Almost all students have difficulties with time signatures at some point. One of the most common issues is to understand the ones that look similar such as 3/4 and 6/8.  So in this lesson we’ll learn how these and other time basic time signatures are actually different. We’ll see what they are and how they work and we’ll finish with some examples.

So what’s the difference between 3/4 and 6/8? There are 2 main differences between 3/4 and 6/8: the number of beats in every bar and  the value of those beats. In 3/4, we get three quarter note beats whereas in 6/8, we get two dotted quarter note beats.

These are the 2 crucial differences but since there is more to explore, let’s dive in further.

Understanding the Difference Between 3/4 and 6/8

The confusion between 3/4 and 6/8 usually comes from the fact that both time signatures can hold 6 eighth notes (or 6 quavers) per bar:

3/4 and 6/8 both hold 6 eighth notes in a bar, so what's the difference?
3/4 and 6/8 both hold 6 eighth notes in a bar, so what’s the difference?

But this doesn’t mean they’re the same. As we’ve said, the beats make a crucial difference. In 3/4, we get three quarter note beats in every bar, meaning that the strong beat occurs once every 3 quarter note beats:

In 3/4 we get 3 quarter note beats (out of which the first one is the strongest beat)
In 3/4 we get 3 quarter note beats (out of which the first one is the strongest beat)

In 6/8, we get two dotted quarter note beats in every bar, meaning that the strong beat occurs once every 2 dotted quarter note beats:

In 6/8 time, we get 2 dotted quarter beats
In 6/8 time, we get 2 dotted quarter beats

So the musical effect is completely different! 

Notice also that the notation shows this difference clearly. 6/8 consists of two groups of 3 eighth notes, whereas 3/4 consists of three groups of 2 eighth notes. A group here is the same as one beat. 

6/8 has 2 beats of 3 eighth notes each; 3/4 has 3 beats of 2 eighth notes each
6/8 has 2 beats of 3 eighth notes each; 3/4 has 3 beats of 2 eighth notes each

Note that often, a rhythm in 3/4 like the above is written with one beam across all six eighth notes. The rules of notation state that a beam can group several beats together as long as the first beat is the strongest of the group. 

In 3/4, six eighth notes are normally grouped together.
In 3/4, six eighth notes are normally grouped together

So back to the issue: this point with the beats and the strong beats (the accents) is significant and it’s the reason that 3/4 and 6/8 are used for different purposes. 3/4 contains three beats (making it what’s known as a triple meter) while 6/8 contains two (making it a duple meter).

More importantly, the quarter note beats in 3/4 time are naturally divisible by two and that makes it what is known as a simple meter. On the other hand since the beats in 6/8 time are dotted quarter beats, they are naturally divisible by three and that makes it a compound meter.

So even though 3/4 and 6/8 can hold the same amount of eighth notes in every bar, the musical effect is completely different! 

Let’s look at these difference in some real examples.



Examples of 3/4 Time 

Although it’s not as common as 4/4, we can still hear 3/4 time very frequently as it’s used in all sorts of genres. One of the most popular uses of it is probably the waltz with its “oom – pa – pa” accompaniment clearly marking the 1 – 2 – 3 beats. Here is an extract from Shostakovich’s Second Waltz from his Jazz Suite 2:  

Shostakovich: Second Waltz

Another popular example of 3/4 time is the Minuet, which was later replaced by the Scherzo in symphonies (but also kept the 3/4 time). Here is the first part of a Minuet by a very young Mozart. 


Mozart: Minuet in F, K.2

Moving on in history by a few hundred years, here’s an extract from the beginning of “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. Another very clear example of 3/4 time:


My Favorite Things from ‘The Sound of Music’

Of  course, not all rhythms are this straightforward. When in doubt, listen carefully to the accompaniment of a melody. That’s where the clues usually are. Here is part of the chorus from Tom Jones’ 1967 hit Delilah:


Tom Jones’ Delilah – also in 3/4

And finally, here is ‘Bluesette‘ – a beautiful Jazz classic composed by Toots Thielemans in 1961.


‘Bluesette’ – also in 3/4


Examples of 6/8 Time

Now let’s move on to some examples in 6/8 time and let’s begin with one of my favorite melodies ever. Here is a part of ‘The Old Castle’ from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. This example is great as it also shows us 3 different rhythms in 6/8 at the same time. 


