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Is there any practical difference between 4/4 and 8/8? regards a common and unusual time signature; both 3/4 and 3/8 time are pretty common.

What difference in performance is implied in the the difference between 3/4 and 3/8 time signatures?

What would lead a composer to notate a work in one or the other?

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Answer this: Second movement of Beethoven's second (3/8, 8th = 120) Third movement of Beethoven's eighth (3/4, quarter = 126) What clues, if any, key the listener into one being in 3/8 vs 3/4? – user7159 Sep 28 '13 at 3:09
up vote 13 down vote accepted

These two time signatures both indicate simple triple time (also known as waltz time). They are mainly used in the same genres:

  • Formal dances such as waltzes, minuets, mazurka, and scherzi
  • Country, R&B
  • Western ballads
  • sometimes pop

All of these genres commonly use simple triple time i.e they have three beat per measure (usually with the first beat being the strongest). The obvious differences between 3/4 and 3/8 are the number and length of the beats (there is one other simple triple meter, 3/2). 3/8 has three quavers and 3/4 has three crotchets. However, 3/8 time usually suggests a higher tempo or a shorter hypermeter than 3/4. This is not always the case as there is no strict rule, but it is often implied.

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There's no absolute rules as to when a composer should use one over the other - it often comes down to the tempo and feel of the music, but it is subjective. I've (for better or worse) seen Presto 3/4 pieces that go much faster than some 3/8 pieces.

The big difference in terms of timing is that 3/8 is mainly used as a compound time, whereas 3/4 is most commonly conducted in simple time. So if the composer "felt" that a bar should be conducted as a single unit rather than 3 individual beats, that might be a particular reason to choose one over the other. Tempo of course does come into it as well.

Of course, then we get to the question of why 3/8 should be used over 6/8, and so on - sometimes when the phrases work in odd numbers this is clearer, but more often than not it's just at the composer's discretion to emphasise various beats and timings slightly differently.

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Typically from what I've seen, 3/4 music is conducted using three baton movements per measure, whereas 3/8 music is conducted with a single baton downbeat per measure; I'd consider 3/8 to be closer to 6/8 than to 3/4 in terms of feel and conducting.

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3/8 is more suggestive of a single beat per measure (a dotted-quarter note made up of 3 sub-beats) whereas 3/4 is more suggesting of three beats per measure (each a quarter note).

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Both 3/4 and 3/8 have been used over the years for everything from a funeral procession to a one-in-a-bar fast waltz. And 3/8 by no means always implied a faster tempo. 3/8 is unusual in today's popular music, but common in more academic styles.

The 4/4 and 8/8 answer is different. 8/8 is mainly used when the eighth-note grouping is irregular, or even varies from bar to bar.

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While many things said in these answers are correct, I think the actual difference has been missed.

The most important thing to remember when considering the difference between the two is probably that people often speak of 3/8 as having 'three beats in a bar' - but it actually has one. 3/8 has one beat in a bar, 6/8 has two, 9/8 has three, and 12/8 has four, where each beat is a dotted crochet.

There is indeed a difference in the notation of the two, but the main difference is how they feel when you subdivide them (divide them into shorter note lengths such as when counting in your head).

Subdivision is very important for orchestral musicians as it allows them to keep in time and understand how to play rhythms which look strange at first sight when sight reading, for example. Conductors will often tell you about their 'internal metronome' - many constantly hear the subdivision of the beat in their heads while conducting.

So what's the difference?

In 3/8 time, there is one beat in each bar (one dotted crochet) and each beat feels like it's in three - you can split each beat up into three quavers.

In 3/4 time, there are three beats in each bar, and each beat feels like it's in two - you can split each beat up into two quavers.

So, when you listen to a piece in 3/8, you can clap to the beat and, depending on the speed, you can count 'one, two, three, one two three...'.
But when you listen to a piece in 3/4, you can clap to the beat and, as you clap, say 'one two, two two, three two, one two, two two....'

So in conclusion, a 3/8 piece will sound like it's in three, but a 3/4 piece will sound like it's in two, even though there are three beats in a bar.

So whereas it can be very difficult (or not really possible) to tell the difference between 4/4 and 2/4 when listening to a piece, and both are often considered correct in aural exams when it is hard to tell, there is a very notable difference between 3/4 and 3/8, and the two do not actually sound the same.

Hope this helps!

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