Wikipedia provides the following definitions:

Metrical rhythm, by far the most common class in Western music, is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a fixed unit (beat, see paragraph below), and normal accents reoccur regularly, providing systematic grouping (bars, divisive rhythm).

Measured rhythm is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a specified time unit but there are not regularly recurring accents (additive rhythm).

Free rhythm is where there is neither.

I'm confused by this definition of 'measured rhythm' because it makes it sound like an additive rhythm is a measured rhythm. And I thought 7/8 was an additive rhythm because of its 2-2-3 grouping structure for the beats, so (2+2+3)/8, thus additive.

Is 7/8 an example of measured rhythm or metrical rhythm? If it is a measured rhythm, why do people call it a meter? What distinguishes a measured rhythm from a meter with unequal groupings like 2-2-3?

  • 5
    The Wikipedia article appears to be presenting one theorist's terminology as if it were universal. Richard's answer suggests that it is not. To answer the question correctly, it would be necessary to read the cited book or to identify other theorists who use the terms and compare how they use them. The real conclusion to draw here is that someone should rewrite that part of the Wikipedia article.
    – phoog
    Jan 5, 2021 at 20:30

4 Answers 4


I would argue that it's a question of levels. In other words, the confusion is caused due to the different hierarchical levels of the meter (the eighth-note level and the measure level).

You're correct that the 2+2+3 pattern, when we focus on that eighth-note level of a 7/8 measure, doesn't necessarily suggest any "normal accents [that] reoccur regularly," and thus it isn't a metrical rhythm. But when we zoom out to the level of the measure, we do see normal accents: they occur every 7 eighth notes. When viewed at that level of the hierarchy, it is a metrical rhythm.

Now, an odd disclaimer: I have a PhD in Music Theory and have studied theories of rhythm and meter a fair amount. I have never heard these terms used in this way, nor am I familiar with the text that Wikipedia cites here. All this to say: I'm not sure shoehorning 7/8 into one of these categories is all that helpful. If you're really interested in studying meter, I think you would have better luck looking at Lerdahl and Jackendoff's Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Maybe try and find a scholarly review or two of that book to get a sense of their main claims (perhaps the most important of which is that grouping and meter are not always synonymous).

  • I had not heard these terms either, so that's why I'm confused. Side note, i'm having trouble determining if GTTM is appropriate for meters like 7/8. Their well-formededness rules state "The tactus and immediately larger metrical levels must consist of beats equally spaced throughout the piece. At subtactus metrical levels, weak beats must be equally spaced between the surrounding strong beats." And the beats in 7/8 are not equally spaced. So I'm currently unsure how to think about meters without equal grouping size in the context of the well-formedness axioms. Jan 5, 2021 at 19:43
  • 1
    @StanShunpike Ha, well you didn't need that recommendation at all! Good for you. But you're exactly right; GTTM doesn't always handle these meters all that well. You may also be interested in Kramer's The Time of Music, which has much more of a twentieth-century emphasis than L&J do. But Kramer can also get a bit...weirdly philosophical, in my opinion...
    – Richard
    Jan 5, 2021 at 19:49
  • "...I have never heard these terms used in this way..." I was beginning to wonder about that Wiki quote! Jan 5, 2021 at 19:50
  • @Richard Excellent! London was next on my list so I'll check that out. I just started Time will tell by Mari Riess Jones and she mentioned him and he sounded very knowledgeable Jan 5, 2021 at 19:58
  • 1
    Agreed. I would go even further and say that the hierarchical levels don't stop at the measure, but go on to groups of measures. It's just a matter of convention where we draw the lines between what we call a "beat", what we call a "measure", and what we call a "phrase". It's important to agree upon nomenclature, but it's also important to realize that it doesn't necessarily define different entities. I'd thus say that metrical rhythm versus measured rhythm is a distinction without a meaningful difference. Jan 6, 2021 at 11:47

I haven't read the work of the theorist in question, but the description of "measured rhythm" in the Wikipedia article reminds me of something entirely different, which leads me to the conclusion that because 7/8 is a meter, it is necessarily metrical.

The "something entirely different" is the opening of Time Piece, composed by Paul Patterson with words by Tim Rose-Price. You can see the first page of the score at https://www.sheetmusicnow.com/products/time-piece-score-p333593. There is no meter; instead, the temporal unfolding of the piece is denoted in seconds: first 4", then 3", then again 3", then 7", 2", 9", 8", 3", 5", and 4". This seems to be what is meant by each time value is a multiple or fraction of a specified time unit.

By contrast, the definition of "metrical rhythm" specifies that the time unit is the beat, which implies that beats are not implicated in measured rhythm.

Time Piece was written one year after the book that is the source of these terms, so they probably both reflect a contemporaneous fashion in modern composition.


I read Wikipedia's definition this way:

Additive rhythm is "metrical", because the same accent pattern occurs in each measure. So 7/8 considered as (3+3+2)/8 would be "metrical"; whereas a 7/8 with different stresses in different measures would be "measured".

X: 1
T: Metrical 7/8 = (2+2+3)
M: 7/8
K: C major
L: 1/8
!>!BB !>!BB !>!BBB | !>!BB !>!BB !>!BBB | !>!BB !>!BB !>!BBB |
X: 1
T: Measured 7/8
T: non-metrical
M: 7/8
K: C major
L: 1/8
!>!BB!>!B !>!BBB !>!B | !>!BBB !>!BB !>!BB | B!>!BB !>!BB B!>!BB |

It seems analogous to "a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not (necessarily) a square". A metrical rhythm is measured, but a measured rhythm may not be metrical.

  • Even if the metrical grouping varies from one measure to the next, there is normally a regular pattern. If "measured" could be applied to 7/8 only if the grouping is truly random then I don't see how it's a particularly useful concept. Without being familiar with the work of the theorist in question, I therefore conclude that 7/8 is necessarily metrical because it is in fact meter, and "measured" is intended to denote something else that isn't commonly encountered in European-style music. See least not before the 1970s (when the book was written).
    – phoog
    Jan 5, 2021 at 20:58
  • @phoog What book are you referring to?
    – Aaron
    Jan 5, 2021 at 21:00
  • 1
    The book cited by the Wikipedia article as the source of these terms: Cooper, Paul (1973). Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach. New York: Dodd, Mead. ISBN 0-396-06752-2. The last sentence of the previous comment should begin "At least not..."
    – phoog
    Jan 5, 2021 at 21:07

I’ve not heard of this distinction before either, but the quote for metrical rhythm says that ‘normal accents recur regularly’, not that those accents are ‘regularly spaced’. 7/8 with normal, regularly recurring accent-groups of e.g. 2-2-3 would seem to fit that definition.

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