Beats often feel like they group into longer cycles that repeat. In non-isochronous/mixed-meter songs, these cycles are often defined by a repeating pattern of longer and shorter beats. In songs with beats that are all roughly the same length, these cycles are often defined by repeating accompaniment patterns (including in the drums, if present), longer notes in the melody or bass, stressed syllables of text, and particularly chord changes. These cycles of beats are typically called “measures.”
Most often, we will find measures that are 2, 3, or 4 beats long, though other lengths, like 5 beats, are possible. 2-beat measures are called duple, 3-beat measures triple, and 4-beat measures quadruple.
Duple and quadruple measures are closely related. A 4-beat measure can often be heard as two 2-beat measures and any even number of 2-beat measures can typically be heard as half as many 4-beat measures. Some instructors and musicians will want to differentiate these, but for the most part we will not do so in this text: for example, in the activity below, we refer to duple and quadruple measures as a single category.
Nevertheless, within European-American popular music, there is often an expectation that the default meter is “four-four,” a quadruple meter. There’s typically no reason the same music couldn’t be described as a different quadruple meter or duple meter, but because of this cultural expectation, if we can say a piece of popular music is “in four-four,” we usually will. There’s also a specific drum pattern associated with that popular-music meter. While it is often varied, the most common elements are a bass/kick drum hit on or around beats 1 and 3, snare drum on beats 2 and 4 (the “backbeat“), and closed hi-hat cymbals on every eighth note. This is demonstrated in drum set notation and audio below. When we hear this pattern, musicians will typically describe the snare as “on beats 2 and 4” of a quadruple meter.
One more note about this pattern: particularly if you’re listening on a laptop or phone without the ability to bring out the bass, the snare “backbeat” on beats 2 and 4 may sound like the loudest part of this pattern. In addition, many (though not all) culturally-aware people often clap along with such music on beats 2 and 4, along with this snare. As a result, students are sometimes misled into thinking that one of these is the downbeat. But remember, downbeats are associated with chord changes, stressed syllables of text, bass drums, and other very low notes, while snares and claps are associated with beats 2 and 4.
If finding measure lengths and beginnings is difficult, it may help to think through the factors that contribute to the perception of measures. These include chord changes, accompaniment rhythmic patterns (such as guitar strumming patterns or piano left-hand patterns, in addition to the backbeat described above), repeating rhythmic patterns, and bass (low) notes.
Goal: Identify measures as either duple/quadruple (2 or 4 beats long) or triple (3 beats long). (Again, the decision to write or describe something as a measure of 2 vs. a measure of 4 is a personal decision and in some cases incorporates cultural factors, such as the use of “four-four” meter as a “default” in much popular music.)
- Listen to an excerpt from the playlist below.
- Find the beat. You are strongly encouraged to use physical motions such as tapping your foot, waving your arm, or nodding.
- Use your intuition to find the beginnings of measures. The factors that contribute to the sense of a measure beginning include chord changes, accompaniment patterns, repeating rhythmic patterns, and bass notes.
Goal: Identify metric conventions in sounding music.
Instructions: The playlist below features a variety of popular music. As you listen, listen to how each song draws on the standard rock beat pictured above, and particularly the backbeat snare/claps on beats 2 and 4. Use this pattern to help you identify beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 of a quadruple meter.