56. Simple and Compound Meter

4/4 time is by far the most common of time signatures. In fact, it is also referred to as ‘common time’ which is an example of simple meter. Any measure where the beat can be subdivided by two is simple meter. There are 4 beats in such measures, and they are referred to as simple quadruple. ¾ time, where the beat can be subdivided by two and there are 3 notes to a measure, is called simple triple:




Any measure of simple meter will usually have 2, 3 or 4 as the top number, though 5/4, 6/4 and even 7/4 do exist. However,  I am only interested in conveying these terms to differentiate between simple and compound meter. Compound meter means each beat can be subdivided by 3. 6/8 is an example of compound meter. Below are examples of quarter and eighth note measures of simple meter, in this case ¾, and compound meter, in this case, 6/8. Note the fact that they are mathematically equal, yet not the same. Yet do they sound the same? Essentially yes. As with other time signatures and note values in general, the choice of what time signature to use depends largely on tempo. A slower or faster tempo will call for whichever time signature is most accessible for reading:






As you can see, these concepts can get complicated quickly. Simple and compound meter were invented to subdivide the beat in different ways, thus giving emphasis to different beats. However, within the same time signature, emphasizing different beats is called syncopation. It is simpler to explain, easier to grasp, and is used constantly is popular music. As a basic example, we could count a simple measure of quarter notes this way:


 instead of                        ONE-two THREE-four

 we could say                   one-TWO-three FOUR

 or…                                 one-two-THREE-four

‘One and ‘three’ are considered ‘strong’ beats, while two and four are called ‘weak’ beats. When emphasis is placed on weak beats, this is syncopation. Syncopation can also be created by using rests and/or notes of different length, yet all are designed to move the emphasis from strong beats to weaker ones. Eventually more complex syncopation can be learned. Some of it is much easier to play than to write in notation, but learning to read notation will give you the ability to get close enough to combine an approximation of these rhythms with imitation and other charts. See 40. Syncopation Defined to address this subject in more detail.

©2012 Jim Greenfield