equaling a total of two quarter notes.

While there are, in theory, quite a few possible meters, only a few are commonly used in classical or even contemporary music. 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8 meter are among the most popular across genres.

4/4 Meter 

Also known as common time, 4/4 meter is used in a great many classical pieces and is almost exclusively used in marches. 4/4 meter simply means that there are four beats to a measure, and each beat takes the amount of time required for a quarter note.

Four quarter notes (= 4 beats) in a 4/4measure will have the count - 1 2 3 4 (with the first or "down" beat accented in most cases). The four quarter note beats in 4/4 time can also be divided up in other ways; for example, a measure might include a half note (= 2 beats), 2 eighth notes (= 1 beat) and 1 quarter note (=1 beat) in a measure.

3/4 Meter

Used mostly in classical and waltz music, pieces played in 3/4 time have three quarter-note beats in a measure. 3/4 time is counted as - 1 2 3. Composers writing in 3/4 time may also use a dotted half note which is also equivalent to three beats. In 3/4 meter the accent is usually on the first beat.

6/8 Meter

Along with 6/4, 9/8, 12/8, and 12/16 meters, 6/8 is an example of compound meter. Mostly used in classical music, 6/8 meter includes 6 beats in a measure. In this type of meter, the eighth notes are commonly used. For example, 6 eighth notes in a measure will have the count - 1 2 3 4 5 6. Here the accent is on the first and fourth beats.