Lesson 14: Compound Meter

All of the time signatures covered so far in this website are in simple meter, meaning that the beat is subdivided into two equal parts. For example, the quarter note beat is subdivided into two equal eighth notes, the half note beat is subdivided into two equal quarter notes, and the eighth note beat is subdivided into two equal sixteenth notes.

We have learned that the top number of the time signature indicates exactly how many beats there are in a measure, and the bottom number indicates what note value is equal to one beat.

However, not all time signatures are in simple meter, and the numbers in time signatures can have meanings other than what we have covered in the previous lessons. These two concepts come together in compound meter. In compound meter the beat is subdivided into three equal parts.

For an experiment, set your metronome to 192 beats per minute and tap your foot on every beat. After a while, that exercise gets pretty tiring. It is also a problem because most of your energy will be spent simply trying to tap your foot fast enough to keep up with the beat. The simpler, more musical solution is to play with a “bigger” beat, meaning that music with a quarter note beat at a fast tempo can be played with a half note beat instead. In the tempo example above, it is much easier to tap your foot at 96 beats per minute instead of 192 beats per minute.

When music written in 3/8 or 6/8 is played at a fast tempo, we will perform it with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat. Since there are three eighth notes in a dotted quarter note, the beat is subdivided into three equal parts, creating compound meter. Other common examples of compound meter include 9/8 and 12/8.

Common Compound Meters

When the dotted quarter note equals one beat, these time signatures have the following meanings:

3/8 = one beat per measure with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat
6/8 = two beats per measure with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat
9/8 = three beats per measure with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat
12/8 = four beats per measure with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat

Relative Note Value Chart

Here is a relative note value chart with the dotted quarter note equal to one beat.

One dotted whole note = four dotted quarter notes = 4 beats

One dotted half note = two dotted quarter notes = 2 beats

One quarter note = two thirds of a dotted quarter note = 2/3 of a beat

One eighth note = one third of a dotted quarter note = 1/3 of a beat

How to count the subdivided beat in compound meter

Counting the subdivisions in compound meter presents another challenge. There are several methods of counting the subdivisions. The one we will incorporate for the patterns in this book uses the letters “k” and “d” for the subdivided parts of the beat. These letters work well because they begin with a hard consonant sound, which is clear and percussive.

The example below shows how to count a measure of 6/8 when it is in compound meter. The dotted quarter note is equal to one beat, and the beat is subdivided into three equal parts using the letters “k” and “d.”

Another option besides using the letters k and d, is to use a two syllable word, like “cookie.” In that case, you would count “one-coo-kie two-coo-kie” to subdivide the beat. In choosing letters or syllables to represent the subdivisions, it’s best to choose ones that begin with a hard consonant, like b, d, g, j, k, p, q, or t. The actual words or letters that you choose to use are not very important, as long as you feel the beat and its subdivisions. Individual letters are a good choice because they take up less space when writing the counts under the rhythms.

To feel the subdivision of the beat in compound meter, start each pattern with a triple subdivision metronome like the one on MetronomeBot’s website. Lightly tap your foot on the beat, and count every beat and subdivision. When you are more comfortable playing in compound meter, use a single beat metronome.

Learn how to play subdivided sixteenth note rhythms in compound meter in Lesson 15.

Write your own rhythms and music compositions! Get free blank staff paper at www.music-paper.com.

Get the Book

Fundamentals of Rhythm book

If you would like all of this information in book format so that you can put it on your music stand and practice it wherever you go, get The Fundamentals of Rhythm, by Kyle Coughlin. The book includes all of the lesson information and practice exercises found on the website.

Use MetronomeBot for a fun online metronome!

The online metronome that counts the beat, subdivides, and offers encouraging practice tips.

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