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Describing time signatures help please!

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#1 hammer action

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Posted 23 May 2019 - 13:18

Can anyone help me with describing time signatures as duple, triple, quadruple and simple and compound time please as I'm getting very mixed up with it all?  I was told if the number underneath was 8, this meant compound but in the MTIP book by Eric Taylor for Grade 4, it says 3/8 is simple.  I'm utterly confused.  Thanks.  sad.png

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#2 Dr. Rogers

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Posted 23 May 2019 - 13:54

This business can indeed be confusing at first, but it's not so bad once you get the hang of it.


Duple, triple, and quadruple refer to the number of primary beats in a measure (and note that the number of primary beats does NOT always equal the top number of the time signature).  Simple vs. compound refers to the number of notes into which a primary beat naturally divides.  In simple time, a primary beat will divide into two notes (for instance, in 4/4 time a quarter note divides into two eighth notes).  In compound time, a primary beat will divide into three notes (for instance, in 6/8 time a dotted quarter note divides into two eighth notes).  (As you can probably tell, I'm American, so I'm not good with terms like quavers and crochets... I hope you can still understand what I'm getting at.)


3/8 is indeed a simple time (simple triple).  There are three primary beats (thus triple) that subdivide into groups of two (thus simple).


6/8, for instance, is a compound duple time.  There are two primary beats (thus duple) that subdivide into groups of three (thus compound).


9/8 would be a compound triple time (three primary beats dividing into groups of three)


12/8 would be compound quadruple time (four primary beats dividing into groups of three)


A good free resource for music theory is mymusictheory.com.  I have no financial interest in that website; I just find it useful.  This time signature business is explained fairly well in their study material for ABRSM Grade 5.

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#3 Ligneo Fistula

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Posted 23 May 2019 - 14:35

This question seems to pop periodically.


Earlier threads might help:



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#4 Gordon Shumway

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Posted 23 May 2019 - 17:01

Read Taylor's The AB guide to music theory. If you wait long enough, you'll find both volumes for a penny each on Amazon.

I'd probably tie myself in knots if I tried to explain it.

As someone said, compound time is when you get bars split into groups of notes, like 6/8 or 6/4 is always two groups of three (I say always, but composers like Brouwer will play around within that framework, or have alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4).

In theory you could have a 10/8 compound time in two groups of five per bar, but I've played a fair amount of Bartok, and I don't recall his ever doing anything like that.

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#5 -Victoria-



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Posted 23 May 2019 - 22:55

Quick answer: look at the top number (not the bottom one).
Top 2,3 or 4 = simple
Top 6,9 or 12 = compound
Top 2 or 6 = duple
Top 3 or 9 = triple
Top 4 or 12 = quadruple
Top anything else = irregular
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#6 kenm



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Posted 26 May 2019 - 10:24

The answers so far are correct, but need some elaboration. A conductor will not necessarily beat two beats for 2/4 or 6/8.  A conductor might wish a classical slow movement to be so slow that s/he beats in four, and the second movement of Brahms' Symphony 4 is always conducted with a pattern of six beats.

From the conductor's point of view, standard notation for time/meter signatures is ambiguous.  If you are a composer wishing to be precise, you can use a notation proposed and used by Carl Orff, with a number above a picture of a note.  See the section headed "Variants" at https://en.wikipedia.../Time_signature

US time names for notes are more logical than UK ones, and match German ones, but are longer.  Also they becomes noticeably verbose in 15th and 16th C. music, where a breve has to be called a "double whole note".  Please, Dr. Rogers, what do you call the longa and the maxima? Also, the symbols for exact numbers of bars rest, which some composers still use, are named after the corresponding note lengths: semibreve, breve and long.

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#7 Latin pianist

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Posted 26 May 2019 - 11:11

I think the original poster is referring to theory so wouldn't need to consider your valid points, in fact it might confuse them.
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#8 Dr. Rogers

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Posted 28 May 2019 - 14:12

Please, Dr. Rogers, what do you call the longa and the maxima?


I haven't seen either of those in so many yeas that I had to look them up!  I don't think I've ever encountered them in practice, to be honest.  According to Wikipedia the Omniscient, the American names for them are quadruple and octuple whole notes, which sounds about right.


The whole note name business just confuses me when going back and forth between American and British materials.  Thankfully the ABRSM theory exams use both terms to prevent confusion.

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