Music Theory: Meter and Rhythm – A Universal Explanation for Musicians, Producers and Composers | Tobias W. | Skillshare

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Music Theory: Meter and Rhythm – A Universal Explanation for Musicians, Producers and Composers

teacher avatar Tobias W., Music Theorist | Producer | Composer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

10 Lessons (37m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Meter – Projection and Entrainment

    • 3. Meter – Pulse and Beats

    • 4. Meter – Structuring of Beats

    • 5. What is Meter?

    • 6. Rhythm – The Counterpart to Meter

    • 7. Rhythm – The Emergence of Durations

    • 8. What is Rhythm?

    • 9. Meter and Rhythm

    • 10. Final Thoughts

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About This Class

In this class I want to show you how meter and rhythm in music emerge from our cognitive processing of sounds. Because this holds for all humans, this explanation of meter and rhythm is as universal as you can get. It is also based on psychological experiments that have been carried out over the last decades. 

Knowing the cognitive processing of sounds is of great usefulness when you are making music because it let's more consciously predict how your music will be heard by the listener, what effect it will have in the temporal realm. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Tobias W.

Music Theorist | Producer | Composer


Prize-winning music theorist. Works also as a music producer. Currently writing his PhD in rhythm analysis. 



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1. Introduction: Hello everyone. I'm Tobias Werner, I'm a musicologists, music theorist, composer, producer, and I'm currently writing my PhD about rhythm analysis. So in this video, I wanted to share with you my latest and very much universal insights about how we as humans process and experience meter and rhythm and what they therefore actually are. I think this class is great for everyone who is involved with music in any way be playing music or producing music or composing music. Or if you're just a listener. For those of you who make music, I think it's not only very interesting to know about how we experience meter and rhythm, but it's also of great practical usefulness. In the first lesson, I want to clarify what is meter and then what is rhythm. We're going to have a look at the connection between meter and wear them. And then some final thoughts to round it off. I will start my explanations from the very basics. So this is for experts and beginners alike. Now let's dive right into it. 2. Meter – Projection and Entrainment: What is the meter? I will start with some explanations and work my way towards a definition at the end of this lesson. Now the first thing I want to say right away is that the time signature that we have for music like 44 time? It represents the meter, but it is not the meter. The meter is not a written out time signature. The meter is a psychological phenomenon and how it happens in our head. We take a look at that. Now. Let's first talk about projection and entrainment. Visa, the two phenomena that lets you feel the pulse oximeter. Before I explain more about these terms, let's listen to a piece of music and see if you can feel a steady pulse that you can move your body too, like nod your head too. Let's have a listen. So as you've heard, there were no drums and relatively few notes. But I'm sure you still were able to feel a pulse. Now, how is that possible? Here is how it would look in notation or in the key editor off your doll, in this case Cubase. But actually, this is not so important because this is not what we see when we hear the music. Instead what we are hearing, our sounds that occur at specific points in time. So I wanted to illustrate this in an abstract way with green dots. Some are bigger than the others. Why? Because the longer notes with the bigger dots, they are usually at more important points in time. This is a convention that evolved over centuries in European music and we are very used to this. Now from these points in time, how do we extract steady pulse? Here? Our cognition jumps in and does some processing for us. So we notice that between the first long note and the second long note, there is a specific duration. We do not measure it exactly in seconds or milliseconds, but we have a pretty good feel about how long it is. And this duration, we immediately project subconsciously into the future. And then we expect at the end of this duration, another important event. And actually there will be another long note. So when we have done this, we have already three important or significant points in time. The first long note, the second lung node, and the third long known that we project into the future. We anticipate to be there. Now we also notice that between the second and the third red dot, there is a sound event exactly in the middle of the two. So we notice that the duration we projected into the future is split in half. And what our cognition does is it easily splits this duration in half again. So we have the quarter of the initial duration. And now you can see that we have three red dots that have an equal duration between them. And this is the beginning of the feeling of a steady pulse. From this events, we can now abstract three beats of the pulse, and these