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These days I pretty much play everything by ear, but was originally trained in strathspey and reel violin so realise I should know the answer to this, but I can't remember what, if any, the practical differences were.

Is there any difference between a score marked 4/4 and one marked 8/8? Or is that sort of thing only useful to indicate a time signature change within a piece of music?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 74 down vote accepted

A time signature is simply the composer's way of telling you how s/he is subdividing the measure. So in 4/4 time, the composer imagines the measure divided into four beats, while in 8/8 time, the composer imagines the measure divided into eight beats. The difference is less in the strict timing and more in the feel or pulse of the music.

Try counting these out loud:

4/4 time: "1-2-3-4-/1-2-3-4-"
8/8 time: "12345678/12345678"
2/2 time: "1---2---/1---2---"

All three of these take up exactly the same amount of time, but to me, the 4/4 time feels steady, while the 8/8 time feels brisk and the 2/2 time feels stately. In all three time signatures, a quarter note will have the same value---one quarter of the measure---but in 4/4 time, it represents the pulse of the music, while in 8/8, it's two pulses and in 2/2 time, it's half a pulse.

A difference in feel between 3/4 and 6/8 time can be even more obvious. In 3/4 time, the measure is broken up into three distinct beats, as in a waltz. In 6/8 time, by contrast, the measure is often broken up into two beats, each with a triplet feel. Like this:

3/4 time: "ONE and TWO and TRE and/ONE and TWO and TRE and "
6/8 time: "ONE two tre FOR fiv six/ONE two tre FOR fiv six "

If the composer writes three quarter notes in 3/4 time, it will feel like three notes on the beat. But if the composer writes three quarter notes in 6/8 time, the second note may feel syncopated relative to the overall pulse of the music.

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That final paragraph I think has helped my feel what you mean. I just wasn't getting it with 4/4 and 8/8. –  Dr Mayhem May 6 '11 at 11:26
This is the kind of question that would benefit from having a notation feature on the site. –  neilfein May 6 '11 at 18:35
The song America from West Side Story uses a 6/8 (3/4) time signature to achieve just that syncopation effect. OneTwoThreeOneTwoThreeOne-Two-Three –  Adam Musch May 6 '11 at 19:34
You can use <pre> </pre> tags if you want a monospace font but without syntax highlighting (which was not a problem for this answer, but may be in the future) –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 6 '11 at 20:45
Is everyone overlooking the common usage of 8/8 to indicate uneven compound time? In slow 8/8 you may well be getting 8 to the bar, but in compound time you will see 8/8 used for meter subdivisions of q.+q+q. or q.+q.+q. I've most often seen 8/8 used in this context alongside 7/8 and 5/8. –  NReilingh Nov 28 '11 at 1:52

Adding to Alex's answer, There seem to be at least 2 factors in choosing a time signature

First way is disregarding duplet/triplet feel

one is how many beats there are in the bar, so often in the case of 7/16 it's all about just the number of 16ths in that bar. in many prog rock passages and places where the time signature is constantly changing it's because the player wants to extend a repeated phrase by an odd amount so they'll just stick the notes in the phrase and change the time signature bar to bar.

As a practical example, suppose you have a phrase of nine quavers, grouped 3 3 3. One way often used by prog rockers is to alter one group to be different lengths in a passage(let's use the last group here), so perhaps it would go 333,336,333,332. In time signature terms what you would have there is 9/8,12/8,9/8,8/8, It doesn't make sense to define the 8/8 bar as 4/4 because it breaks the pattern.

The second way is considering the feel

This is where 3/4 and 6/8 commonly differ. As you may know 3/4 is counted in duplets or 1+2+3+(3 groups of 2), whereas 6/8 is counted in triplets or 1+a2+a(2 groups of 3)

The same can be applied to 4/4 and 8/8, where the difference is that 4/4 is counted 1+2+3+4+(or 4 groups of 2)

but 8/8 can be grouped as (3 3 2),(3 2 3) or (2 3 3) in the example of 332 this would be counted 1+a 2+a 3+ You could arguably use 4/4, but in this case 8/8 suggests the feel better.

Also for extra fun, here is my favourite example on 8/8 time signatures

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There is one commonly-used time signature that is just wrong. 6/8 literally means that there are six beats in the measure, and an eighth note gets one beat. Almost always there are two beats in the measure and a dotted quarter note gets one beat. But there is no readable way to write that. 2/(8/3)? 2/2.666?

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Interesting observation. How about 2/4·? :) –  Tom Pažourek May 31 '11 at 15:36
yes, there is indeed a readable way to write that: see –  user1217 Sep 17 '11 at 11:36
@tomp See also Orff Time Signatures. –  NReilingh Nov 28 '11 at 1:48
See also, 9/8, 12/8 and –  Iain Hallam Feb 13 '13 at 20:31

In 4/4 time, the concept of pulse is assigned to the quarter note beat. However, in 8/8 time, which would seem to be similar, the sense of pulse is completely open-ended. Often time signatures in 8 have a dotted quarter note pulse, such as 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, but in a time signature like 8/8, which is not historically used, the composer is free to subdivide as they choose. This could technically be any variation of 3+3+2.

Basically, the difference is in the subdivision.

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What may be perceived as (3+3+2)/8 almost always is 4/4 properly. 3+3+2 would imply a basic rhythm of three groups of 3, with the last group shortened by one beat. So the rhythmic stress would be on the first beat as that comes too early without compensation (a "limp"). But in the typical 3+3+2 subdivision, it is actually the second group which comes in early, implying a syncopation of 4+2+2 rather than 3+3+2. The same kind of "catching up at the end" syncopation can be done even with 3+3+3+3+2+2 for a total of 16, usually carried across more than one measure. –  User8773 Apr 27 '14 at 8:26
The question of whether a beat comes "early" or "late" is an interesting one. I find it interesting that "America" [Bernstein: West Side Story] is marked as "6/8 3/4", but some other pieces which with similar stress patterns are simply written as 3/4. Something like "Lion Tamer" [Schwartz: The Magic Show] is written as 7/4 (with a notation to subdivide it as 3/4+4/4), but the text would sound very awkward if an accent were placed on the second quarter-note beat, rather than an eighth-note later. Still, it might be reasonable to view the stressed note as being an "early" third beat. –  supercat Nov 14 '14 at 20:55

As an arranger, I have once used 8/8 as a time signature. I wanted the performance to emphasise the nature of the quaver as the pulse, while recognising that the melody was easier to recognise as 4/4 than 4/8, thus preserving its legato style. 8/8 also led to a saner tempo marking...

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In 8/8 rythm, each quaver note recieves one beat, with the accent on first beat and fifth beat in a bar.

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Not necessarily. 8/8 is commonly used to group quavers irregularly, for example, 3+3+2. Three beats per measure, but the irregular grouping requires a smaller subdivision in the time signature. –  NReilingh Nov 26 '11 at 20:28

protected by Dom Dec 10 '14 at 0:10

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