How to Play Mixed Meter More Musically

Most western music has a clear and easy rhythm. Even young children can tap feet or clap to it.

But not all music is this way. Not all pieces of music have a steady rhythm. Some tunes are odd. And others even odder….

What is Mixed Meter Music?

Mixed meter pieces have more than one time signature. The time signature may even change measure by measure.

Each time the number of beats in a phrase change, the music departs from it s steady march. It takes on a new pulse.

mixed meter music
Each bar here has a different time signature: Mixed Meter.

Why Mixed Meter?

A composer may choose mixed meter for a number of reasons. Perhaps the purest reason is that the phrase in mind simply sounds that way. And so the composer makes it work on the written page, using the notation we have available.

Other pieces in mixed meter may be motivated by a desire to work within a given rhythm. And that rhythm is more complex, demanding varied groupings of beats.

Whatever the reason, the challeng for us as the player/performer of the piece, is to make it sound good.

The Problem with Mixed Meter Pieces

Mixed meter music risks sounding disjointed and jarring. This is true for non-typical time signatures in general. If the musical pulse is not clear, listeners may have a hard time understanding it.

Expectation is a big part of music. As listeners, when we don’t know when to tap our foot, we may feel lost or confused.

So the goal in playing mixed meter pieces, is to communicate the music clearly. If the listener understands it, we’ve done our job. And if the listener doesn’t even notice, we’ve done our job extremely well.

Make Smaller Bits, by Grouping Notes

One reliable method to bring order to mixed meter music is to break the measures into smaller bits. (This works for non-typical time signatures and rhythmic structures in general.)

Instead of a group of 7 beats, for instance, we can instead think of the 7 as 2+2+3, or 2+3+2, or any other grouping.

Instead of counting it: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 
We can count it: 1 2 - 1 2 –1 2 3

Grouping in this this way, we can give more emphasis to some beats than others. This creates a larger rhythm or pulse. Instead of many equal notes, we now have a “feel” to the music.

Note: Grouping notes is a great way to make music more beautiful, regardless of the time signature. But it can be especially useful in mixed meter, or non-typical time signatures.

For Each Measure, Decide How to Group Notes

If a large section of the music is in the same time signature, the music may suggest the emphasis in certain places. This is how we can hear the difference between tango, reggae, samba, and dixieland. Each has their own unique way of grouping the beats, which becomes its trademark rhythm.

In music that changes time signatures more frequently, we can decide how to group them. Often, the music itself will suggest a grouping. Some notes will be longer, and others shorter. We can work with this to decide the best groupings.

A primary aim of most music is to move forward (or the player can have this goal, with great benefit). This means that short notes lead to longer notes. Weak beats lead to strong beats. And one bar leads us to the next.

When in doubt, we can use this as a line of inquiry. This often helps us to recognize some smaller grouping within the larger.

Make it Sound Good

The goal of all of this, of course, is to make the music sound good. And part of sounding good is the quality of orderliness.

An extra beat in the music derails our rhythmic expectations. We, the listener, can become distracted and fail to hear the notes that come just after.

So we can use note groupings, combined with dynamics, to clearly demonstrate the rhythm to listeners. When we make this job one, we can approach our mixed meter tunes with a positive agenda. And this can lead to beautiful music, well-played.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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