Source: The Complete Classical Music Guide (2012). General Editor: John Burrows OBE HonRCM, edited with Charles Wiffen MMus DMus RCM. pp. 14-16.

Many human activities, such as running, walking, or dancing, produce distinctive rhythms, which are often reproduced in music. Rhythm involves not only the positioning or spacing of notes in time, but also their duration, and both of these can be notated in Western music (see p.15).

The pulse (commonly known as the “beat”) is a regular unit of time around which the rhythm of a piece is organized. In a march, this would be the position in time of each footstep. The composer decides whether the pulse should be a half or a quarter, or any other note value. The speed of the pulse is the “tempo” of the work. Most composers have used Italian terms (see p.14) to indicate tempo.

The meter corresponds to the grouping of the pulse. Much Classical music is grouped in twos or threes. Each group is known as a “measure” or “bar” and in notation is separated by a “barline." The meter is indicated by a “time signature,” such as 3/4. The top number shows the number of beats in the measure, while the lower number shows the value assigned to each beat.

Please see the titled question, as the overhead doesn't distinguish meter vs. rhythm.

I deliberately chose this book's definitions; I'm trying to compare definitions across introductory books for laypeople.

  • 2
    If does distinguish meter and rhythm, if you read it carefully. The pulse is a regular unit of time. The meter corresponds to grouping of the regular pulse. Rhythm is not necessarily "regular". The duration of notes may be for several pulses, or fractions of one pulse, or (for example) two consecutive notes with durations 1.5 pulses and 0.5 pulses, etc.
    – alephzero
    Aug 16, 2018 at 3:27
  • This is a Music Practice & Theory question, not a Music Fans one. (Downvoted ans voted to close.)
    – user7708
    Jan 30, 2020 at 6:33

3 Answers 3


Rhythm is simply a description of the position in time of and the duration of a note or group of notes (or silence if a rest). So quarter, quarter, half could be one rhythm, and half, quarter, quarter could be another.

Meter is a hierarchy of the pulses in music which gives a lot of information about the piece like what beats are accented and how subdivisions of beats are grouped.

They are very different. A good way to think of this is by thinking of poetry. There is meter and rhythm in poetry the same way as music, but for the rhythm we just have the words which can be spoken faster or slower giving different effects.

  • 1
    Thanks. Please see music.stackexchange.com/q/73759/26407. Laitz's and Wright's definitions of rhythm differ though? They don't define it as "the position of and the duration of a note"?
    – user1055
    Aug 16, 2018 at 2:38
  • 1
    @Greek-Area51Proposal "the organization of time in music" in Wright's quote and "Rhythm refers to the ever-changing combinations of longer and shorter durations and silence that populate the surface of a piece of music" in Latiz's quote express this thought with slightly different terminology. While all three of us might disagree on exact wording, the idea is the same and none overlaps with meter so what are you getting stuck on because the definitions define meter and rhythem very differently.
    – Dom
    Aug 16, 2018 at 2:55
  • Sorry. I'm overlooking something, but their definitions refer to broader combinations and patterns? You referred to "the position of and the duration of a note", which obviously relates to the note itself only?
    – user1055
    Aug 16, 2018 at 3:47
  • Let me rephrase it as "position in time of and a duration of a note". For example, Quarter, Quarter, half is a different rhythm then half, Quarter, Quarter. Both would be in a 4/4 meter, but describe different rhythms.
    – Dom
    Aug 16, 2018 at 3:53

People tend to naturally relate to music as conceptualized as being divided in short segments of constant length, typically called measures. Those measures are divided into "beats." Meter is a measure of beats per measure, of which 4/4 is by far the most common meter, not just locally, but globally. For most songs, the meter can be entirely encapsulated by a single "number" (in the form of a non-reduced fraction).

4/4 means 4 beats per measure, each beat lasting the length of a "quarter" note. Other common meters are 3/4 (3 quarter notes per measure) and 6/8 (six eighth notes per measure, mathematically equivalent to 3/4 but with a very different "feel"). Some cultures (in India, parts of Africa and Asia) have a wide range of much more complex meters in standard use. In European music some of the common uses of meters are 2/4 for a march and 3/4 for a waltz. In modern American music, modern rock is 4/4, 50's rock is 6/8 (so is classic gospel) or sometimes 12/8, and techno is arguably 2/4.

Within a given meter, however, there can be a wide range of rhythms, which is the specific pattern of lengths of sounds. Where there are repeated rhythms, they almost always line up with the measures, either measure by measure, or in longer segments. It is common, but far from universal to have a rhythmic stress on the first beat of each measure. At one time it was an oft-repeated truism that people of European descent stress the first and third beats of a 4/4 song (think of a polka), and clap on those beats, while people of African descent stress the second and fourth or "offbeats" (think reggae). This isn't as segregated as it used to be (partly because of the dominance of African-influenced popular music) but you can still sometimes hear this dynamic when a mixed race crowd is trying to clap along to a song.


A rhythm is the 'when' of any combination of notes. If you take the tonality away from a melody you have the rhythm of the melody.

The meter is as defined in the text you're copied in from a book, the grouping of the pulse in a bar, f.eks. 4/4, 6/8 etc.

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