Determining Meter and Key

The first step of dictation is, fortunately, exactly the same as for transcription: determining the context (meter and key)!

Of course, given the limited time and hearings, we do need to figure these out more quickly. Hopefully, based on our work with transcription, these processes are starting to become more intuitive and automatic. If not, it’s really important to focus here before you get too deep into dictation. If these aren’t determined correctly, the rest of the stages of dictation will not work.

If you’re having trouble figuring out meter and key, it’s important to focus your efforts on these skills. If resources allow, you may wish to work intensively with a tutor or instructor. If not, it may be appropriate to spend in-class dictations working primarily on these skills rather than trying to go through the full process of dictation, which is likely to be frustrating without these skills solidified.

The rest of the text here is simply taken from the similar section of the chapter on transcription.

Figure out the meter:

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; we’ll wait to worry about the bottom number until we get to notating rhythm). 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.

Guide to Determining the Top Number of the Time Signature
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

To determine the key:

This procedure helps us find tonic and collection in the music. If we have access to an instrument or absolute pitch, we can then figure out the note name of that tonic; otherwise, if we need to use full notation, we will either receive that information from an instructor or write in an arbitrary key.

One more step for now: we should also determine whether the key is major or minor (or, if this is a possibility given the music you’re working with, a mode). You may have an intuitive sense of this; if not, walk up through the scale, focusing on scale degree 3’s relationships to the notes immediately above and below.

Activity: Determine meter and key quickly

Goal: Establish the habit of starting with meter and key, and practice doing so quickly.

Instructions: Start a song from the playlist below. Once the first phrase has played, stop the recording and see if you can determine meter and key without playing it again. It may be helpful to have others available to check and discuss your answers with.


Suggest a song for this playlist!



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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