A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 5. Time Organization

The essential time organization of the Common Practice Period is based on a consistent and unchanging beat. These beats organize into 2, 3, or 4 essential pulses per measure, with the first beat always the strongest. Each beat can sub-divide into two parts (simple meters) or three parts (compound meters).

Chapter 1. Tonality
Chapter 2. Vocabulary
Chapter 3. Texture
Chapter 4. Sonorities

5.1 BEAT

Music of the Common Practice Period has a regular and recurring pulse, or beat. The first pulse of any measure, in any meter, has a special weight, or accent, and is always the strongest beat, called a METRIC ACCENT.

Beats tend to be organized in groups of 2, 3, or 4 per measure. Each pulse represents different degrees of strength, called DOWNBEATS (strong) and UPBEATS (weak).

Beat:2 pulses
per measure:
3 pulses
per measure:
4 pulses
per measure:
1 downbeat
(metric accent)
primary downbeat
(metric accent)
primary downbeat
(metric accent)
2upbeatweak downbeat
(sometimes an upbeat)
3.upbeat (sometimes a
weak downbeat)
secondary downbeat
4..weaker upbeat


Beats can be divided in two basic ways: in twos (which is called the SIMPLE subdivision) or threes (which is called the COMPOUND subdivision).


Beats and subdivisions are reflected in METER SIGNATURES at the beginning of pieces. With simple meters, the signature states how many beats occur in a measure (the top number) and what note value is the beat (the bottom number).

A description of a meter states how many beats (e.g., duple, triple, quadruple) and how that beat is subdivided (simple or compound).

Compound meters are somewhat more problematic. Beats that are divided into three parts cannot be represented by single notes; they must have a dot attached to them:

Since there is no way to represent a dotted note with a number, compound meters must show the number of subdivisions rather than the number of beats. However, they are still ultimately defined by the number of beats. Compound meters always have a multiple of three as the top number, and the number of beats per measure is determined by dividing that number by three (6 divided by 3 = 2 beats per measure).

The notation of the note that is the beat can be determined two ways:

  1. Add the bottom number (note length) three times and determine its value (3 eighth notes = a dotted quarter note)
  2. Divide the bottom number by two and add a dot (8 divided by 2 = 4 + dot = a dotted quarter note)

Some composers in the 20th century made attempts to present compound meters in a clearer manner, but this technique has not become standard practice:

Learn more about meter signatures


There are several types of stresses other than metric accents.

  1. Dynamic accents:

    Notes that receive a louder dynamic than surrounding notes.

  2. Agogic accents:

    Notes that are longer than surrounding notes; generally, these longer notes align with the beat. When the longer notes consistently do not align with downbeats, SYNCOPATION is created.

  3. Tonic accents:

    Notes that are significantly higher than surrounding notes. They are especially noticeable when they are the result of a leap.


Prior to the Common Practice Period there were six basic time signatures, which identified beats and subdivision. These symbols are the source of modern time organization and indicate three different things (here greatly simplified):

  1. The number of beats to be felt, represented by a circle (perfectum: three) or half-circle (imperfectum: two or four)
  2. The manner in which the beat is subdivided, represented by a dot (perfecta: three parts) or no dot (imperfecta: two or four parts)
  3. The proportional speed of the beat, represented by a vertical line through the circle (three times as fast), or a vertical line through the half-circle (twice as fast).

perfectum perfectatriple compounde.g., 9/8
imperfectum perfectaduple or quadruple compounde.g., 6/8 or 12/8
perfectum imperfectatriple simplee.g., 3/4
imperfectum imperfectaduple or quadruple simplee.g., 2/4 or 4/4
perfectum imperfecta3 times as faste.g., 9/4
imperfectum imperfecta 2 times as faste.g., 2/2

Two of these the (the pair of imperfectum imperfecta) are still recognizable as the modern symbols for COMMON TIME and CUT TIME (more properly called ALLA BREVE).

Although it is generally considered that common time is equal to quadruple simple meter and that alla breve is equal to duple simple meter, this is not completely true. Consequently, when mixing meters, these special symbols should never be used; use only numerical signatures.


The information above about meters is evident at moderate tempos. However, increases and decreases in speed affect the perception of meter and beat. At fast tempos, the normal beat structure begins to disappear and combines to larger units. For instance, triple simple meter in a minuet is clearly three beats, but the same meter in a waltz sounds as if there were only one beat in a measure (the old downbeat).

Likewise, at slow tempos, the sense of beat begins to enlarge and can be heard in the subdivision. For instance, duple compound can be perceived with six pulses at increasingly slow speeds.

Regardless of the effects of tempo, the primary beat structure remains in describing the meter.


Continue to drill past material at Ricci Adams' music

Meter Drills


Below are three practice tests which are similar to next week's exam; each is roughly half the size of that exam.

Take each test seriously:

  1. Do it alone; let your classmates do it by themselves
  2. Turn off your television, iPod, and phone
  3. Allow yourself no more than 25 minutes for each practice test
  4. Write your answers down (do not just store them in your head)
  5. Assign yourself a grade according to the grading scale

Good luck!

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 1. Tonality
Chapter 2. Vocabulary
Chapter 3. Texture
Chapter 4. Sonorities


Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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