Compound Meter in Music

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The time signature of a music composition tells a musician or music reader about the beats per measure. A compound meter tells a musician that the beats will be divided into 3s or each beat of the measure divides naturally into three equal parts. Which means, each beat contains a triple pulse.

Breaking Down a Meter

The grouping of strong and weak beats is called meter. You can find the meter signature (also called time signature) at the beginning of every music piece.

The time signature is the two numbers that appear like a fraction that is noted after the clef. The number on top tells you the number of beats in a measure; the number at the bottom tells you what note gets the beat.

So, for example, using a 6/8 time signature, there are 6 eighth notes in a measure. The beats are grouped into two groups of three eighth notes. For those familiar with music, this would seem like two triplets.

In compound meter, the beats can be divided into three notes. For example, 6/4, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, and 12/16 are examples of compound meter.

The time signatures with a "6" as the top number are known as compound duple. Time signatures with a "9" as the top number are known as a compound triple. Time signatures with a "12" as the top number are known as compound quadruple.

Examples of Compound Meter

Meter NameMeter TypesExample
Compound double6/2, 6/4, 6/8, 6/16Using 6/8, there are 6 eighth notes in a measure. The beats are grouped into two groups of 3 eighth notes.
Compound triple9/2, 9/4, 9/8, 9/16Using 9/8, there are 9 eighth notes in a measure. The beats are grouped into 3 groups of 3 eighth notes
Compound quadruple12/2, 12/4, 12/8, 12/16Using, 12/8, here are 12 eighth notes in a measure. The beats are grouped into 4 groups of 3 eighth notes

Compound Versus Simple Time Signatures

A major way that compound time signatures differ from simple time signatures is that compound time signatures tell a musician or music reader how the beats divide within a measure.

For example, if a piece of sheet music has the time signature of 3/4, that means that one measure of music has the equivalent of three quarter notes in that measure.

A quarter note is the equivalent of two eighth notes. So, that measure can have six eighth notes in it. It would seem this is the same as 6/8 time.

The difference is that if the music groups those notes together, into a triplet formation, then the time signature would best be written as 6/8 since it is a compound duple.

Popular Use of Compound Time

Compound time is associated with "lilting" and dance-like qualities. Folk dances often use compound time. There are a number of popular songs that use 6/8 time. For example, the song, "House of the Rising Sun," by the Animals, a popular song from the 1960s, has a lilting quality to it.

Other popular songs in 6/8 time include "We Are the Champions," by Queen, "When a Man Loves a Woman," by Percy Sledge, and "What a Wonderful World," by Louis Armstrong.

Many Baroque dances are often in compound time: some gigues, the courante, and sometimes the passepied, and the Siciliana.