Why We Don’t Teach Meter, and Why We Should

Richard Cohn

This paper critiques the acute tonality/meter asymmetry in music theory pedagogy. Why are theories of meter ignored in textbooks and curricula? Why does the limited teaching of metric theory recirculate terms and ideas that were introduced around 1700, and were customized to the idiosyncratic metric properties of that era’s music? The paper explores the historical circumstances that led to the asymmetry and anachronism. It advocates for a radical updating and re-positioning of metric theory at the center of the music theory curricula, on two distinct grounds: metric theory applies with relative ease across a geographically and historically broader range of musical cultures, and it leads to more accurate and secure performances of standard classical repertory. An analysis of a familiar, technically easy but metrically complex passage from “FürElise” suggests how musicians can use metric theory to negotiate the difficulties of deceptively “easy” music that even great pianists sometimes botch.