6/8 Time, or 3 x 2 ≠ 2 x 3

  1. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Remember that math teacher you hated? The one who made you reduce all fractions from 6/8 to 3/4, and insisted that 2 x 3 equaled 3 x 2, always, always, always? Well, she was wrong about some things. For reference's sake, we'll call her Gladys Kravitz.

    The May Tune o' the Month was the old Scottish air, Niel Gow's Lament for his Second Wife. Many of us used one of these versions from The Session. Some math whiz labeled it a waltz, and gave it a time signature of 3/4, in honor of ol' Mrs. Kravitz. Make sense: each measure has six eighth notes, which equals three quarter notes or a dotted half. And, anything in 3/4 time is a waltz, right?

    No, and no. A piece in 3/4 has three beats to a measure—specified by the "3"—and those notes are quarter notes, as the "4" signifies. Pieces in 3/4 are often waltzes. Here's one of my favorite waltzes, a nice cheery little number. Obviously in three, a strong beat at the beginning of each measure followed by two weaker beats: one-two-three, one-two-three. The rhythm of the melody varies a little, but the underlying rhythm stays the same.

    Now we're going to get up in Gladys Kravitz's grill. 3/4 does not equal 6/8.

    A piece in 6/8 is really in two. If a measure has all eighth notes, in a piece in 3/4 they will be in three groups of two notes each, two replacing each quarter. In 6/8 they will be grouped in two groups of three, as in any self-respecting jig. And no, Gladys, it's not the same thing at all. Let Rita Moreno and company school you on this. This tune alternates bars of 6/8 with bars of 3/4. First one, six eighth notes, obviously in two groups of three. The next one is three quarter notes. Same total note values, but the arrangement is totally different. The more lyrical part of the tune is classic 6/8, a nice big swingy two, each big beat subdivided into three little beats. Clutch those pearls, Gladys.

    So, look at the link to "Niel Gow." Ignore the little notes in smaller type—they are ornaments, not part of the structure of the tune. Notice how the engraver, who typeset the music, has divided each bar in two. The first one has the dotted-eighth-sixteenth-eighth pattern twice. The second bar has three eighths, their stems joined, on the first big beat and a quarter and eighth on the second beat. Those two patterns are about all there is, rhythm-wise. Sometimes the quarter-eighth is gussied up by replacing the eighth with a pair of sixteenths, or even triplets in the second section. At the end of the first section you see the single eighth before the dotted eighth-sixteenth, and it ends with a figure called a Scottish snap, where the sixteenth is before the dotted eighth. The bar that has all sixteenths, sixth from the end, is neatly divided into two group, the first group broken thirds, the second group a descending passage.

    If I haven't yet convinced you that 6/8 is really in two, look at the chords in the second version on the page from The Session. How many chords are there in each measure? Mmm hmm. Why someone chose to slap a 3/4 at the beginning of this piece, I don't understand. Trying to reduce those fractions for Mrs. Kravitz, trying to force it into a dance form, maybe.

    One more point on this piece. In the original discussion Mark Gunter brought up rubato, a certain freedom in the tempo. Absolutely. Where a jig, waltz, polka, or other dance needs to keep the rhythm rock-steady, "Niel Gow" is an air, a ballad, something like that. The tempo is a bit stretchy in places, but then catches up to itself. Here's a masterful example of effective rubato, impeccable pitch, fine oboe playing, and a few other things. And no, Gladys, I don't know what he has in that paper cup.

    Any questions?
  2. SOMorris
    SOMorris
    Thanks Louise. I am learning music and have never understood why an arranger or composer or song writer (not sure which term is correct) would write a song in 6/8 when it was the same as 3/4 (and other time signatures as well). Now I kind of understand, emphasis on "kind of."
  3. FredK
    FredK
    Very interesting Louise. I didn't get too deep in theory in my youth but I do remember that 6/8 had the strong beat on the first and weaker on the 4th which set it apart from the 3/4 time. This is all very good information. Thank you for sharing.
  4. HonketyHank
    HonketyHank
    Good job, Louise.


    There are lots of marches written in 6/8, which wouldn't work at all unless you count them as two beats per measure. One my favorites:
  5. MikeZito
    MikeZito
    I was fine up until Gladys Kravitz- after that, she lost me.
  6. Kevin Stueve
    Kevin Stueve
    urban legend has it that sousa was composing polkas and his wife re arranged them as marches. Or that is what a band director told me in my youth
  7. Kevin Stueve
    Kevin Stueve
    and Henry, as a marine, Sousa's best march is Semper Fidelis. As an alumni of K-State his best march is the Kansas Wildcat march. As a trombonist give me the Trio from Star's and Stripes Forever
  8. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Good—sounds like this may have made things a bit clearer.

    SO, yeah, it seems like 3/4 and 6/8 ought to be about the same. In reality, 6/8 is much closer to 2/4.

    FredK, doctoral dissertations have been written on strong and weak beats and the relationships between them. You're dead right here—1 is the strongest and 4 is next.

    Henry, I had forgotten about Sousa's penchant for 6/8. I always think of marches being in solid 4/4, but that's not always the case.

    Mike, dust yourself off and give it another go! A song we probably all know by heart that's a good example of 6/8 is "Norwegian Wood."

    Kevin, the trio? Is that a valiant but quixotic effort to drown out the piccolo? Not sure it can be done.
  9. Kevin Stueve
    Kevin Stueve
    for you non march afficiando's . 4:02 roughly starts the trio .
  10. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Interesting. Thanks, Louise NM!

    i had great fun working on Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman​ which is a 12/8 tune. The rhythm can be counted like 4 groups of three for each measure.
  11. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    12/8—interesting that you brought up that tune.

    As I have been thinking about other compound rhythms—3/8, 9/8, and 12/8—it has occurred to me that that they get slower as you go. Anything written in 3/8 is "off to the races." Almost always counted/conducted in one rather than three. 6/8 can go either way. Most jigs zip right along, but "Niel Gow" is quite leisurely. 9/8 is slower. Here, the lower strings keep the beat, and it's not fast. Even as the piece moves from 8th notes to 16ths to 32nds, it's not breakneck. "Just Like a Woman," written in 12/8, is quite slow. I'm sure there are exceptions, but this seems to be a good rule of thumb.
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