Rhythm & Meter: Terms & Styles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever clapped your hands or stomped your foot in time to music? You were feeling the rhythm! In this lesson, learn the basics about rhythm and meter.

Definitions of Rhythm

Do you enjoy listening to music? Ever wonder why you tap your finger or stomp your foot along with it? It might have something to do with rhythm. Rhythm is how a musician or composer places a series of sounds in a composition, creating a pattern that organizes and arranges sounds as they move through time. Think about it this way: music is organized sound. It might be coming from a piano, a singer, or a brass instrument, but in the end, music is about sound that's coordinated in a certain way. Now let's look at the tools a composer uses to organize these sounds.

Definition of Meter

Rhythm is closely related to something called meter. Meter is the way the rhythm is repeated, usually written down as a time signature. Music is divided into segments of time called measures (they're divided by vertical lines on written music), and the basic unit of division in the measure is a beat. For example, two commonly used meters or time signatures are 4/4 time or 6/8 time. A time signature is always written with two numbers, one over the other: the top number is how many beats in the measure and the bottom is the kind of beat. In 4/4 time, the rhythm is based on four quarter note beats in the measure.

Example of one measure of basic four/four time
four four time

It's one of the most common time signatures found in music. Another time signature based on quarter notes is 3/4 time, where there are three beats in the measure and the basic unit is still the quarter note. Waltzes are usually written in 3/4 time.

As another example, in 6/8 time the measure has six beats and the kind of beat is an eighth note, which is equal to half of a quarter note.

Example of one measure written in six/eight time
six eight time

Playing a rhythm with this type of beat feels different because you're fitting three notes into a rhythm that's written with a unit of measurement based on an even number of beats. When you tap or sing in 6/8 rhythm, it feels bouncy because it's a compound rhythm.

Types of Rhythm

There are many kinds of rhythm. The simplest, a straight rhythm, is one in which all beats get the same emphasis. Tap your finger on a table four times and give each tap the same weight and length. That's the steady beat as found in basic 4/4 time.

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