How to understand Compound Duple Meter with Confidence

Compound duple metre in music often causes some confusion. So to help I’ve put together this post to ensure you can play, with confidence, music with a 6/8 time signature.

At the beginning of your musical journey, much of the music is written in simple time signatures, and the beats per measure are divisible by two. In compound time signatures the beats are divided by three.

Compound time music is another popular group of time signatures that composers use. The musical meter has a different feel to simple time, which people often describe as “a gentle lilt” or “a skipping feel.”

What is compound meter?

In compound music, each beat is dotted, which means that you can divide them into three equal parts. Compound time signatures are more challenging to understand than Simple time music as they have small beats and main beats.  

What do the numbers in a time signature mean in compound metre?

As with all time signatures, the top number tells you how many beats in a bar, but in a compound measure, these are the small beats and not the main beats.

An image of the quaver "(eighth note) metre music in 6/8 time.

The bottom number tells you the type of musical beats, but this represents the small beats, not the main beats.

In a compound time signature, you can work out the main beats by dividing the top number by three. Let’s take a look at how to work out the main beat in compound meter music.

6/8 time – Duple time compound meter definition

The most common time signature in compound time is 6/8. The bottom number in this time signature tells us that the small beats are quavers (eighth note beats)and the top number tells us that there are six quavers in every bar.

The duple meter definition means that music in this time signature has to have two beats to the bar. Hence why people get confused, as in 6/8, you have 6 quavers (eighth notes) per bar.

So how is 6/8 duple music?

As I said at the beginning of this post in compound meter songs, the main beats in a measure are divided into three equal parts. Compound duple meter has to have two dotted beats per bar.

If you divide the top number in this time signature by 3, you’ll get the number of main beats in a bar.

6÷ 3 = 2 so there are two main beats per bar in a six eight time signature. The main beat is a dotted crotchet. 

6/8 time is a compound duple time, meaning it has two dotted crotchets (dotted quarter note beats) per bar.

How to count 6 8 time signature

When you begin to learn a piece in compound time, many students find it easier to count the small beats. So each quaver (eighth note) becomes a beat unit on a metronome.

An image of 6 quavers numbered 1 to 6 in one measure of 6/8

Doing this is completely fine, although you have to remember to hold the crotchets (quarter notes) for two metronome clicks and a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) for 3 metronome clicks.  

An image of 2 dotted quarter note value beats in 6/8 time
An image showing how many beats does a quarter note have in 6/8

Initially, people find this confusing as they understand the crotchet (quarter) note to be one music beat. What you have to get clear on in compound duple rhythm, is that the small quaver beats are equal to one if you are counting to six in each bar.

All other note values are relative to the beat that you have selected. Changing the value of the beat on a metronome is a great way to practice effectively.  

While using the quaver beat to practice in compound time is often the best way to start, when you are more confident, it’s better to start thinking in terms of the main beats. This will help you achieve a more musical feel for the piece as you will naturally lean on the main beats.

An image of 2 dotted crotchets in compound duple meter

When you are counting the two beats in a bar, the quaver subdivision becomes one third. The easiest way to subdivide the three quavers is by using a word that has three syllables such as wonderful. 

An image showing how to use the word wonderful subdivision- music in compound meter

Students often ask how many beats is a dotted quarter note in simple and compound time. The answer depends on what type of beats you are counting.

The dotted quarter note value is equal to 3 quaver (eighth notes), which is one and a half crotchets (quarter notes). Hence in both simple and compound time signatures if you are counting in quaver beats ( eighth notes), there will be 3 metronome clicks to each dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note)

An image showing a dotted crotchet divided into 3 equal parts

If you are counting the 6/8 meter as two beats per bar, the dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) is one click on the metronome.

If you are counting the compound rhythms in quavers, then a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) would be 3 clicks on a metronome.

In simple meter time signatures the dotted crotchet would get two clicks on the metronome if you were counting in crotchets (quarter notes).

Counting the main beats will also help you increase the tempo. When the music is fast-paced, it can be too difficult to count every quaver.

