Meter (music)

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Meter or metre is a term that music has inherited from the rhythmic element of poetry (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002) where it means the number of lines in a verse, the number of syllables in each line and the arrangement of those syllables as long or short, accented or unaccented (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002). Hence it may also refer to the pattern of lines and accents in the verse of a hymn or ballad, for example, and so to the organization of music into regularly recurring measures or bars of stressed and unstressed "beats", indicated in Western music notation by a time signature, note-lengths and bar-lines.

The terminology of western music is notoriously imprecise in this area (Scholes 1977). MacPherson (1930, 3) preferred to speak of "time" and "rhythmic shape", Imogen Holst (1963, 17) of "measured rhythm". However, London has written a book about musical metre, which "involves our initial perception as well as subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythm surface of the music as it unfolds in time" (London 2004, 4).

This "perception" and "abstraction" of rhythmic measure is the foundation of human instinctive musical participation, as when we divide a series of identical clock-ticks into "tick-tock-tick-tock" (Scholes 1977). "Rhythms of recurrence" arise from the interaction of two levels of motion, the faster providing the pulse and the slower organizing the beats into repetitive groups (Yeston 1976, 50–52). "Once a metric hierarchy has been established, we, as listeners, will maintain that organization as long as minimal evidence is present" (Lester 1986, 77).


Metric structure

The definition of a musical meter requires the identification of repeating patterns of accent forming a "pulse-group" that corresponds to the poetic foot. Normally such pulse-groups are defined by taking the accented beat as the first and counting the pulses until the next accent (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977). Normally, even the most complex of meters may be broken down into a chain of duple and triple pulses (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977). The level of musical organisation implied by musical meter, therefore, includes the most elementary levels of musical form (MacPherson 1930, 3).

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