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[Video Transcript]

In this lesson we're going to talk about some important distinctions regarding meter and time signatures.

One important distinction to understand is the difference between simple meter and compound meter.

What is Simple Meter? What is Compound Meter?

Pulses in simple meter divide into two; pulses in compound meter divide into three. What does that mean? Well, it has to do with accents. Meters have patterns of strong beats and weak beats. And musical accents are what create these patterns of strong and weak beats.

Remember in our last lesson I pointed out that musical accents are not limited to dynamic accents (playing something louder). There are tonic accents using a very high or low note. There are agogic accents using a longer duration. Accents and patterns can be created with just about every element of music. Often several types of accents combine to create the pattern of strong and weak beats in a meter. For example, a longer and louder note.

What's the Difference between 3/4 and 6/8 Meter?

Let's compare a simple meter and a compound meter. A measure of 3/4 time and a measure of 6/8 time can both be filled with 6 eighth notes, but they are musically different because they have a different pattern of strong and weak beats created by accents.

3/4 time is simple meter, and each of its pulses can be divided into 2 eighth notes. You will sense a measure of 3/4 as having 3 strong pulses which are divided in twos.

| ONE and TWO and THREE and | ONE and TWO and THREE and |

Listen to the drums accent the 3 beats. (Boom chuck chuck Boom chuck chuck).

The 8th note bassline plays root notes through beats 1 and 2 and fifths in beat 3.

Where that bass note changes helps you sense the pulse of 3 in 3/4 time. It helps you feel the 3 strong pulses divided into twos.

Now let's listen to 6/8 time. 6/8 time is compound meter. We can divide the 2 strong pulses in 6/8 into 3 eighth notes. Listen to how the drums accent beats 1 and 4.

| ONE two three FOUR five six | ONE two three FOUR five six |

The 8th note bassline here changes notes on beats 1 and 4. Again, where the notes change help establish the feeling of each strong pulse broken into three. Remember, when the strong pulse is divided in threes it is called compound meter.

Notice how the eighth notes are beamed together in 3/4 time to highlight the three pulses divided in two. Now notice how the beams in 6/8 time highlight the two pulses divided into threes. You may not realize it, but the way beams are written in standard notation help you understand the rhythm, meter and phrasing of the music. Beams are not a random choice. You'll find standard music notation gives you a lot of insights into how music works.

What if we play the 6/8 bassline with the drums playing in 3/4...

It sounds weird, right? It sounds off.

It's because the pattern of strong and weak beats is confused. You want to hear 3 strong pulses with the drums, but the bass notes are giving the sense of two pulses.

Now it's not forbidden to do this. In music this is an effect known as syncopation. Syncopation occurs when strong accents fall in weak places in the meter. Syncopation draws the listener's attention and creates excitement in music. Some styles and songs use more syncopation than others. Notice how the beams and note groupings highlight the syncopation in the written music, too.

Here's the original 3/4 bassline with the 3/4 drums. It sounds more natural when the three strong pulses are divided in twos. Remember, simple time means the beats are divided in twos.

Let's flip it around again and hear the 3/4 bassline in 6/8...

Again, it sounds off. The strong pulses and notes don't line up comfortably. It creates syncopation. And again, you can see the syncopation in the beams of the written notes.

When you play in 6/8 the accents need to highlight two strong notes broken into threes. Compound time is when each strong pulse is divided in threes.

So, simple meter has a two-ness to each of its pulses while compound meter has a three-ness to its pulses—in compound meter the beats have a triplet feel to them.

3/4 time is simple meter, and each of its pulses can be divided into 2 eighth notes. You will sense a measure of 3/4 as having 3 strong pulses which are divided in twos.

4/4 Time is Simple Meter; 12/8 is Compound Meter

I know you've played in 4/4 time. What is 4/4 time? Is it simple or compound?

4/4 is simple meter. Each of the four pulses divides into twos.

| ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and | ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and |

The compound version of 4/4 is 12/8. Each of the four pulses is evenly divided into three.

