Unit 2: The Elements of Time in Music


Sing or listen to the folk tune “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” While you sing, clap steadily along with the music. You’ll most likely clap one of the two following patterns (with claps shown by vertical lines):


What you’ve been finding is a regularly recurring feeling of stress in the music. This is called the PULSE. Note that the pulse can occur at different levels in one piece of music, like the two levels shown above. Both are correct. Also note that the pulse occurs at a point in time—it has no duration or length.

Primary & Secondary Pulses; Meter


In order to feel the relationship between these two levels of pulse, do this: Sing or listen to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and tap the a-level pulse with your right hand while tapping the b-level pulse with your left. You’ll notice that each of the b-level pulses occurs on every other pulse in the a-level. In those places where the pulses coincide we feel more stress than on the individual pulses between them. One of these stronger points of stress is called a PRIMARY PULSE.

One of the weaker points of stress between the primary pulses is called a SECONDARY PULSE.

Let’s rewrite the pulses with the primary pulses larger than the secondary pulses:


When music exhibits patterns of primary and secondary pulses, the music is said
to have METER.

Beat & Measure

  • Since the duration between successive pulses are constant, we may use them as units of measurement. The duration between two successive pulses is, in this case, called one BEAT.
  • In thinking of the differences between pulses and beats, remember: pulses have no duration, but beats do.
  • The duration between successive primary pulses is also an important unit of measurement. It is called one MEASURE.
  • The first beat in each measure is called a DOWNBEAT. The last beat of a measure is called the UPBEAT.

Duple Meter

We can see and hear that in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the pulses are grouped in pairs; each primary pulse is followed by one secondary pulse. This means that there are two beats in each measure. This condition is called DUPLE meter.


Thus far, we’ve only discussed the pulse and how it can be organized into patterns. However, music involves notes of various durations which occur against the steady background of the pulse. The word that describes the durations of notes is RHYTHM.

Lets figure out the rhythms to the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If you tap the pulse and sing it or listen to it, you’ll notice that each of the first six syllables (through “lit-tle”) is one beat long. The following syllable, “star,” lasts twice as long as the others—two beats.

We can continue this process and write out the rhythms for the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by drawing one horizontal line for each note:


Note that, in the drawing, the horizontal rhythm lines begin and end just short of the vertical pulse lines. This does not in any way indicate that these notes are somehow shorter than one or two full beats; it is done simply for sake of clarity (otherwise, they all would seem to run together into one single long horizontal line).

Notice the use of the double vertical lines—known as a double bar—at the end. This is simply a convenient way to show when the music stops.

Triple Meter

In duple meter, there are two beats per measure. There is also TRIPLE meter, in which the pulses are grouped in threes: each primary pulse is followed by two secondary pulses.

As an example, consider the folk tune “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Here is the beginning of that tune, shown with two adjacent levels of pulse—a fast one (a) surmounted by the next broader level (b):


Notice how the a-level pulse groups into threes to form the b-level pulse.

As in duple meter, the places where the two pulses coincide are primary pulses and all the others secondary. Here are all the pulses written with large and small vertical lines indicating primary and secondary pulses respectively, and the rhythms shown using horizontal lines:2.5

Quadruple Meter

If we return to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and search beyond the two pulse levels we found, we can perceive an even broader level:2.6.png

Note how the b level groups in twos into the c level (just as the a level did into the b level). This means that there are two duple relationships between adjacent levels of pulse in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”: from a to b and from b to c. This also means that the a level groups into the c level in fours. If we continue to consider the beat to be the durations between pulses at the a level, but consider the measure to be the durations between pulses at the c level, then there will be four beats per measure. We call this condition QUADRUPLE METER.

This means that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” exhibits characteristics of both duple meter and quadruple meter. Indeed, all music that exhibits characteristics of quadruple also exhibits characteristics of duple meter. And much (but not all) music that exhibits characteristics of duple meter also exhibits characteristics of quadruple meter.

In this class, we’ll count out music by assigning numbers to what we’ll call the “big beats” and then use words like “and” to designate divisions of those beats.

Consider “Twinkle Twinkle”

If we were going to count out just the broader duple relationship, we would counting use the numbers 1 and 2, because these are two beats on the b level to every one beat in b. To show that level a further divides each level of b into duple groups, we use the word “and” to fill in the pulse between the numbers, like so:


Notice that we are showing three hierarchical levels when we use these different kinds of words to count: each pulse of c gets a “one,” each pulse of b gets a number, and each pulse of a uses an “and.”

Counting Rhythms

Notice, however, that not all the metrical pulses host a new note in “Twinkle Twinkle.” As shown by the lines, when we sing the tune, we hold over the words “star” and “are”: nothing new happens on these beats.2.91.png

When we sing this rhythm, then, we will leave off the word that would occur on that pulse, and just hold over the previous word. In this case, we would leave off two “and”s, and hold out both “Two”s.



Triple Meter

Recall that “Pop Goes the Weasel” is in triple meter.

If we were to count out the meter, we would now use “One,” “Two,” and “Three.”

If we were to count out the meter, we would leave out the numbers where we don’t sing a new note

A Quick Demonstration: Determining Meter

The following video explains how you determine the main pulse layer. It’s all a matter of how you move! It will be helpful to listen to Sousa’s Liberty Bell March before you watch this video. It will also be helpful to know that a third pulse level exists for “Twinkle Twinkle (see Level 1 in video)”. That’s the pulse level where you would sing faster in the Alphabet Song, specifically at: “L M N O!”