How To Count and Play Mixed Meter Time Signatures and Rhythms

“Mixed meter”? “What is mixed meter music?”

Not all pieces of music keep a steady big beat throughout. In cultures around the globe, the steady foot-tap is not the measure of good music. Many styles of music have more complex rhythms than our basic steady rhythms and integrate other types of note groupings like triplets.

So how do we count and play these rhythms? First, we need to know all about Mixed Meter, and mixed time signatures.

What is Mixed Meter in Music?

Most pieces of music, especially at the earlier levels, are in one time signature. This means that each measure (bar) of music has the same number of beats.

Mixed meter, on the other hand, allows for different bars to have different numbers of beats. We can have 3 beats in one measure, and 4 in the next.

Mixed meter has more than one time signature.

The Glue that Binds: The Steady Subdivision

There is one main key to understanding and playing mixed meter. And it is this: the underlying small notes remain steady.

This means that an eighth note has the same duration in one bar as it does in the next. Only the number of them per bar changes. If we put a metronome on those eighth notes, it will click steadily throughout the entire tune.

The small note divisions remain equal. i.e. and 8th is an 8th.

One measure of 4/4 will have 8 eighth notes (more on music theory here). And the next bar of 3/4 will have 6 eighth notes. But the timing of those eighths will remain constant.

How to Count in Mixed Meter in Musical Notation

To count aloud in mixed meter, we must first know how to count each of the given time signatures separately.

For instance, we may count a measure of 4/4 thus:

And a measure of 6/8 thus:

Once we can count all the given time signatures, we need to keep the small subdivisions steady. As long as the small notes stay steady, we can count from bar one to the next.

Like this:


Each count, number or word gets the same amount of time. Steady as a rock.

Keep a Steady Beat

One of the biggest mistakes people make counting mixed meter is stopping at the bar lines. This creates a gap. This gap takes time, and make the rhythm wrong.

Instead, the most important part is to keep a steady beat. As long as the underlying beat is steady, the music continues.

Another common mistake is to count the different bars at different speeds.

The trick is to always keep the underlying beat steady.

Tip: Figure It Out Without the Guitar

Mixed meter rhythms can be quite complicated. It’s a good general rule to clap and count the rhythms first without the guitar.

First we should understand and can count the rhythms reliably. Afterward, we can then bring in the guitar.

Like most of what we do on guitar, mixed meter is much easier go step by step through a process. In this case: 1. Clap and count aloud. 2. Add the guitar

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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