Glossary: Rhythm and Meter

Introducing the Attunement Glossary. In an effort to make theory more accessible and less daunting to everyone, I’ve started a Glossary page to reference theory I mention in blog posts, or just feel like sharing. Any time I update the Glossary, I’ll post the same content as a blog post, to make it known that there’s been an addition. For more information, please navigate to the Glossary tab.

I wanted to address some issues about polyrhythms and polymeters, but first I’d like you to have some background info to reference. Today, let’s talk about rhythm and meter.

(The featured image on this post is me trying to make sense of Köhler’s Op. 33 No. 10)

What is rhythm?

Rhythm is a pattern of durations of sound (or absences of sound) in relation to each other. Everything has a rhythm. A rhythm can be played at any speed as long as it is proportional to itself.

What is a beat?

A beat is a unit of measure used to frame rhythms. It creates a pulse that is felt internally, but not necessarily played. Its purpose is to mark equal amounts of time (conveyed to a performer in beats per minute), so that rhythms can be played evenly, and the performer doesn’t have to guess how long he should make a sound. A measure is a convenient group of beats for the performer to read.

How to divide the beat, and note naming

Notes are talked about like fractions. The only reason these numbers are named this way is to let you know that a quarter note lasts half as long as a half note, and so forth. A half note does NOT have to last half a measure.

1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes…

A dotted note means to multiply the note value by 1.5

1 dotted half note = 1 half note + 1 quarter note

1 dotted quarter note = 1 quarter note + 1 eighth note


What is meter?

Meter is a container for rhythm, and it’s written like a fraction. The top number represents how many beats are in the measure, and the bottom number tells you the value of each of those beats. Common bottom numbers are 2 (for a half note), 4 (for a quarter note), and 8 (for an eighth note). 1 is not a common top or bottom number because it’s usually not useful to divide measures into one pulse each, or use a whole note as the beat.

For instance:

  • In a measure of 3/4, there are three quarter notes per measure. At 60 bpm (beats per minute), each pulse lasts one second.
  • In a measure of 4/4, there are four quarter notes per measure. At 60 bpm, each pulse still lasts one second.
  • In a measure of 3/2, there are three half notes per measure. At 60 bpm, each pulse STILL lasts only one second. The difference is the composer’s choice to represent the beat, usually so the performer has to do less dividing in his head.

Simple vs Compound Meter

There are two main categories of meter: simple and compound. The distinction is very straightforward. In simple meters, the beat divides into two, like if the beat is a quarter note, which we will then divide into 2 eighth notes, 4 sixteenth notes, etc. Compound meters divide into three parts. An example of this is if the beat is a dotted quarter note, which then divides into 3 eighth notes.

Sometimes you need to see the rhythms to understand the context of the meter, since a meter like 6/8 could be both simple and compound depending on how it’s used. A safe assumption to make for eighth note meters is if the top number is divisible by three, it’s meant to be compound.

Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to clarify or add!


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