also have the same duration between them. And this duration, again, we can project into the future to anticipate the next beat. And we can feel the speed, although it is not actually audible in the music, there is no new sound event at this point in time, but we still feel a bit there. And when we now have this four beats of the paths, it's easy for our body to get entrained to it. Meaning we feel the pulse and we can move our body in synchrony with it. This is called entrainment. And from that onwards, we do not need to do projections over and over again because we have the pulse in our body, we can feel it going on even if the music will stop now, we would still be able to feel the pulse for some time or even very long if we concentrate on it. So it just goes on and on and on now. So the feeling for the pulse evolves in this first two bars. And the first one, we're still unsure where the beats are. But in this area, I think suddenly are able to feel upbeat because this cognitive processing goes extremely quickly and subconsciously and we do not really notice it. It just happens. We can also not stop it. It will just happen. And due to this, we get a good feeling for the pulse around this area. So let's have a listen again to the piece and pay attention to this first part. How you are probably quite unsure of the pulse here, but how it emerges in this section. Did you feel it? Now? How easy it is for us to project a duration into the future. You can easily test with a friend, meet a friend and you knock on the Table 2 times, he will easily be able to knock on the table a third time exactly after the first duration has passed. And we can make this experiment right now actually. So I recorded two knocks on the table. I will play it and you can knock on the table when you think the third knock should occur. Let's do it easy, right? And you know the point in time of the third knock, without doing anything consciously, it just happens. And this is something that is almost exclusively done by humans. We can anticipate when the third knock should be. We move our muscles and our hand early enough so that we're not on the table at the right point in time. And if you want to see how entrainment physically works, you can search on YouTube for entrainment metronome or synchronization metronome. And you will see how metronomes that have a different tempo almost magically suddenly synchronize their temper with each other. And this is said to be the same thing that happens with our body. And the pulse of the music. 3. Meter – Pulse and Beats: Now let's have a closer look at pulse and beats. A pulse as a chain of beats with equal duration. And if the pulse is the one that you entrain to, we call it the metrical or main pulse. The important thing is that it has an equal duration because that allows us to anticipate the next beat. And I want to note again here that this metrical paths must not necessarily be audible and the music, because it's a psychological thing, we feel it. So even if the music stops and has a POS for five seconds, we are still able to maintain the pulse. And such a pass in an abstract way could look like this. And then every single dot here would be a beat. And you see, we have an equal duration between those beads. Now if a beat, as I said, must not be necessarily be audible in the music, what exactly is it then? Because it's not a sound, it's not a node. It's just something that's in our brain. And the reason why we feel that at some point in time, there is a beat followed by another bead is because of projection. So because of what has happened before, we can project into the future and anticipate that there will be a beat. And this anticipation has the form of paying attention. So beads are points in time that we put our focus on. And I also want to note here that the beach that the DJ-1 sue to move to actually at the pulse. But in pop music, beat is identical to pass rather than just one beat of the pulse. 4. Meter – Structuring of Beats: One aspect of meter is also the structuring of beads. You probably have heard of a downbeat, a back beat, or strong bead or a weak beat. Now how does this happen? How do we structure beats? Two mechanisms are at work here. One is grouping and division, and the other one is subjective randomization, or the so-called Tiktok effect. So let's look again at our metrical pulse. How can we group or divide the durations here by duration amine from this bit to this bead. That's one duration. How do we group or divide these? And most, at least European music. There are only two ways of grouping and division, and these are either by two by three. So Group 1 plus 1 or divide one into two. Or we Group 1 plus 1 plus 1 or derived 123. And the most common grouping and division is the one by two. So this metrical pulse, for example, we could divide by 2. So each duration would be cut directly into the middle and there's another smaller bead. Or we could group two beats of the metrical paths together. So we get, metaphorically speaking, larger beads that have the double duration of one beat of the metrical pulse. And these larger beads, we can group again and we get another pass level with even longer durations. Now the second thing that Tiktok effect, It's called Tiktok effect because of the ticking of a clock. So when you hear a clock, you don't hear tick, tick, tick, tick. You don't hear