I think most people who read this blog already know what tempo is. When asked, “What is tempo?” our short answer is usually something like “Tempo is how fast a piece of music goes.” The longer answer might describe the use of beats or musical pulses by which we judge how fast or slow a song is supposed to go.
Unfortunately, many students have difficulty growing beyond just recognizing the beat. There is no music that exists rhythmically only on the beat level. In order to feel the music properly, the musician must also be very much aware of the music’s meter.
So what then is meter?
Here is my answer, which is a little more detailed than what you will find in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Meter is a repeated pattern of accented beats, unaccented beats, and their subdivisions. Meter is what determines which beats in the measure should be stronger (louder) than the others. Meter also determines how many times the beat is divided into subdivisions.
Without a well developed feel for these accents and subdivisions, the music you perform will sound mechanical and lifeless. It is not good enough just to look at the time signature (which is a visual representation of meter) because sometimes the meter is not clearly recognizable that way. For example, most Latin musics conform to a rhythmic concept called the clave, which is a different meter from more common western musics. And yet, that music is most commonly written in common time or cut time. The only way to play Latin music correctly is to feel it….to feel the strong beats and the subdivisions.
The same is also true for jazz. Jazz is most typically written in common time or cut time, but the accents are completely opposite of most classical music. In classical music, in a common time, the accents are usually on beats one and three and the subdivision is two. But jazz has accents on the second and fourth beats with the subdivision being somewhere between three and five, depending on the style.
If you find this all a bit confusing, don’t sweat it. You don’t have to really understand all of it to be able to play with the right meter. The way one performs the meter correctly is simply by listening to other accomplished musicians. That feel can be communicated subconsciously without you ever having to analyze any of it. I grew up listening to my father’s big band LPs. I had such a firmly established feel for that music when I was younger that it was difficult for me to turn it off. How did I turn it off eventually? Well, it wasn’t through analyzing the strong beats. No, I simply began listening to other music.
Why then would I be writing about this?
Well, because even though it’s not important for casual musicians to analyze the meter of the music they are playing, it is very important for them to understand that the beat, by itself, is not where the music’s feel comes from. In funk bands and other rock oriented bands, you can replace the word “meter” with “groove”. It’s the same thing. And all the rock guys know that it’s not good enough just to play the beat. The music has to have the right “feel”, the right groove, and it’s the same with every other kind of music. We just use different words to describe it in different styles of music.