Rhythm and Meter: An Introduction

Their are four components of any musical sound: pitch, duration, timbre (tone-color) and volume (amplitude). Of these four, three refer to sound and one to time; at its most basic level music is the interactions of sounds over time. In all its manifestations sound can be classified according to its presence or absence of pitch. However, the passage of time is thought of through three subtly different terms: pulse, rhythm, and meter.

Pulse is a steady series of undifferentiated impulses, such as an atom shooting back and forth between two planes in an atomic clock.
Rhythm is the relation of the actual sounds to the pulse: the actual motion of sound over time.
Meter is a hierarchical ordering of pulses.

As in tonality there is a surface foreground (rhythm), a hidden background (pulse) and a hierarchical ordering (meter).

It's usually not so hard to pick out a pulse in a popular song. For instance, listen to a midi version of "Row, Row, Row" (here) and try to tap your foot along with the pulse.

Row, Row, Row your boat

Gently down the stream

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

Life is but a dream

Pulse is highly subjective. For one listener, the pulse might be slower corresponding than it is to others. One rendition of the pulse is marked by "x"s in the diagram below.(Row, Row, Row)

Row, Row, Row your boat
X          X     

Gently down the stream
X                X

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily
X                 X

Life is but a dream
X        X

Another listener with a faster metabolism might feel that "Row, Row, Row" has a quicker pulse, as diagrammed below. Some might find that this pulse is not as comfortable; they feel like they are rushing not floating gently down the stream.

Row, Row, Row your boat
X     X    X        X

Gently down the stream
X      X        X      X

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily
X        X        X        X

Life is but a dream
X       X     X       X

Before moving on, listen to these examples and see if you can pick out a pulse:

Excerpt 1: from Frederic Chopin: Prelude in E minor

Excerpt 2: from Peter Tschaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies

Excerpt 3: from Henry Purcell: Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas

Excerpt 4: from Conlon Nancarrow: Study 3e

Excerpt 5: from M.S. Gopalakrishnan: Rag Bhimpalasi

Excerpt 6: Traditional music from Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Shod I Uforash
At a certain point in the piece, the pulse changes.

Pulse is measured in beats per minute (BPM) and often refered to as the tempo. As listeners we perceive fastness or slowness based on our own heartrate.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.