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Musical Elements

Beat, Meter & Rhythm

Peter Kun Frary


Rhythm is the structured flow of musical sounds through time. Rhythm consists of three components: beat, meter and duration.

Rhythm Makers | Taiko drummers at Ala Moana Center Stage


When you dance or march you move to a steady pulse called the beat. The beat underlies most types of music and creates rhythmic drive and coherence. Listen to an example of beat:

The beat is used to measure note durations. Sing the first phrase of America while tapping your foot or clapping the beat. Observe that “My” equals 1 beat, “'tis” equals 1-1/2 beats and “sing” equals 3 beats. Three beats (clicks) are heard before the melody of America starts:

These different durations measured against a beat are called rhythms.


The speed of the beat is called tempo. Composers indicate tempo with metronome settings in BPM (beats per minute) or with descriptive words called the tempo mark. Italian words are mainly used to designate tempo. Here are the basic tempos from slow to fast:

• largo, very slow and broad
• adagio, slow and at ease
• andante, moderately slow (walking pace)
• andantino, a little faster than andante
• moderato, moderately
• allegretto, a little slower than allegro
• allegro, fast (cheerful)
• presto, very fast

Musicians often refer to pieces by tempo mark. Why? Many instrumental pieces have generic titles (e.g., sonata), no title or a number designation. Referring to a work by tempo mark, e.g., Allegro con brio, is more memorable than calling out a number.


The metronome, invented in 1815 by Johann Maelzel, was used to play a beat for practicing music and specifying tempo. The numbers indicate beats per minute (BPM) and are normally adjustable from largo (40-60 BPM) to presto (168+ BPM). Early metronomes were mechanical, similar to a clock, and included a swinging pendulum in addition to the click sound. Beethoven was among the first composers to specify tempi in BPM, feeling that Italian tempo markings were too subjective.

Seiko Metronome | The swinging pendulum of mechanical metronomes has been replaced by flashing LEDs in most modern metronomes.


As you sang America you may have noticed beats are grouped in sets of three: strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak, etc. The grouping of beats in a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed pulses is called meter. Musicians define meters based on the particular pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. The meter of America is called triple meter because of the three-beat grouping.

The three most common meters:

  • Duple meter, two beats in a strong-weak pattern (1-2).
  • Triple meter, three beats in a strong-weak-weak pattern (1-2-3).
  • Quadruple meter, four beats in a strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern (1-2-3-4).

The first beat of any meter is called the downbeat.

Sing Mary had a Little Lamb while chapping the beat. Feel the strong-weak (1-2) pattern? That's the feel of duple meter. It's a favorite for marches because duple meter synchronizes perfectly with the left-right stepping pattern of two legs.

Quadruple meter is also called common time because it is used more than other meters. Most songs on the radio and popular playlists are in quadruple meter. Sing a chorus of Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory while clapping and you'll feel the groove of the strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern (1-2-3-4).

Meter is something your hear and feel while listening to music. Listen carefully to the beat and accents in the video, Father I Adore you. What is the meter? [answer below]

Father I Adore You | Frary Guitar Duo

What meter is used in the video below?

Minuet | Leeward Coast Guitars


Musical sounds usually agree with the flow of the beat and meter. However, sometimes they contradict or obscure the meter by placing emphasis on normally weak beats or weak parts of a beat. This displacement of metrical accents is called syncopation.

The Sinner Man track below is in quadruple meter and most of the bass notes and chords hit on the stressed beats of the meter, i.e., beats 1 and 3. Listen to my plain Jane Sinner Man track:

Next, I rewrote Sinner Man with syncopations in the bass line and chords. The first bass note hits on the downbeat but the second note lands in between beat 2 and 3, thereby obscuring the normally strong third beat metrical accent. The chords agree with the downbeat in the introduction but hit on beats 3 and 4 when the melody kicks in. Listen to my Caribbean style Sinner Man with syncopated bass and chords:

The tension of syncopations against the beat and meter make more interesting arrangement.


Father I Adore You is in quadruple meter. Minuet is in triple meter.


beat, tempo, rhythm, BPM, meter, triple meter, duple meter, quadruple meter, downbeat, tempo mark, syncopation

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