How to recognise whether the music is in simple or compound time

Confusion often arises as the number of quavers in a compound meter is the same as the number of quavers in a simple time signature.

6/8 or 3/4 – Duple or triple meter

Both these time signatures have six quavers in a bar. However, the main beat gives the music in 3/4 and 6/8 a different feel. 6/8 is a compound duple time signature.

So if you are clapping along to a piece of music in 6/8, there would be two claps per bar. Whereas 3/4 is a simple triple time signature which means there are three beats in every bar.

An image showing 6 quavers with the word wonderful written on
An image with eighth notes paired in crotchets in simple triple time

So how do you decide whether it’s a duple or triple meter?

The answer is to listen to the subdivisions within the main beat.

2/4 or 6/8- Simple duple meter or Compound duple meter?

Confusion often arises between these two-time signatures as both of them have two beats in a bar.

Again the way the music subdivides tells us whether it’s simple or compound time. The main difference in simple duple time is that the beat divides into two, unlike compound meters whereby the beat subdivides by three.

An image showing the note groupings in compound meter
An image showing eighth note groupings in simple duple time

How to identify compound duple meter

When you are listening to a piece of music by ear, listen to whether the beats divide into two smaller beats or three.

A great way of doing this is to clap along to the music and then see whether the word coffee fits best or the word wonderful. If its coffee then the main beats are divisible by two, if it’s wonderful then the beats are divided by three.

Examples of classical music in 6/8

  1. Morning from Peer Gynt suite by Grieg
An image of the sheet music for the opening of Morning by Grieg

2. Sonata in F K.280 movement 2 by Mozart

An image of the sheet music for the opening of Sonata in F by Mozart

Example of duple meter songs

There are many songs written in compound duple time. Here are a few examples to check out on YouTube.

  1. Norwegian Wood by the Beatles
  2. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the aeroplane over the sea
  3. Kiss from a Rose by Seal

Many nursery rhymes are written in 6/8 and are a good starting point to understanding compound beats in music.

An image of the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock
An image of the compound music in Incy Wincy Spider
An image showing the compound rhythm in Little Miss Muffet

How to group notes in music-compound time

Rhythms in music are always beamed together to form the main beats. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how notes are beamed together in compound time.

An image showing some examples of notes grouped correctly in compound duple meter

In 6/8, you beam notes together in dotted crotchets (dotted quarter notes) so that you can easily recognise the duple pulse. In music, the note groupings are essential as they allow the player to see quickly where the strong beat and weak beats are in every measure. 

6/4 time signature

6/8 is not the only compound duple time signature. 6/4 and 6/16 are also in duple metre.

Like 6/8, the 6/4 time signature has 2 main beats and 6 small beats. The lower number of the time signature tells us that the beats are quarter notes (crotchets). The upper number tells us that there are 6 quarter notes (crotchets) per bar.

An image of 64 time signature with 6 crotchet beats

However, these are small beats. To work out the main duple pulse meter, you have to subdivide the 6 by 3. Three, quarter notes are equal to the dotted half note value (dotted minim). Hence the definition of 6/4 time is two dotted minims (dotted half notes) per bar.

While 6/4 is less common than 6/8, there are still some well-known pieces written in this time signature.

6/16 Time Signature

6/16 has six semiquaver notes (sixteenth notes) in every bar. As with the other compound time signatures, you have to divide the top number of the time signature by 3 to get the main beats. The main beat in 6/16 is a dotted quaver (dotted eighth note).

Compound triple time signatures such as 9/8 are similar, except they have 3 dotted beats per measure. You can also have four beats per measure in compound quadruple time.

I hope you’ve found this post useful; if so, please leave a comment below.

There will be plenty more posts on theory coming soon, in the meantime why not learn more about how to practice effectively or treat yourself to a musical gift?

2 thoughts on “How to understand Compound Duple Meter with Confidence”

  1. very informative and helpful. do you also have a post on double dotting?

    • I’m delighted to hear that you found the post helpful. I’m don’t have a post on double dotting, but I will consider it in the future. Thanks


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