Introduction to meters: simple, compound, additive, odd

Wittner Metronome

Meter is a way of organizing musical time (photo credit)

Meters are a way of organizing beats in the music so that they’re easier to understand. You don’t technically need to have meter, but most music uses meter because it makes life easier for both the musicians and the audience.

That said, there are many different types of meters. Cultures from around the world have come up with contrasting ways of organizing the passage of musical time, suited to the styles of music they like. You can learn from all of these types of meter and use them to help you play your favorite music.

Simple Meter

Simple Meter is the first kind of meter most music students learn about. The most common simple meter is 4/4, and you find it EVERYWHERE. Walk into a store, turn on the radio, watch a TV commercial—I can almost guarantee you that whatever you hear is in 4/4.

Here is how 4/4 works: count up to four, then start over again, on and on and on, “1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4.” So why count to four? Why not just count “1,1,1,1,1,1,1” forever? Well you could, but somehow it’s easier to understand the music when you count to four and then start over. A bar of 4/4 music is a handy way of organizing a short section of music, much in the same way it’s easier to find your socks if you bundle them together instead of throwing everything into a giant pile of singles.

Another simple meter that appears a lot is 3/4. This is the rhythm of waltzes: “1,2,3, 1,2,3.” Then there’s 2/4: instead of counting to four, you count to two. This meter gets used a lot in marching band music.

Why does some music use 4/4 and some music 2/4? There’s not really a good reason, it’s just a decision someone made. You can count 2/4 over a 4/4 piece of music if you like that better, or you could count some other multiple. Dancers often count to eight, because that number makes more sense for them.

Compound Meter

A step up from simple meter is compound meter, and the easiest way to think of it is to imagine a slow simple meter with a faster simple meter layered on it. The most common compound meter is 6/8. The slow meter works like 2/4, but on every beat of the 2/4 you get a mini 3/4. 3 + 3 = 6, hence the 6/8. (It’s a little more complex than that, but that’s the basic idea.)

compound meter example

Example of a compound meter and the two overlapping “sub-meters” within it.

The idea of compound meter helps to illustrate why meters are important in the first place. Meter is about grouping beats together into larger units that are useful to the musicians and listeners. Meter gives you the rhythmic “big picture” so you can focus on other details.

In a plain, old simple meter, the main grouping is enough; the music is not complex enough that you need to have a secondary grouping. But sometimes it’s useful to break things down further, which is why we have compound meters.

Additive Meter

Remember the idea of counting “1,1,1,1,1,1,1” forever? Well, some kinds of music actually work that way. This concept is called additive meter, and it originated in Indian music. It’s not very common to count all ones all the time, but additive meter will bring together many small groupings, each flowing into each other: 2,2,3,2,1,1,3,2,3,3,2, etc.

Learning a piece with additive meter is sort of like learning a poem instead of learning a pattern. In a simple meter like 4/4, you’re only saying one thing over and over: “I like ice cream, I like ice cream, I like ice cream.” In additive meter, you’re saying different things: “I like ice cream, please give me chocolate, not pistachio.” Additive meter requires you to memorize the contours of the piece and how they change over time. When you tackle the additive pieces in, try to avoid the regular counting and instead look for patterns in the melodies.

Odd Meter

Often associated with the Balkans, odd meters sound like they have sort of a limp to them. The most common example is 5/4. You get one group of two followed by one group of three. The trick is: which comes first, the three or the two? It’s different for every piece of music. Sometimes it’s 2+3, sometimes 3+2.

Odd meters put more responsibility on you to figure out exactly how they need to be counted. In a way, they fall in between a simple meter and an additive meter. With odd meters, you don’t have the “anything goes” situation of additive meters, but you do still have some fluidity as the emphasis moves between groupings of twos and threes.

So there you go, that’s the basics of meter—at least enough to get you started with Of course, there’s a lot more we could say on each of these, but I’ll save the details for future posts.

Get email updates

for new features, instruments, & lessons