When one comes up with a riff or phrase of music out of "context"(an inspired thing or whatever), how can one find the best meter to set the riff too... or the natural meter the riff is in? (Mainly for notation)

Obviously there are certain things one generally goes by such as harmonic changes, accents, etc and usually counting 1 & 2 & or 1 pul let 2 pul let, etc will find the correct meter(more or less).

But what happens when this isn't the case or it is difficult for other reasons? or one just doesn't have the gift to visualize it instantaneously or doesn't want to go with "trial and error".

Is there certain fundamental rules that pretty much 99.9% of all melodies/riffs/phrases have in relation to their "natural" meter?

We are generally told that agogic accents coincide with metrical accents, etc. But this "rule" only occurs about 50% of the time, say. (definitely not a "law", at least).

Of course, most melodies are easy. Assume this is hard(difficult syncopation that may allow multiple interpretations if one is "fuzzy" on how to proceed).

e.g., if there was a method to go about, it would be nice because it would at least have another way to help me figure this stuff out. I'm trying to avoid trial and error, as some complex melodies with multiple meter changes or heavily "syncopated" could be hard to resolve. Obviously I'm talking about stuff that probably isn't in 4/4 as that is generally the easiest to figure out.

Tempo also is an issue, because obviously one can notate the same melody at double or half the speed and it will still "fit" more or less.

I'm trying to find the best way to notate ideas I have and sometimes I create melodies in odd times or have weird syncopation that make me feel they are in a different meter than they are. I also sometimes find certain melodies easier to play along with a click that is double speed than what they would be notated at.

[I have a guess that when one learns to read sheet music well, most of these problems become moot as you can just "visualize" the melody and your mind figures out all the details... basically from lots of experience with many melodies. Is this sound logic?]



Here is an example file of a little idea I made up for an example(nothing special). I'm not sure what overall meter it is, I'm sure it's 4/4 as there is a steady pulse most of the time but there are a few dropped beats and added beats here and there. I feel the "temp" to be around 35 bpm but I'm sure its about 70 since I tend to feel things at "half" the speed they usually are.

Of course I could go through and count everything and figure out what stuff is off, but then I'll have some trouble if I've dropped half a beat somewhere, specially if I get the down beat "wrong".

This example is mainly directed at Johannes, as the example was created from scratch without any clue of what meter I am playing in. I mainly just see it as a "pulse train"(equal beats). I'm not thinking about meter or anything like that.


  • I don't understand how you can come up with a riff and not feel the underlying beat or time. How do you go about creating the riff/melody? How do you know you're playing it the same way every time while making it up? If you know its "complex" and "syncopated", by definition it would already have to have a meter, no? I guess I don't understand the question...
    – Johannes
    Dec 20, 2015 at 23:57
  • @Johannes It's the same way that thousands, if not millions of "musicians" create stuff without knowing the "theory" behind it. It is the difference between an "educated" musician(one who learned how to understand what they were hearing and those who went off of "feel" and had no idea what they were doing, more or less).
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 0:40
  • Basically, if I play to a pulse(a click or my own "feeling"), I can make up whatever I want and I can play learned melodies. I didn't learn 4/4 before I learned to create. Hence the creating part is more natural for me(and many "uneducated" musicians I think) and then I have to go back and figure out what I did... or I learn the melody that someone else plays and then try to figure out what they are doing.
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 0:42
  • I've been playing quite a long time off of "memorization" and "feel". I didn't grow up playing stuff that I knew was in 4/4 because I didn't learn to read sheet music and I'm just now learning. I play something the exact same way basic on feel, not because I read a series of instructions off sheet music that told me.
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 0:44
  • Also, there is ambiguity in meter. Is it 6/8 or 2/4? They are the same, more or less, depending if one uses triplets as the common subdivision or duplets. But we know some musicians will take a melody that was created in one meter and impose a different meter on it.
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 0:45

1 Answer 1


The best method is really to tap it out (with your feet if you're playing the instrument) and then count the number of beats. By subdividing your tapping you should eventually be able to make your feet line up with the beginning of the riff (or the "1" beat).

