Meter Explained

Meter – 1: systematically arranged and measured rhythm in verse; 2: the basic recurrent rhythmical pattern of note values, accents, and beats per measure in music.

“meter” Merriam-Webster Online: Collegiate Dictionary. 2002.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/dictionary (23 May 2002).

As can be seen from the definition above, the term “meter” has both a lyrical and a musical meaning. A proper union of words to melody will take the meter of both the lyrics and the music into consideration. Both kinds of meter are explained in terms of stressed and unstressed “beats”.

In poetry, meter has traditionally been expressed in terms of feet, which are fragments in a particular pattern. For example, iambic pentameter, one of the most common meters used in English poetry, consists of five iambic feet. The metrical designations used in the Song Book are expressed in terms of syllables per line. When appropriate, some of the traditional feet are also referenced.

Metrical Example

This is a typical designation from the Song Book, parsed into its metrical parts to illustrate how to read the metrical symbols.

8.7.8.7.D. Trochaic

The overall designation is for one stanza or one verse/chorus combination. In the case of a designation applied to a tune, it is for one time through the tune. The numbers represent the number of syllables for each line of the stanza. The D indicates that the stanza is doubled, in the same pattern as shown for the first lines. Trochaic refers to the dominant type of metrical foot employed. Note that, as in the current example, the number of syllables per line may not match the foot exactly. The current example, with an odd number of syllables in the second and third lines, by necessity has a partial foot on those lines.

If the type of foot is not indicated, this generally means that the song has feet that vary. Some tunes are marked as “irregular”, which indicates a pattern that is unique to that song and therefore does not warrant a regular scansion.

Metrical Glossary
Amphibrach, Amphibrachic
An amphibrach is a foot consisting of three syllables in the pattern: unstressed, stressed, unstressed.
Anapest, Anapestic
An anapest is a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. An anapestic stanza consists primarily of anapests.
Common Measure, C.M.
Also known as common meter or ballad meter, this meter consists of a four-line stanza with alternating eight and six-syllable iambic lines, generally rhymed in the pattern abab. Double Common Measure (D.C.M.) is the same rhythmic pattern over eight lines, often seen as a verse and chorus arrangement. Although shown in the Song Book with the abbreviations noted above, these could be scanned as 8.6.8.6. Iambic and 8.6.8.6.D. Iambic respectively. Compare with long measure and short measure.
Dactyl, Dactylic
A dactyl is a foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. A stanza consisting primarily of dactyls is said to be dactylic.
Foot
A unit used to express the measurement of a poetic line. A combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in a recognized pattern.
Iamb, Iambic
An iamb is a foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Iambic verse is composed primarily of iambs. In English, iambic rhythm is very common. The trochee is the opposite of the iamb.
Long Measure, L.M.
This meter consists of a four-line stanza with each line having four iambic feet (eight syllables). Double Long Measure (D.L.M.) is the same rhythmic pattern over eight lines, often seen as a verse and chorus arrangement. Although shown in the Song Book with the abbreviations noted above, these could be scanned as 8.8.8.8. Iambic and 8.8.8.8.D. Iambic respectively. Compare with common measure and short measure.
Short Measure, S.M.
This meter consists of a four-line stanza with each line having three iambic feet (six syllables). Double Short Measure (D.S.M.) is the same rhythmic pattern over eight lines, often seem as a verse and chorus arrangement. Although shown in the Song Book with the abbreviations shown above, these could be scanned as 6.6.6.6. Iambic and 6.6.6.6.D. Iambic respectively. Compare with common measure and long measure.
Trochee, Trochaic
A trochee is a foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. A stanza consisting chiefly of trochees is said to be trochaic. The trochee is the opposite of the iamb.