Understanding 6/8 Time Signature in Music

Many well-known pieces of music are written in the 6/8 time signature. If you’re new to time signatures, don’t worry! We’ll cover everything you need to know. So, what exactly is 6/8, how does it differ from 3/4 time, and why is it important?

Rhythm

Rhythm is one of the most essential elements of music, alongside pitch, melody, harmony, and timbre. It organizes the various pitches in our music, helping us follow along through time. In simple terms, rhythm tells us how long each pitch lasts.

Notes

Different kinds of rhythms are represented by different notes. At the most basic level, we deal with the following notes:

  • Whole note
  • Half note
  • Dotted quarter note
  • Quarter note
  • Eighth note
  • Sixteenth note

In a broader sense, rhythm includes concepts like beat, subdivision, meter, time signature, tempo, syncopation, and more.

Measures

To give music a clear and easy-to-follow structure, most pieces contain measures (or bars) that set boundaries for how many beats of rhythm can be played. Every measure ends with a line through the staff called a “bar line.”

Time Signature

But how do we know how many notes or beats to count in each measure? This is where the time signature comes into play. A time signature is a tool to help organize the beats in a measure. It has two parts: the bottom number tells us what kind of note to count in each measure, and the top number tells us how many notes to count. For example, a 4/4 time signature means we will count four quarter notes. A 3/4 time signature means we will count three quarter notes. When we talk about 6/8 time signature, we’re referring to six eighth notes in a measure.

Meter

Composers group rhythms (or notes) together into patterns called “meter,” which helps us make more sense of the music. This is similar to how we group numbers mathematically to solve equations more easily.

Duple, Triple, and Quadruple Meter

There are three forms of meter: duple (groups of two), triple (groups of three), and quadruple (groups of four). Each can be divided into either simple or compound meter.

Beaming

One clue in the music for these groupings is the way notes are beamed together (specifically eighth and sixteenth notes). For instance, in 3/4 time, we might beam eighth notes into three equal quarter-note beats, each divided into two eighth-note groups. In 6/8 time, eighth notes are grouped into two groups of three.

Time Signature vs. Meter

The terms time signature and meter are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. The time signature is the symbol used to organize beats in a measure, while meter helps us group these beats into recognizable patterns.

Simple vs. Compound Meter

  • Simple Meter: A meter where the “big beat” divides into two equal parts. For example, 4/4 time consists of four quarter notes, each dividing into two eighth notes.
  • Compound Meter: A meter where the “big beat” divides into three equal parts. In 6/8 time, there are two dotted quarter notes per measure, each dividing into three equal eighth notes.

6/8 vs. 3/4 Time

Mathematically, 6/8 time has the same number of eighth notes as 3/4 time. The difference lies in how these notes are grouped. In 3/4 time, eighth notes are grouped into three equal groups of two, while in 6/8 time, they are grouped into two equal groups of three. This grouping affects the music’s feel.

Tempo

Tempo is crucial in distinguishing between 3/4 and 6/8 time. A slow tempo in 6/8 can make it hard to differentiate from 3/4, while a fast tempo in 3/4 can feel more like 6/8. Choosing the right tempo helps highlight the accents that define each meter.

Metrical Accents

  • 2/4 Meter: Has a natural accent on beat 1 and a weaker accent on beat 2, often associated with marches.
  • 3/4 Meter: Has natural accents on beats 1, 2, and 3, with 1 being strong and 2 and 3 weaker. This creates the “boom-chuck-chuck” feel of a waltz.
  • 6/8 Meter: As a compound meter, it has accents on beats 1 and 4, giving a swaying feel like a boat rocking on the waves.

What Songs are in 6/8 Time Signature?

Many beloved pieces are written in 6/8 time, often carrying a swaying back-and-forth feel. A popular nursery rhyme, “The Farmer in the Dell,” is a great example. It helps you feel the bigger beats of 1 and 4.

Short-Long Metrical Accents

Placing short notes before longer ones offers a natural stress on the longer notes. This rhythmic and melodic structure helps us feel the accents of 6/8.

Hemiola

Hemiola alternates between a feeling of “3” and “2.” Since both 3/4 and 6/8 have the same amount of eighth notes per measure, switching between them creates a dynamic feel.

  • Horizontal Hemiola: Alternates between 6/8 and 3/4, giving a lively effect.
  • Vertical Hemiola: Superimposes 6/8 and 3/4, entering realms of syncopation and polyrhythms.

Wrapping Up

We hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into 6/8 time and have a better understanding of its differences from 3/4 time and the pieces it appears in. Let’s review quickly:

  • 6/8 Time Signature: Six eighth notes in each measure.
  • Compound Meter: Two large groups of three eighth-note beats each.
  • Accents: 6/8 has accents on beats 1 and 4, while 3/4 has accents on 1, 2, and 3.
  • Hemiola: Alternation or overlap of 3/4 and 6/8 for rhythmic effect.

As you become more familiar with 6/8 time, you’ll notice many pieces that feature it. We’ve created a Quick-Start Guide below with a selection of great pieces in 6/8 time signature, including some with hemiola!