# Choosing a Meter

The other fundamental component we need to work out before starting on the notation of our transcription is the meter. Here’s a quick review.

This procedure helps us locate these layers in the music. The answer we come up with will tell us the top number of the time signature we will use for our notation (see table below). Recall that sometimes what one person identifies as the beat, someone else may identify as the measure or division, and vice-versa. So disagreements about time signatures may not mean one person is right and the other is wrong (though this is possible); they may just indicate that you’re focusing on different layers.

 2 beats per measure 3 beats per measure 4 beats per measure 5 beats per measure simple 2 3 4 5 compound 6 9 12 15

What should you use for the bottom number of the time signature? Theoretically, you can use any power of 2, for example, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. By default, however, many people choose 4 as a bottom number when in simple meter, and 8 as a bottom number when in mixed or compound meter. The number you choose will determine whether you use the whole note (1), half note (2), quarter note (4), eighth note (8), sixteenth note (16), thirty-second note (32), etc. as a point of reference.

Note that the bottom number of the time signature is always a point of reference, but it means something different in simple meter and compound meter. The vast majority of the time…

• …in simple meter (top number usually 2, 3, or 4), the bottom number tells us what note value represents the beat.
• …in compound meter (top number usually 6, 9, or 12), the bottom number tells us what note value represents the beat division.

In our experience, compound meter is the one students find confusing. Many have been taught that the bottom number of the time signature always represents the beat. But in 12/8, for example, you are likely to see a conductor waving their hand every three eighth notes, or to find yourself tapping your foot or nodding your head every three eighth notes. This is an indication that those eighth notes are probably (with a few rare exceptions) not the beat, but the division. It may help to revisit the notation of compound rhythmic cells.

Activity: Choose an appropriate meter

Goal: Develop listening habits that prioritize context (key and meter).

Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below. For each, determine the meter type (e.g., “simple duple”), then choose an appropriate meter. We will continue working with these songs over the next few sections.

Suggest a song for this playlist!