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Rhythm, Meter, and Tension

Rhythmic tension is created by the interaction between what is heard (rhythm), and by how the brain anticipates musical structure (meter). Meter creates expectations. Rhythm either subverts or supports them. Subversion creates tension, and it’s tension that I’m interested in.

Before I get into that, a further distinction needs to be made between meter and rhythm. Here’s what everyone agrees with:

Rhythm, Meter, Pulse

Rhythm is considered as sound patterns in time. This is stuff that we hear – notes of varying durations thrown together to create patterns that draw us in, create interest, compel us to move.

Meter doesn’t exist until we construct it in our minds when hearing rhythmic patterns. When we start tapping our feet in equally spaced pulses (or beats), we express meter physically. Some of those pulses may be accented more than others. This phenomenon of accented, equally spaced pulses is meter.

Meter is made of conceptual timepoints. We don’t hear these timepoints in the physical world; they are simply used by our minds to organize rhythm. Pulse we hear and feel in the physical world.

So we experience meter – a regular, periodic sound physicalized as pulse – by paying attention to sound patterns in time, otherwise known as rhythm. Meter helps us to perceive rhythm, and we physicalize it by moving some part of our body in time to it.

This is interesting. Without rhythm, we wouldn’t perceive meter. Without meter we couldn’t organize rhythm. Rhythm gives rise to meter, which allows us to make sense of rhythm.


This stuff is important for composers. If we are interested in controlling tension, then it helps to understand how the rhythms we write create and subvert meter. A distinguishing feature of meter is the relationship between accented and unaccented beats. Constructing meter, then, requires that we determine these accents.

But what determines metric accent? Can composers create metric accent consciously through use of rhythmic accent, or is metric accent determined by musical style alone (i.e. accents on the 2nd and 4th beats in pop styles)?

Listening experience favours the latter. This can be subverted, however, if the composer simply chooses accents that aren’t the norm, and places these accents in the same place in each bar. This can seem a bit forced, but it’s important to play with this if we’re to move beyond conventional accent patterns that may exist simply because of centuries of listening habits.

The needs of the composition may not require conventional accent patterns. And alternate accent patterns may create new rhythmic ideas. No harm in experimenting.

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