Compound Meter

As we learned in the Dividing the Beat lesson, there are two main parts to any meter, the beat and the subdivision of the beat. The beat is what we tap our foot to, or nod our head to when we listen to music. Subdivisions are the faster moving, more complex musical rhythms created by breaking up our beats into smaller parts. Up to this point we have only dealt with simple meters. Simple meters always divide their beats into subdivisions of two equal parts, which we learned to count "one and two and three and four and." Those two equal parts can continue to be divided into ever smaller durations to create subdivisions of four, or eight, or sixteen, etc. Below is an example of a simple meter (4/4 - quadruple simple), first showing quarter-note beats, then showing those beats subdivided in twos (in this case eighth notes) and then subdivided in fours (in this case sixteenth notes, which we typically count "one-e-and-uh, two-e-and-uh, three-e-and-uh, four-e-and-uh"). 

Simple meter showing beats divided

We can get an enormous amount of rhythmic variety out of music in simple meter, but there is something clearly missing here: being able to divide the beats into three equal parts. That brings us to compound meters, which are meters that subdivide into three parts rather than two. 

In order to create a three-part subdivision of the beat, compound meters use a dotted note for their beat. As you can see in the example below, the compound meter (6/8) shows two beats, and each beat is indicated by a dotted quarter note. As we know, dotted quarters divide easily into three eighth notes. This provides a simple way to create a three-part division of each beat. To count a three-part division like we see in the eighth notes below, we typically say "one-and-uh two-and-uh." Just like simple meter, once we have subdivided the beats, we can continue to divide using our normal system of halving the note values: three eighths divide into six sixteenths, six sixteenths divide into twelve thirty-seconds and so on. 

Compound meter showing divisions of the beat

Applying syllables for counting sixteenths in compound meter can be a bit of a problem, so one might just continue to speak eighth notes while playing two sixteenths (as shown in the example above), or consider using "Ta" for the beats and "ti" for anything that falls in-between them, which would make the counting for the sixteenths above "Ta-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti Ta-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti."

Time signature image

To review, when we see a simple meter time signature, the top number indicates the number of beats, the bottom number represents what type of note gets the beat; the beat value. A beat value of a half is represented by a 2, a quarter is represented by a 4, an eighth is represented by an 8, etc. Since compound meters use a dotted note for their beat value, we need a slightly different system for writing compound time signatures.

compound Time signature image

Instead of representing the beats and beat units as simple meters do, compound time signatures represent the subdivision of the beat: the top number represents the number of subdivisions, and the bottom number represents what type of note is used for the subdivision. 

Since compound time signatures are an indication of the subdivision of the beat, we need to take an extra step to find the beat unit (the beat unit will always be a dotted note) and how many beats there are per measure. Identical to simple meter, compound meters can be classified as having two beats per measure (duple meter), three beats per measure (triple meter), and four beats per measure (quadruple meter). When reading a compound time signature, we can find the number of beats by simply dividing the top number of the time signature by three:

  • A numerator of six means duple meter (6 divided by 3)
  • A numerator of nine means triple meter (9 divided by 3)
  • A numerator of twelve means quadruple meter (12 divided by 3)
Click the buttons below to show examples of compound meters, each with its subdivision and beats indicated.

Here are several examples of music using compound duple, triple, and quadruple meters.

Table of Duple, Triple, and Quadruple Meter Examples

Compound Duple Meter

"End of the Road" ~ Boyz II Men
"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" ~ The U.S. Military Academy Band
"Shiver" ~ Coldplay

Compound Triple Meter

"Keyboard Sonata No. 42 in G Major" ~ Joseph Haydn
"I'm Loving Nothing" ~ The Impressions

Compound Quadruple Meter

"Fallin'" ~ Alicia Keys
"Bixby Canyon Bridge" ~ Death Cab for Cutie
"A Change is Gonna Come" ~ Sam Cooke