this, although it actually always sounds the same. But what do you hear is tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. So our brain structures, they're identical sounds into two, sound a and sound be. It automatically applies a structure to the sound. And this Tiktok effect also happens to the pulse of the meter. So the first and the most important Tiktok, so to say, is that of the longest beat. So off the top row, and I've written the tick in a bold font because it's the more important one. So if Tiktok is a group of two, the beginning of the group is more important for us then the end of the group. Because it's more important for us to know when something is beginning rather than ending. And this illustration probably already reminds you of bars. And let's have a look how this goes. So this illustration is an abstract image of the notation. The notation, it would look like this. So the largest dots here are the whole notes. The second largest are the half nodes. Then we have the metrical beat, the quarter notes, and then the smallest ones, the eighth nodes. So the illustration we see up here would be the first part here. And then at every hole node we can insert the bar lines. And it looks like this. So what I wanted to show you in the last minutes was how we get from the purely psychological phenomenon of projection, entrainment and structuring to the notation that we know. Now we have structured the beads. We have stronger beats and weak beats due to the Tiktok effect and due to grouping. And we know why we feel the meter and y, we can move our body to a meter. And let's finally have a look at some terms concerning the meter. First of all, this is the pulse or beat of the meter, the quarter notes. It's usually the quarter notes because a notation, they represent the most comfortable tempo for us to entrain to. It could also be the half nodes, but they're usually too slow. And if you speed up the tempo so that the half nodes have a comfortable tempo to move our body to. We actually would then just divide the tempo by two again and write quarter notes instead of half nodes. So the notation pretty much reflects also how we train and experience and the meter. Now in traditional terms, we talk about strength of beads. But remember that strength has nothing to do with loudness, for example, It's about focus. So let's say that first bead has the strongest focus and the third one, the second strongest focus. And the second fourth 1, a relatively weak focus. And in pop music terms, we have the downbeat, we have the backbeat. And the fourth one would be also the upbeat. The third one, it just doesn't have a term. And these eighth notes here that are not on the beat of a meter, they are therefore offbeat. 5. What is Meter?: Now what then is the meter? Here's my definition. The meter is the felt and not necessarily audible pulse or beat of a piece of music that we abstract from the article music via projection that is the most comfortable for us to entrain to. And that we structure in terms of amount and strength of beads. This structuring happens through grouping and division. And the most common way to group beads and pop music is to group them into a group of four beats. And within this group, we give different strengths to the beads. So the meter consists of three elements. There is abstraction, through projection. There is the entrainment to the paths or the beat. And there is the structuring in terms of amount and strength. And this happens through grouping, division, and Tiktok effect. The other word is subjective, reorganization. All right, and that's it so far concerning the meter. See you in the next lesson where we talk about rhythm. 6. Rhythm – The Counterpart to Meter: Hello everyone and welcome to this lesson about what is rhythm. Rhythm is often seen as the counterpart to meter, while meter here we have the metrical pulse consists of equal durations, a rhythm, therefore, like this one, as unequal durations. But it's not important. Which notes these are is just important. He's a longer one, shorter one, a middle, and an even very short one. And this will sound like this. So that was just me knocking on the table. Now this britain would hang loosely in space if we wouldn't have a meter. The meter tells us how to interpret the rhythm. So without the meter year, we would not know if this node is on a weak beat. It could also be on a strong beat, or maybe this node could be on a strong beat. But the meter tells us that here is the beginning and this is strong. And this is a weak beat. And this is again a strong beat. So the meter makes the temporal interpretation of rhythm possible. Without the meter, this Knox would be just random sounds in space. Now the question is, where do these durations that built the rhythm? Where do they come from a music when we listen to music, where are these durations? 