Prev The Theory Of Music Next

Rhythms & Metres


The study of rhythm in poetry predates that in music. However, since songs are poems set to music, there is an overlap of ideas. Metre is a term that covers both the underlying rhythm and the overlying structure.

The repeated rhythmic unit from which a poem is constructed is called a Foot. It is a pattern of long & short or accented & unaccented syllables. These correspond to strong & weak beats in a bar of music with one very important difference. In poetry, it matters where a rhythmic pattern begins and this is part of what the foot defines. In music, a measure rather than a bar is the closest equivalent to a foot. Senza Misura (= without measures) is the term for non-rhythmic music.

The following table borrows a dash and dot notation from morse code:

TrocheeTrochaic- . (strong + weak)
IambusIambic. - (weak + strong)
DactylDactylic- . . (1 strong + 2 weak)
AmphibrachAmphibrachic. - . (weak + strong + weak)
AnapaestAnapaestic. . - (2 weak + 1 strong)

In music, bar-lines now mark the position of strong beats and the starting position is largely irrelevant in defining its rhythm. So, in terms of bars, Trochaic = Iambic and Dactylic = Amphibrachic = Anapaestic. For time signatures, since a strong beat may mean a long one, Trochaic my be duple or triple time and Dactylic may be triple or quadruple. Also for a given rhythm, syllables or notes do not have to correspond exactly to the same beat pattern throughout. At times a strong beat may be extended over weak ones or a weak beat may be split in two etc.

The structural element of metre is the number of syllables in a line and the number of lines in a stanza (verse/chorus). Only a few metres are so common that they have distinct names:

Common / Ballad8 6. 8 6.
Short6 6. 8 6.
Long8 8. 8 8.
six-eights8 8 8. 8 8 8. or 8 8. 8 8. 8 8.


In music, a time signature is the main indication of rhythm. Only the top number matters, the bottom one is irrelevant for this. The basic rhythms are simple (without triplets) or compound (with triplets). However, beats can also be divided into duplets - the first of each duplet being more strongly accented. For example, 2/2 with split beats may sound a lot like 4/4. Such duplets may be of unequal duration (implying triplets, being dotted or even being double-dotted). In addition, pairs of bars may have different degrees of accent. For example, 2 bars of 3/8 may sound a lot like 1 bar of 6/8.

Simple2 (= -)3 (= - -)4 (> - = -)
Simple / 22 (=. -.)3 (=. -. -.)4 (>. -. =. -.)
Compound6 (=.. -..)9 (=.. -.. -..)12 (>.. -.. =.. -..)

The time signature gives the bar divisions but not the measure or foot. Just like poetry, music often begins with one or more lesser accented notes. This is particularly obvious in Baroque pieces because the repeat marks are not where bar-lines would be. So the beginnings and endings of sections are partial bars. In more modern music, repeats tend to be less exact and the continuation bar differs from the jump back bar. There may also be an introduction and coda that extend the main section into complete bars. This makes it slightly harder to detect the underlying measure.

with duplet or triplet semiquavers

Paso Doble in 2, 4 (=2+2) or 3
or with triplet semiquavers







Gigue / Jig

Hornpipe (3 or 4)






© Susan Foord ( 2010-06-24
Linkage: | Home | Music Index |