I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm; Kris Shaffer; and Mark Gotham

Key Takeaways

  • is a pulse in music that regularly recurs.
  • are meters in which the beat divides into two, and then further subdivides into four.
  • have groupings of two beats, have groupings of three beats, and have groupings of four beats.
  • There are different conducting patterns for duple, triple, and quadruple meters.
  • A is equivalent to one group of beats (duple, triple, or quadruple). Measures are separated by .
  • in simple meters express two things: how many beats are contained in each measure (the top number), and the (the bottom number), which refers to the note value that is the beat.
  • A visually connects notes together, grouping them by beat. Beaming changes in different time signatures.
  • Notes below the middle line on a staff are up-stemmed, while notes above the middle line on a staff are down-stemmed. direction works similarly.

Chapter Playlist

In Rhythmic and Rest Values, we discussed the different rhythmic values of and . Musicians organize rhythmic values into various , which are—broadly speaking—formed as the result of recurrent patterns of accents in musical performances.


Listen to the following performance by the contemporary musical group Postmodern Jukebox ( Example 1). They are performing a cover of the song “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls (originally released in 1996). Beginning at 0:11, it is easy to tap or clap along to this recording. What you are tapping along to is called a —a pulse in music that regularly recurs.

Example 1. A cover of “Wannabe” performed by Postmodern Jukebox; listen starting at 0:11.

Example 1 is in a : a meter in which the beat divides into two, and then further subdivides into four. You can feel this yourself by tapping your beat twice as fast; you might also think of this as dividing your beat into two smaller beats.

Different numbers of beats group into different meters. contain beats that are grouped into twos, while contain beats that are grouped into threes, and contain beats that are grouped into fours.

Listening to Simple Meters

Let’s listen to examples of simple duple, simple triple, and simple quadruple meters. A meter contains two beats, each of which divides into two (and further subdivides into four). “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896), written by John Philip Sousa, is in a simple duple meter.

Listen to Example 2, and tap along, feeling how the beats group into sets of two:

Example 2. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” played by the Dallas Winds.

A meter contains three beats, each of which divides into two (and further subdivides into four). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Minuet in F major,” K.2 (1774) is in a simple triple meter. Listen to Example 3, and tap along, feeling how the beats group into sets of three:

Example 3. Mozart’s “Minuet in F major,” played by Alan Huckleberry.

Finally, a meter contains four beats, each of which divides into two (and further subdivides into four). The song “Cake” (2017) by Flo Rida is in a simple quadruple meter. Listen to Example 4 starting at 0:45 and tap along, feeling how the beats group into sets of four:

Example 4. “Cake” by Flo Rida; listen starting at 0:45.

As you can hear and feel (by tapping along), musical compositions in a wide variety of styles are governed by meter. You might practice identifying the meters of some of your favorite songs or musical compositions as simple duple, simple triple, or simple quadruple; listening carefully and tapping along is the best way to do this. Note that simple quadruple meters feel similar to simple duple meters, since four beats can be divided into two groups of two beats. It may not always be immediately apparent if a work is in a simple duple or simple quadruple meter by listening alone.

Conducting Patterns

If you have ever sung in a choir or played an instrument in a band or orchestra, then you have likely had experience with a . Conductors have many jobs. One of these jobs is to provide for the musicians in their choir, band, or orchestra. Conducting patterns serve two main purposes: first, they establish a tempo, and second, they establish a meter.

The three most common conducting patterns outline duple, triple, and quadruple meters. Duple meters are conducted with a downward/outward motion (step 1), followed by an upward motion (step 2), as seen in Example 5. Triple meters are conducted with a downward motion (step 1), an outward motion (step 2), and an upward motion (step 3), as seen in Example 6. Quadruple meters are conducted with a downward motion (step 1), an inward motion (step 2), an outward motion (step 3), and an upward motion (step 4), as seen in Example 7:

Beat 1 of each of these measures is considered a . A downbeat is conducted with a downward motion, and you may hear and feel that it has more “weight” or “heaviness” then the other beats. An is the last beat of any measure. Upbeats are conducted with an upward motion, and you may feel and hear that they are anticipatory in nature.

Example 8 shows a short video demonstrating these three conducting patterns:

Example 8. Dr. John Lopez (Texas A&M University, Kingsville) demonstrates duple, triple, and quadruple conducting patterns.

You can practice these conducting patterns while listening to Example 2 (duple), Example 3 (triple), and Example 4 (quadruple) above.