7. Rhythm – The Emergence of Durations: So first of all, I'm going to tell you that traditional view on this. Now this is the rhythm we just had. And it stems from this melody from Mozart's Sonata. It's the very beginning of the sonata, and it sounds like this played by a midi piano. Now what is usually done is the rhythm of the beginning of the sounds is seen as the rhythm. So here we have the rhythm of the sound. We have the half note, two quarter notes, a dotted quarter to a 16 and a quarter. That will be the traditional view. But now consider this. Let me just alter this melody a little bit so we get this melody. This melody as the same rhythm of sound as Mozart's original melody. But it feels very different, doesn't it? Let's compare them. Now you can hear that the alternative melody sounds less vivid. You can say, of course it's a different melody and therefore it feels different. But the rhythm of both is the same. Still, it's less vivid. Why is that? So as you can see, what has been altered is the pitch. So let's have a look at the rhythm of the pitch and the upper melody. The rhythm of a pitch looks like this. And coincidentally, it's actually identical to the rhythm of the sound. Because with every note we have a different pitch. So these are exactly the same. But in the lower melody, the rhythm of the pitch looks like this. You can see it's way more static, much less is happening here. The pitch changes exactly every half node. And this is the reason why the lower melody feels less vivid, although the node values are exactly the same. Now to make this even clearer, let me give you another example. Let's have a look at the accompaniment of the melody, the base, so to say. Although it's quite high for a base. So this is the original accompaniment of the melody. Let's have a listen. Now the rhythm of the sound looks like this. Fairly simple. It's only eighth notes. Let's compare this to another melody that also only consists of eight nodes. And this is not to be an alternative accompaniment. It's just an example of another melody that only consists of eighth notes. Let's have a listen. As you can see and as you can clearly hear the sound very differently. Although the rhythm of the sound is the same. Now of course, it's a completely different melody, but also the rhythmic feel is different. Why is that? So now let's have a look at the upper contour nodes of Mozart's accompaniment. These are the nodes that's the high turning points. So if you would draw lines from node to node, you would have the contour of the melody. And what stands out here, the upper contour nodes is always g on the offbeat throughout the two bars. If we notate this, it looks like this, and it sounds like this. And I added the sound of a metronome so you get a better feeling of the rhythm. Now let's compare this to the rhythm of the upper contour nodes of the alternative melody. This would be these nodes. And the rhythm looks like this. It's actually a three against four rhythm. It's always dotted quarter notes. And now let's have a listen how this sounds. Compare it to this one. And again this. So what I want to show you here is that although the rhythm of the sound is the same in both, the rhythm of another parameter. In this case, the upper contour nodes is very different and it generates a different rhythmic feel of the melodies. Now and now I want you to try to hear this rhythm in the melody. So let's have a listen to this 1 first. And now let's try to pay attention to this snare rhythm, the melody. It would be in these notes. Can you hear the three against four rhythm that's played again? And now compare it to this one. Pay attention to the offbeat rhythm of the G. Now these are exactly the subtle nuances that make all the difference in music. Said that this rhythm down here is the rhythm of the upper contour notes. But as you can also see, we get groups of nodes here. We always have three nodes that constitute a downward line. So what happens is that we cognitively put these three nodes together, two groups. We are grouping the nodes. And then the upper contour nodes are actually the beginning of such groups. So the question is, what we are paying attention to here? Is it the rhythm of the upper contour nodes? Is it actually the rhythm of the beginning of these groups? And unfortunately, this has not been found out up to date. So I cannot give you a precise answer here, but I can say it's not that important. The important thing is that you are able to hear this subtler rhythm in this melody. And if this rhythm stems from the upper contour nodes, or because some grouping happens, is that important? That's just a theoretical consideration. The important thing is that you can hear it. And as you have also seen by now, it seems obvious, but I want to say it. We measure durations from beginning to beginning. So these connected eighth notes, or you can say this quarter notes, they are measured from the beginning of this eighth note to the beginning of this eighth note. So not from here to here, but from here to here. And this dotted quarters and measured from the beginning of the group to the beginning of the next group. So it's always from the beginning to the next beginning. 