Rhythms within Simple and Compound Pulses

You may be thinking, “Wait...surely you can have more than two notes per pulse!” “What about sixteenth notes? What about rests and other rhythms?” Yes, you are correct! Simple and compound don't tell you how many notes you can play per pulse. They don't tell you the rhythms. They tell you whether the pulse is evenly divided into a grid of two or three. Then that division of two or three can be further divided in any way.

So a pulse in simple meter might have a single quarter note, two eighth notes, an eighth and two sixteenths, or various rests. A wide variety of rhythms is possible, but the underlying division of a simple meter pulse is always two.

A pulse in compound meter has an underlying division of three. But again, that pulse can contain a variety of rhythms which fit in that division of three. It could be a dotted quarter note—those last the length of three eighth notes. It could be three eighth notes. It could be an eighth, eighth rest and another eighth. It could be 6 sixteenths. The rhythms simply need to align to the underlying division of three in the compound meter pulse.

In compound time, the rhythms all line up to each pulse's even division of three which can then be further subdivided. Compound time has a triplet feel to it.

So, to summarize, simple and compound meter refer to how a meter's strong pulses are evenly divided. Simple meter divides each strong pulse in two. Compound meter divides each strong pulse in three.

What is Duple Meter? What is Triple Meter?

Yet another detail to know about meter is the difference between duple meter and triple meter. This is where students start to get confused a bit. We just discussed the idea of simple meter where the pulses divide in twos and compound meter where the pulses divide in threes, so what is duple meter and triple meter? Are they the same thing? No. They're a totally separate idea. The previous concepts of simple and compound describe what happens inside each strong pulse.

Duple meter and triple meter describe the number of strong pulses in each measure. Duple meter has two strong pulses per measure. Triple meter has three strong pulses per measure.

Let's look again at our examples of 3/4 and 6/8.

3/4 time has three strong accents or strong beats. 3/4 time is therefore triple meter. Now, since each strong pulse in 3/4 gets divided into twos, we can describe 3/4 time completely by calling it triple simple meter. Three strong pulses—triple—divided in twos—simple.

6/8 has two strong beats. 6/8 is duple meter. Remember we said 6/8 is compound: its two strong pulses are divided into threes. So, 6/8 is duple compound meter. Two pulses—duple—divided into threes—compound.

Pop quiz: What would 9/8 be? 9/8 is most commonly played with three strong beats. Therefore 9/8 would be triple compound meter (3 groups of 3 eighth notes).

What about 12/8? It is most commonly played with four strong beats divided into 3 eighth note groupings. Trick question! There is also quadruple meter to describe four strong beats in a measure. Sometimes this is thought of as a type of duple meter.

Much of the music theory we learn evolved to explain European Classical music. The duple/triple/quadruple distinction covered most of that music's time signatures. Music since then has gone on to explore many more meters. You may run into quintuple (5), sextuple (6), septuple (7) or other meter descriptions. It's all about the number of strong pulses per measure.

What Does This Mean for You?

As a player and not a composer, does any of this really matter? The essential part for you as a player is to understand that some meters have a triplet feel to the pulses (compound) and others don't (simple). When you understand that bit, the rest will make sense and fall into place. To properly play each meter it is important for you to tune into where the strong and weak beats are.

Will anyone ever say, “Quick! Change to triple compound meter!” No. It's very unlikely. Instead they would simply say 9/8. Knowing the terms is not as important as knowing the concept of where the accents fall.

Are There Meters Which are not Simple or Compound?

Are there any meters which can't be described as simple or compound? Yes. Some meters are irregular, or odd. For example, 5/8 cannot be broken into consistent twos or threes. It will be two and three, or three and two. Therefore we would call it an irregular or odd meter.

People will sometimes split hairs over whether odd meter simply means the top number is odd. 3/4 is considered simple despite having an odd 3 for the top number.

In the next lessons we will discuss different meters and time signatures more specifically.