Identifying Both Rhythm and Meter

So far, we’ve addressed rhythmic cells as if you must know the meter type first, and then you relate the rhythmic cells to that. But sometimes, especially when listening, we notice rhythmic cells first, and because they are so strongly associated with a specific meter type, we figure out the meter from there. Cells particularly associated with certain meters include:

  1. Compound long-short (rhythm C3) with compound meter
  2. Dotted simple long-short (rhythms S5 and S6) with simple meter
  3. Even divisions of the beat with whatever meter is appropriate

Note that numbers 1 and 2 are both long-short patterns. To distinguish them, you will need to determine whether the ratio of the long note to the short note is the more lilting 2:1 (compound meter) or the more “snappy” 3:1 (simple meter). One helpful way to distinguish is to get up and skip along to the rhythm: it should be easy (depending on tempo) to skip along to a compound long-short, but difficult or impossible for a simple long-short.


Activity: From rhythm to meter

Goal: Determine an appropriate meter for a rhythm.

Before you start: This is a group activity.


  1. Each person privately comes up with a short (perhaps 3–8 beat) rhythm in simple or compound meter.
  2. Choose one person to perform their rhythm on neutral syllables while tapping or otherwise indicating the beat.
  3. The other members of the group repeat back the rhythm on a neutral syllable while also indicating the beat.
  4. These other members figure out the rhythm, either identifying the relevant rhythmic cells or repeating the rhythm back on appropriate syllables.
  5. Finally, the group discusses an appropriate meter for the excerpt, either by type/description (e.g., “compound duple”) or by time signature (e.g., “six-eight”).


Activity: Listening for meter

Goal: Develop sensitivity to rhythms associated with different meters

Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below, listening especially for rhythmic cells associated with specific meters. Use these clues to help you quickly identify a meter type (e.g., “simple triple”).


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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