8. What is Rhythm?: What then is rhythm? Here's the very basic definition I can give you that applies to, I think, all music. Rhythm as the succession of durations between phenomenally present or cognitively generated beginnings. With phenomenally present, I mean, for example, the beginning of a sound. The sound is actually there. And when it's actually there, we call it a phenomenon. So at phenomenally present and with cognitively generated, I mean, for example, at the beginning of a group. Because if we have a string of eighth notes, the example before, there is no phenomenally present beginning of a group. It's just our cognition that recognizes that there is a beginning. So we also have to consider these cognitively generated beginnings when we talk about rhythm. And as I have said, not all questions have been answered yet by science. So open questions are, for example, what parameters and music can make us cognitively experience rhythm? So, is it just pitch or is it may be also different articulations? Or is it the phrasing of the music? Is it may be loudness. Is it the Tambora of an instrument or generally of a sound? So this is an open question, and another one is, how exactly does the grouping of sounds work? So when do we see a string of nodes as one group? And this is of major importance actually because as you've seen, we experienced rhythm from the beginning of a group to the beginning of another group. And thirdly, are all those subtle rhythms equally important for the experience of the rhythm as a whole. So as you have seen, just one simple melody can have at least two rhythms. Maybe more, the rhythm of the sound, the rhythm of the pitch, the rhythm of the upper contour note the rhythm of groups. And they are actually there, but are they all equally important? Now, although I would like to give you an answer to these questions, I can again say that these are mostly theoretical problems. Because now that you know what to look out for when listening, I think that you will intuitively here what's important? You will hear the subtler rhythms by yourself because they are very contextual. You cannot say that in each piece, It's important to listen for the rhythm of the pitch. It's not. In some it is, and others as just not important. And others may be. It's important to listen to the rhythm of the groups. And I can tell you that you can do this intuitively because it has been done since centuries. Because this is what musicians and most of all composers, intuitively know when they make music. When you compose music, you need to be aware of the effect the music has. And when you analyze music from nowadays or from 200 years ago, you will see that the composers, We're aware of the subtle rhythms, for example, between groups. And you as a listener, you are aware too. But probably most of the listeners only subconsciously. But now you can hear them consciously. So in the next and last lesson, I want to take a final look at the connection between rhythm and meter. 9. Meter and Rhythm: Hello everyone to this last lesson about meter and rhythm. Here I briefly want to talk about the connection of the two. So as I have said earlier, the meter makes the temporal interpretation of rhythm possible. The other way round the rhythm makes us abstract the meter of the music. So when we listen to music, we don't hear this. We don't hear a half note or quarter notes. We don't hear a 44 time. We don't see the violin key. We don't have the bar lines. Instead. We just hear something like this. We hear sounds at some points in time. And first of all, they are just anywhere. We have no structure of them. But then our cognition notices that, for example, the lower contour pivot is at exactly these points in time. And that long sounds occur at also these points in time. And I'm not saying that in every piece this is the same. That it's important where the lower contour pivot is or where the lung sounds are. It can be other parameters, but it's always some parameters that our brain opt for. This is very contextual, and that's also what makes it so difficult to grasp it. Theoretically, it's very complex, it's very situational and contextual. But when you listen to a piece of music, something like this is happening in your cognition. And when you have this illustration here, you see that it's not far away from the meter of the 44 time. Actually you see the rhythm of the music, the subtle rhythms combined together. They form the meter of the 44 time. And this is of course not a coincidence. The composers knew exactly that this would happen. That's why they compose the music in this way. Because if they would do it differently, it would be very difficult for the audience, or maybe impossible for the audience to extract a meter. So this is how you get from the rhythm of the music to the meter of the music. Again, it's very contextual, but when we listen to music, something like this is always happening. And now you know how it basically works. 10. Final Thoughts: Hello everyone to this final lesson. First of all, I want to show you my sources. So when you are more interested in meter and rhythm, these are three books I really can recommend. Now I hope I got you a little bit excited about the topic, meter and rhythm. And I'm sure that you will benefit from the knowledge you gain from this class in the future when you're making music, because you can hear subtle differences that make all the difference much more consciously. If you have any questions about this or also if you want me to explain other connected topics in future classes, please feel free to write that in the comments, and I will see if I can do that. And you can also write in the comments how you were able to apply what we did in this class to your music. I will be very excited to hear how it helped you. So that's it for this class. I will do more. So feel free to follow me to get informed about new classes. I wish you all the best and join music. It's a wonderful thing. Thank you so much for watching. Please don't forget to write in the comments and see you next time.