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The Basics of Rhythm (Part 2)
We can change the duration of a Note by following it with a dot •. This makes it slightly longer, increasing its length by a half. For example, a Dotted Whole Note is equivalent to a Whole Note and a Half Note in length:
• = +
Or, since a Whole Note is also equivalent to two Half Notes, we can think of a Dotted Whole Note as equivalent to three Half Notes in length:
• = + +
A Dotted Half Note is equivalent to a Half Note and a Quarter Note in length:
• = +
Or, since a Half Note is also equivalent to two Quarter Notes, we can think of a Dotted Half Note as equivalent to three Quarter Notes in length:
• = + +
A Dotted Quarter Note is equivalent to a Quarter Note and an Eighth Note in length:
• = +
Or, since a Quarter Note is also equivalent to two Eighth Notes, we can think of a Dotted Quarter Note as equivalent to three Eighth Notes in length:
• = + +
Dotted Rests follow the exact same kind of pattern.
[While not as common, we can also use more dots whenever necessary. Everytime we add another dot, then we add half of the previous half in length. For example, •• = + + ]
A Bird's-Eye-View of The Mysteries of Meter
In addition to keeping things consistent in time by providing a regular pulse as a point of reference, Beats can also show us which moments within a piece of music have a tendency to be emphasized.
This is done by labelling certain Beats within each Measure as either "Strong" or "Weak". In other words, whatever happens on a Strong Beat has a tendency to be emphasized in some way. [It is similar to how an English word can be broken up into syllables, and how one of the syllables within that word is stressed.] If something jumps out at you within a piece of music, there is a good chance that it appears on a Strong Beat. You might even be able to count out the number of Weak Beats that occur after it until the next Strong Beat appears!
These patterns of Strong and Weak Beats are called "Meter". Meter is often something that distinguishes one genre or style of music from another.
While it isn't imperative to know all of the details behind Meter in order to play from sheet music, it is good to be aware of its existence as it affects how some things are notated. If this seems like an overwhelming amount of information, please feel free to skim over this section and come back to it later...
Different kinds of Meter have a particular name depending upon what the top number within the associated Time Signature is telling us:
• If the top number is a 2, then it is "Duple". There are two Beats per Bar.
• If the top number is a 3, then it is "Triple". There are three Beats per Bar.
• If the top number is a 4, then it is "Quadruple". There are four Beats per Bar.
The name is also determined by whether we naturally Divide the Beats of that Time Signature into a pattern of 2 ("Simple") or into a pattern of 3 ("Compound"). Let's look at some examples.
All of the following Time Signatures represent "Simple Meters"...
Simple Duple: 2/2, 2/4, 2/8
Simple Triple: 3/2, 3/4, 3/8
Simple Quadruple: 4/2, 4/4, 4/8
We have been only dealing with 4/4 time thus far.
Two of these Time Signatures have special names and their own symbol:
4/4 is also known as "Common Time", and is symbolized by a "C"-like figure.
2/2 is also known as "Cut Time", and is symbolized by the same figure with a vertical slash through it.
We can use these symbols in place of that Time Signature at the beginning of a Staff.
Here are some Time Signatures that describe "Compound Meters"...
Compound Duple: 6/2, 6/4, 6/8, 6/16
Compound Triple: 9/2, 9/4, 9/8, 9/16
Compound Quadruple: 12/2, 12/4, 12/8, 12/16
The more common Time Signatures are highlighted in blue. Notice that 6 is made up of two groups of 3, 9 is made up of three groups of 3, and 12 is made up of four groups of 3. This is how the above Compound Time Signatures are classified as either "Duple", "Triple", or "Quadruple". Again, Compound Meter is when the Beat is Divided into 3:
3 + 3 = 6
3 + 3 + 3 = 9
3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 12
As we saw in the previous section, a Dotted Note or Rest can be Divided into 3. Therefore, all Compound Meters use a Dotted Note or Rest to represent the Beat.
All of this might sound confusing, so let's compare some of the most common Simple and Compound Time Signatures to make it easier to grasp. We will show how each of them are Divided and Subdivided, as well as demonstrate how these Divisions and Subdivisions should be counted:
Look at how all of the Notes within the first column labelled "The Beat" are numbered. Whether Simple or Compound, any Duple Meter has two Beats per Bar, any Triple Meter has three Beats per Bar, and any Quadruple Meter has four Beats per Bar. Again, this is why they are called Duple, Triple, and Quadruple.
Next, look at all of the Notes within the second column labelled "Divisions of the Beat". All of the Simple Meters (in green) Divide the Beat into groups of two Eighth Notes, while all of the Compound Meters (in purple) Divide the Beat into groups of three Eighth Notes. Again, this is what makes them either Simple or Compound.
Let's take it a step further and explain why we bother with these classifications:
Compare the first and second column. Notice how the Compound Meters represent the Beat with Dotted Notes, and when they are Divided, it is counted like a Triplet in 4/4 time (i.e.: with the syllables "la" and "li"). Sometimes people say that pieces of music in these Meters have a "Triplet feel". In other words, using a different Meter would induce a different kind of feeling because they sound distinct from one another. This "feel" or Groove that a piece of music has is one of the reasons why we would choose to write it with one Time Signature instead of another.
For example, you might wonder: "What is the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 if we can ultimately split the Beat of either of them into six Eighth Notes?" We distinguish between different Meters (such as 3/4 and 6/8) because the Strong Beat would be in different spots within a Measure written in each of them. [If you would like to hear the differences, this article gives a nice comparison of 3/4 and 6/8 in a way that is simple to understand.]
Some might still be tempted to ask: "Ok, but why do we need to distinguish between Simple and Compound if we can just use Tuplets to split the Beat into any number that we need?" That is a good question! Indeed, Tuplets are can be thought of as a brief switch from a Simple Meter into a Compound Meter. It seems like it is more of an issue of clarity.
It is important to keep in mind that sheet music is not only a tool for writting out the ideas in our head, but also a means of sharing music. Therefore, it should always be written with consideration for whomever will be reading it, and we should try our best to write things out so that they will be easy to perform at first glance (e.g.: in ways that are simple to count). While it may be "possible" to write something in a particular way, it may not always be efficient to do so.
Unfortunately, this "rule of thumb" is not always followed, so you may sometimes run into sheet music that is hard to decipher. However, sheet music that is professionally produced usually follows this standard, so you probably won't have to worry about it too much when you are first learning to read sheet music. If you can, listen to songs as you try to follow along with their sheet music. Match up what you hear with what you see. Over time, they will help to clarify one another.
The Basics of Using Meter
Now that we have a general overview of what Meter is, let's explore a little bit of how it is used. Meter can almost always be broken down into these two patterns...
A Pattern of 2: Strong-Weak
A Pattern of 3: Strong-Weak-Weak
These are akin to the basic building blocks of Meter. For example,
Topics To Go:
• Upbeats and Downbeats, Pickup Measures
• Ties, Drones, and Syncopation ("crossing the Barline")
• Swung Eighth Notes
• Odd Meters