For example, take this random obscure rhythm (I made it weird to demonstrate the method):

X   XX X X X*     (* = the pattern repeats again)

First try tapping quarter notes to it:

X   XX X X X*
1   2   3   1

Ok, the 1 didn't line up at the end, so it's not 3/4. Try 8th notes now:

X   XX X X X*
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Nope, still not lining up with the 1, so it's not 7/8 either. Try 16th notes now:

    X   XX X X X*

There it is! So the note value is 16th notes and we counted 11 of them before getting back to the "1" beat, so the meter would be 11/16.

It is also entirely possible if you are just creating music on the fly without regard for time or meter that you could create riffs that do not fit precisely into any particular meter. If this is the case, then you may have to nudge some notes/rests in order to make it conform to a specific meter.

My rhythm example could also be tweaked to make it fit into a more common meter by nudging the last note out by one 16th note:

X   XX X X X*
X   XX X X  X*
1   2   3   1

Now it fits better into 3/4 after that slight tweak, but if you liked it better the original way then you could keep it in 11/16. Here it's up to you to decide which meter best describes the overall feel you're going for.

[EDIT] I saw your edit adding the audio example after posting. The entire thing could easily be made to fit entirely in 4/4. However the way you played it, there are a couple times you cut it short to 2/4 (or you could say the measure goes longer to 6/4, however you want to phrase it), which is totally fine to leave it like that or you could tweak those parts to make them standard 4/4. There is a little bit of "rushing" in places, but this can happen even when playing a song that is strictly 4/4. And really, all I did to figure it out is tap it out and count. The pulse is constant, but the count was altered slightly and didn't line up with 4/4.

  • Yes, to me, this is called "trial and error". It works well when you the melody is actually in such easy time signatures. When it's not it seems like it would be quite difficult. Specially if the timing isn't prefect. I'm making an assumption that most musicians can feel these meters and most professional musicians can listen to a piece of music and just "know" it's in 4/4 or not... and when it changes, they know what it changes to.
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 2:33
  • For example, I added a clip I "composed on the fly" a few minutes ago. I could notate this out but it would probably take a few hours and require some software to loop parts so I can make sure it get it right. I "feel" that it is not in straight 4/4 all the way through, I sort of "feel" the places it's off in some cases(at least off when one gains half a beat or loses half a beat). Maybe I'm just not familiar enough with different meters to really get it or I need to just practice a lot until it becomes second nature...
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 2:33
  • The main reason for asking the question, besides trying to strengthen my weakness, is that I have a melody from a friend that I'm trying to notate(I can't share because it's his and I haven't got permission). When I enter the melody in sibelius it doesn't sound right and I can't figure out why(it's slightly off in timing in some way). It's got some type of weirdness to it that is throwing me off. It's in 4/4 but it has some syncopation that, to me, make it feel a bit strange(it's something like aba in 3 bars with the ab in 7/4 and the last a in 5/4). I guess I'll have to do trial and error ;/
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 2:41
  • 1
    I updated my post to comment on the audio you added. You are correct that it is nearly entirely 4/4, just a couple spots where a measure was cut in half. As far as getting the starting beat lined up, where do you hear the "1" beat in the song you uploaded? Do you have trouble getting that one or is that song ok? And to help you feel the meter you're playing in there is no better way to work on this than to play to a metronome or a drum track. This will help you feel the pulse and you will know immediately when you get out of sync from it.
    – Tekkerue
    Dec 21, 2015 at 3:09
  • Yeah, amazing I started to play the riff my friend had over and over to a metronome. I noticed that I was not playing correctly. I would try to make certain notes land on the beat when they were syncopated. basically I was trying to play it faster than it was suppose to. If I rushed a note too much I would end up feeling it, I guess, in a different spot and it would cause me to hear things off or different. Quite amazing actually! Once I started playing in time with it, it was very easy and natural feeling. There were syncopations but I didn't let them throw me off.
    – user2691
    Dec 21, 2015 at 4:43

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