Time Signatures

In Western musical notation, beat groupings (duple, triple, quadruple, etc.) are shown using bar lines, which separate music into measures (also called bars), as shown in Example 9. Each measure is equivalent to one beat grouping.

A measure is bracketed and a bar line is labeled
Example 9. Bar lines and measures.

In simple meters, (also called meter signatures) express two things: 1) how many beats are contained in each measure, and 2) the beat unit (which note value gets the beat). Time signatures are expressed by two numbers, one above the other, placed after the clef (Example 10).

A percussion clef, 4/4 time signature, and four quarter notes on a staff
Example 10. The two numbers (4 and 4) form a time signature.

A time signature is not a fraction, though it may look like one; note that there is no line between the two numbers. In simple meters, the top number of a time signature represents the number of beats in each measure, while the bottom number represents the beat unit.

In simple meters, the top number is always 2, 3, or 4, corresponding to duple, triple, or quadruple beat patterns. The bottom number is usually one of the following:

  • 2, which means the half note gets the beat.
  • 4, which means the quarter note gets the beat.
  • 8, which means the eighth note gets the beat.

You may also see the bottom number 16 (the sixteenth note gets the beat) or 1 (the whole note gets the beat) in simple meter time signatures.

There are two additional simple meter time signatures, which are 𝄴 (common time) and 𝄵 (cut time). Common time is the equivalent of [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex] (simple quadruple—four beats per measure), while cut time is the equivalent of [latex]\mathbf{^2_2}[/latex] (simple duple—two beats per measure).

Counting in Simple Meter

Counting rhythms aloud is important for musical performance; as a singer or instrumentalist, you must be able to perform rhythms that are written in Western musical notation. Conducting while counting rhythms is highly recommended and will help you to keep a steady tempo. Please note that your instructor may employ a different counting system. Open Music Theory privileges American traditional counting, but this is not the only method.

Example 11 shows a rhythm in a [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex] time signature, which is a simple quadruple meter. This time signature means that there are four beats per measure (the top 4) and that the quarter note gets the beat (the bottom 4).

  • In each measure, each quarter note gets a count, expressed with —”1, 2, 3, 4.”
  • When notes last longer than one beat (such as a half or whole note in this example), the count is held over multiple beats. Beats that are not counted out loud are written in parentheses.
  • When the beat in a simple meter is divided into two, the divisions are counted aloud with the syllable “and,” which is usually notated with the plus sign (+). So, if the quarter note gets the beat, the second eighth note in each beat would be counted as “and.”
  • Further subdivisions at the sixteenth-note level are counted as “e” (pronounced as a long vowel, as in the word “see”) and “a” (pronounced “uh”). At the thirty-second-note level, further subdivisions add the syllable “ta” in between each of the previous syllables.

Example 11. Rhythm in 4/4 time.

Simple duple meters have only two beats and simple triple meters have only three, but the subdivisions are counted the same way (Example 12).

Example 12. Simple duple meters have two beats per measure; simple triple meters have three.

Like with notes that last for two or more beats, beats that are not articulated because of rests, ties, and dots are also not counted out loud. These beats are usually written in parentheses, as shown in Example 13:

Example 13. Beats that are not counted out loud are put in parentheses.

Example 14. An anacrusis.

When an example begins with a pickup note (), your count will not begin on “1,” as shown in Example 14. An anacrusis is counted as the last note(s) of an imaginary measure. When a work begins with an anacrusis, the last measure is usually shortened by the length of the anacrusis. This is demonstrated in Example 14: the anacrusis is one quarter note in length, so the last measure is only three beats long (i.e., it is missing one quarter note).

Counting with Beat Units of 2, 8, and 16

In simple meters with other beat units (shown in the bottom number of the time signature), the same counting patterns are used for the beats and subdivisions, but they correspond to different note values. Example 15 shows a rhythm with a [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex] time signature, followed by the same rhythms with different beat units. Each of these rhythms sounds the same and is counted the same. They are also all considered simple quadruple meters. The difference in each example is the bottom number of the time signature—which note gets the beat unit (quarter, half, eighth, or sixteenth).

Example 15. The same counted rhythm, as written in a meter with (a) a quarter-note beat, (b) a half-note beat, (c) an eighth-note beat, and (d) a sixteenth-note beat.