Mussorgsky: The Old Castle from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

The next example is another great tune. This song is one of the band Queen’s greatest successes. 

Queen: We are the Champions (in 6/8 time)

Queen: We are the Champions

Next is an example from 1784. This is the beginning of the classical French song Plaisir D’Amour by composer Jean-Paul-Edige Martini. The 6/8 time in this one contributes a lot to the romantic quality of the melody.

Martini: Plaisir d'Amour - in 6/8 time

Martini: Plaisir d’Amour

And finally, let’s have a look at the nursery rhyme “Pop! Goes the Weasel”. The 6/8 rhythm gives the melody a ‘skipping’ or ‘hopping’ character.


Pop! Goes the Weasel


 

How to Recognize Time Signatures

If you’ve followed carefully up till now, you probably noticed that I described time signatures in two ways:

  1. By the amount of beats in every bar: 2 beats in every bar (duple meter), 3 beats in every bar (triple meter) or 4 beats in every bar (quadruple meter). This is what the top number of the time signature represents.
  2. And by whether the beats are naturally divisible by 2 (simple meters) or naturally divisible by 3 (compound meters). This depends on the lower number of the time signature.

These 2 ways together are what you need to recognise the differences between basic time signatures. Figure out whether a time signature is duple, triple or quadruple AND figure out whether it is simple or compound.

For example, we saw that 3/4 is a simple triple meter: it consists of three quarter note beats in every bar. It is triple because it has 3 beats per bar and it is simple because each of those beats can subdivide naturally into 2 parts. And that’s because every one of those quarter note beats can subdivide naturally into two eighth notes.

We also saw that 6/8 is a compound duple meter: it consists of two dotted quarter note beats in every bar. It is duple because it has 2 beats per bar and it is compound because each of those beats can subdivide naturally into 3 parts. And that’s because each dotted quarter notes subdivides naturally into three eighth notes.

In this way, we can work out any basic time signature and how it is different or similar from all the others. Let’s look at some other basic time signatures. 


What’s the Difference Between 4/4 and 2/2 Time?

This is another common question and it’s similar to the confusion between 3/4 and 6/8. The time signatures of 4/4 and 2/2 can hold the same number of half notes (minims) and/or quarter notes (crotchets) so what’s the point?

 4/4 and 2/2 can hold the same amount of half notes or quarter notes, so what's the difference?
4/4 and 2/2 can hold the same amount of half notes or quarter notes, so what’s the difference?

The difference between 4/4 and 2/2 is in the number of beats in every bar and in the strong beats (the accents). In 2/2, we get two half note beats (and as usual, the first one is stronger) and so we get a ‘one – two, one – two’ cycle of beats:

In 2/2 we get 2 half note beats in every bar. It's a cycle of 2 beats: one strong and one weak.
In 2/2 we get 2 half note beats in every bar.
It’s a cycle of 2 beats: one strong and one weak.

In 4/4, we get four quarter note beats and so we get a continuous effect of ‘one – two – three – four, one – two – three – four’. In addition, the strength of the beats is laid out as: strongest, weak, strong, weakest. 

In 4/4 we get four quarter note beats. The cycle is of 4 beats with 1 being the strongest and 3 the second strongest.

Where 4/4 and 2/2 are similar is in the fact that they’re both simple meters. As we just learned, simple meters are meters whose beats subdivide naturally into two equal parts (or we can say, two halves). The quarter note beats of 4/4 can each subdivide into two eighth notes:

Every beat in 4/4 time is divisible by 2 so it’s a ‘simple’ meter.

2/2 is a simple meter because its beats can also subdivide into two. In this case, the beats are half notes and they can each subdivide naturally into two quarter notes:

Every beat in 2/2 time is divisible by 2 so it's also a 'simple' meter.
Every beat in 2/2 time is divisible by 2 so it’s also a ‘simple’ meter.

So 4/4 is a simple quadruple meter as it consists of four quarter note beats (with a 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 effect) and 2/2 is a simple duple meter as it consists of two half note beats (with a 1 – 2, 1 – 2 effect).


What’s the Difference Between 2/4 and 4/4 time?

For the same reason as before, the difference between 2/4 and 4/4 is that 2/4 is a simple duple meter while 4/4 is a simple quadruple meter. 2/4 often has a clear sense of that ‘1 – 2, 1 – 2’ effect that is typical of marches, for instance. On the other hand, rhythms in 4/4 are typically made up of longer melodic and rhythmic patterns.

