For many years, I’ve been tweaking my process for teaching meter/time signatures. I wish teaching this were as easy as saying, “In 2/4, there are two beats in every measure, and in 4/4, there are four beats in every measure.”

But as we all know, it is much more complicated than this. In this article, I'll detail some strategies that have worked well for me in teaching meter or time signature.

In order for students to understand time signature, they need to feel that the first beat of every measure is the strongest. They need to be able to track measures, and be able to figure out where the barlines should go (which is really a practice of rhythm, as they need to know how many beats each rhythm gets!).

They need to learn how to perform basic conducting patterns, and to understand why we use meter to divide music into measures. On top of that, there is duple vs. triple meter. This is a lot of information to learn!

I’ve heard of some music teachers teaching two-beat meter, or 2/4, to first graders, but in my experience, all of those barlines and measures and rhythms can be quite confusing for first graders. I like to just start having first graders feel strong beats and weak beats. Then, in second grade, we dive into two-beat meter.

During my college years, I worked closely with the Dalcroze professor at my school, Tim Caldwell. I love using Dalcroze-inspired lessons when working with meter, because students need to physically be able to feel the meter — the strong beats and weak beats, the division of each — and physical activities are great for this!

Tennis ball activities are a favorite of mine when preparing and practicing meter — having students bounce on the strong beat and catch on the weak beat, switching between different meters to see if students can hear the difference. Students can also sing a known song and bounce and catch the tennis balls as they sing.

I became even more interested in my teaching process for meter this year when I noticed my oldest daughter — who does very well in music and in academics — struggle with the concept of tracking measures and barlines. She is one of the best readers in her class, yet something about meter wasn’t clicking, even though the students had previously learned two-beat meter and were now working on four-beat meter.

So, I went back to the drawing board and tried a few more ideas. For barlines, I started using popsicle sticks, instead of just drawing them on the board, which made them stand out more.

Something about using the popsicle sticks clicked with her, as well as a few other students. I also did learning centers for four-beat meter. In one of the learning centers, students had to play rhythm patterns on drums. The rhythm cards had two measures in four-beat meter, and I asked the students to play in small groups, so that the first beat of each measure sounded stronger than the other beats. This seemed to solidify the idea that the first beat of every measure is the strongest.

I also had students work with puzzle pieces to create their own compositions. Each puzzle piece was like a measure and should have four beats on it, but they had to be careful — some of the pieces had less than four beats!

This was a great way to solidify the understanding of a half note lasting for two beats! (Don’t you love arguments between students about how long a half note lasts for? I’ll take those arguments any day over who is first in line!) This could also simply be done on index cards.

Students also had to create their own composition with a glyph by following the directions and choosing certain rhythms for each measure based on their likes. This was a good exercise in following directions and gave us some neat compositions to play on instruments!

After several of these activities, I did a summative assessment, and am happy to report that she answered most of the questions correctly and was able to compose two measures in four-beat meter, putting the barlines in the correct place. The rest of the class also did well, and I felt much better about moving onto the next concept.

I hope this has been helpful to you as you teach meter/time signature. Happy teaching!