Beaming, Stems, Flags, and Multi-Measure Rests

connect notes together by beat. As Example 16 shows, this means that beaming changes depending on the time signature. In the first measure, sixteenth notes are grouped into sets of four, because four sixteenth notes in a [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex] time signature are equivalent to one beat. In the second measure, however, sixteenth notes are grouped into sets of two, because one beat in a [latex]\mathbf{^4_8}[/latex] time signature is only equivalent to two sixteenth notes.

Example 16. Beaming in two different meters.

A series of notes in 3/4 time appear that are not beamed.
Example 17. Beaming makes rhythms easier to read by showing the beat unit.

Note that in vocal music, beaming is sometimes only used to connect notes sung on the same syllable. If you are accustomed to music without beaming, you may need to pay special attention to beaming conventions until you have mastered them. In the top staff of Example 17, the eighth notes are not grouped with beams, making it difficult to see where beats 2 and 3 in the triple meter begin. The bottom staff shows that if we re-notate the rhythm so that the notes that fall within the same beat are grouped together with a beam, it makes the music much easier to read. Note that these two rhythms sound the same, even though they are beamed differently. The ability to group events according to a hierarchy is an important part of human perception, which is why beaming helps us visually parse notated musical rhythms—the metrical structure provides a hierarchy that we show using notational tools like beaming.

Example 18 shows several different note values beamed together to show the beat unit. The first line does not require beams because quarter notes are never beamed, but all subsequent lines do need beams to clarify beats.

notation, shows eighth, sixteenth, and mixed note values beamed together to show a quarter-note beat unit
Example 18. Note values can be beamed together to show the beat unit. In [latex]\mathit{^3_4}[/latex], eighth and sixteenth notes can be beamed together to show a quarter-note beat.


Two measures of notes are shown with proper stemming. Stems above the middle line point downwards, while stems below the middle line point upwards.
Example 19. Beaming with different stem directions.

The second measure of Example 19 shows that when notes are grouped together with beams, the stem direction is determined by the note farthest from the middle line. On beat 1 of measure 2, this note is E5, which is above the middle line, so down-stems are used. Beat 2 uses up-stems because the note farthest from the middle line is the E4 below it.

Flagging is determined by stem direction
Example 20. Flagging is determined by stem direction.

Flagging is determined by stem direction (Example 20). Notes above the middle line receive a down-stem (on the left) and an inward-facing flag (facing right). Notes below the middle line receive an up-stem (on the right) and an outward-facing flag (facing left). Notes on the middle line can be flagged in either direction, usually depending on the contour of the musical line.

Partial beams can be used for mixed rhythmic groupings, as shown in Example 21. Sometimes these beaming conventions look strange to students who have had less experience with reading beamed music. If this is the case, you will want to pay special attention to how the notes in Example 21 are beamed.

Example 21. Partial beams are used for some mixed rhythmic groupings.

A filled-in rectangle with the number "4" appears, indicated a rest that will last for four measures
Example 22. A multi-measure rest lasting four measures.

Rests that last for multiple full measures are sometimes notated as seen in Example 22. This example indicates that the musician is to rest for a duration of four full measures.

A Note on Ties

We have already encountered ties that can be used to extend a note over a measure line. But ties can also be used like beams to clarify the metrical structure within a measure. In the first measure of Example 23, beat 2 begins in the middle of the eighth note, making it difficult to see the metrical structure. Breaking the eighth note into two sixteenth notes connected by a tie, as shown in the second measure, clearly shows the beginning of beat 2.

notation of a rhythm without a tie, obscuring beat unit; then, the same rhythm with a tie, clarifying beat unit
Example 23. Ties and proper beaming help to clarify beats.
Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Time Signatures and Rhythms (.pdf)
  2. Terminology, Bar Lines, Fill-in-rhythms, Re-beaming (.pdf)
  3. Meters, Time Signatures, Re-beaming (website)
  4. Bar Lines, Time Signatures, Counting (.pdf)
  5. Time Signatures, Re-beaming, p. 4 (.pdf)
  6. Fill-in-rhythms (.pdf)
  7. Time Signatures (.pdf, .pdf)
  8. Bar Lines (.pdf.pdf.pdf)
  1. Notes, Rests, Bar Lines (.pdf, .docx)
  2. Re-beaming (.pdf, .musx)

Media Attributions

  • Measures and Bar Lines
  • Time Signature
  • Pickup Notes
  • Notes Without Beams
  • beaming-beat-unit
  • Stemming
  • Flag Direction
  • Multi-Measure Rest
  • ties-clarify-beat


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2021 by Chelsey Hamm; Kris Shaffer; and Mark Gotham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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