The difference between 4/4 and 2/4 is that in 4/4, the strongest beat occurs every 4 quarter note beats whereas in 2/4, it occurs every 2.

Having said that, the difference between these two meters is sometimes vague. There are plenty of examples where music can be rewritten into the other meter without affecting it at all. Keep in mind that time signatures are meant to help us write music down on paper and to make reading music easier. It’s the sound itself that matters so experienced musicians know how to bring out the proper character of the music whatever the time signature is. 


What’s the Difference Between 6/8 and 12/8?

Just like 2/4 and 4/4 time, there are differences and similarities between 6/8 and 12/8. We’ve already looked at this one a few times: 6/8 is a compound duple meter, but what about 12/8? 

12/8 is a compound quadruple meter. It’s quadruple because it consists of 4 beats in every bar. It’s compound because it consists of dotted quarter note beats and so they divide naturally into three parts.

12/8 consists of 4 dotted quarter beats in every beat.

Now being a compound quadruple meter, the bars in 12/8 time are relatively long compared to other time signatures. Because of this, 12/8 is normally used for longer melodic and rhythmic patterns. But just like 2/4 and 4/4, the difference between 6/8 and 12/8 can sometimes be unclear. 

Here is Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem. It’s one of the most famous pieces of music in 12/8 time. Clearly, the composer chose 12/8 time because the beautiful long melody calls for it. Notice that there’s a pattern too – the second bar is a repetition of the first (only the text changes). 

Mozart’s Lacrimosa from the Requiem is in 12/8

Now what if this same extract was written in 6/8? Is it completely wrong?

What if Mozarts Lacrimosa was in 6/8?

I’d say that although not ideal, this notation is not that bad at all. The pattern is still clearly there with all its nuances and beautiful ups and downs. Like we said, experienced musicians know what to do with the music as long as it’s clear enough.

Now this issue of notation brings us to the last two pairs of time signatures for this lesson.


What’s the Difference Between 2/2 and 2/4 Time?

We learned before that to recognize the difference between basic time signatures we just have to figure out whether they’re simple or compound AND whether they’re duple, triple or quadruple.

Let’s begin with 2/4. As we’ve seen, it consists of two quarter note beats per bar and that makes it a simple duple meter. It is duple because it consists of 2 beats in every bar and it is simple because each of those two beats divide naturally into two halves:

2/4 is a simple duple meter

What about 2/2? We’ve already seen this one as well. It consists of two half note beats per bar and that makes it another simple duple meter! It is duple because it consists of 2 beats in every bar and it is simple because each of those two beats divide naturally into two halves:

2/2 is a simple duple meter

So what’s the point if they’re both simple duple?

Very often, the difference between them is just a matter of making the notation easier to read. Let’s say we have this rhythm in 2/4:

A rhythm in 2/4 with short note values

Since it’s full of small note values (eighth notes, sixteenth notes and smaller), it will be more reader-friendly if all note values were doubled. This transforms the time signature from 2/4 into 2/2 and is easier to read. This is because the double of “2 quarter notes in every bar” is “2 half notes in every bar” (double the value of the beats NOT the amount of beats). 

The same rhythm notated in 2/2

If we play at the right tempo, those two rhythms sound exactly the same.


Summary

The secret to recognizing a basic time signature is two-fold: First, figure out whether it is simple or compound. Second, ask whether it is duple, triple or quadruple. 

When time signatures share the same description – for example 2/2 and 2/4 are both simple duple meters – then it’s a matter of making the notation easier to read. Remember that musical notation is a system of communicating through symbols and so the process of making music is smoother if those symbols are clear to understand.


Common Questions

Can you have more than 4 beats in every bar? Yes, of course. In this lesson we mentioned duple meters (2 beats per bar), triple meters (3 beats per bar) and quadruple meters (4 beats per bar) because these are the basic time signatures. BUT we can have as many beats per bar as we need. These time signatures are known by other labels. The most common of these is probably quintuple meter: five beats in every bar.

Apart from simple and compound, are there any other types of time signatures? Yes, there are many different types. Most musical genres still use simple and compound time signatures but there are others such as complex, odd, irrational, additive and fractional. These are more advanced so I’d recommend holding off if you’re only starting out.