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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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4  
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 14 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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Not at all. While sometimes counted as one downbeat both represent 3 beats per measure. You can do the exact same thing in 3/4 with a dotted half note. – Dom Jun 15 at 3:24
    
Dom, the fact that you can do the same thing does not mean the two meters suggest exactly the same thing. – Phil Freihofner Jun 16 at 1:06
    
@PhilFreihofner no, but the fact they are both simple triple meter conveys the base usage of each is similar not that they both only represent one beat. There's a bigger picture missing from this answer and others which is why I put the bounty on this question. – Dom Jun 16 at 1:23
    
@Dom I'll grant it is a subtle difference, but it is real. Three eighth notes usually are in meters where the three eighths are beamed together as a single notational unit, i.e., 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8. Quarter notes cannot be beamed together. Beaming has meaning both as a sign and a symbol. There is the mathematical, lexical meaning (symbol) and the connotations that come with the binding together (sign). You can rewrite 12/8 as 12/4, but the metrical accents will not be as easy to read. Same for 3/8 vs 3/4, where Tauber's answer is perfectly valid. – Phil Freihofner Jun 16 at 1:46
    
@PhilFreihofner while beaming is important it doesn't change the typically accent pattern which is the same for both which is strong-weak-weak for any simple triple meter. Just like in 4/4 you would typically beam to reflect beat 1 and 3 as stronger, but it doesn't mean if there are no eighth notes there you wouldn't reflect that accent pattern. – Dom Jun 16 at 2:33

In the context of Baroque dance music or suites, then there are good reasons to use 3/8 in preference of 3/4 (or vice versa). In the days before metronomes, how the music was notated would be an indication of performance speed. The notation would also be specific to a particular dance.

I have borrowed diagrams from Jan van Biezen, who has written extensively on such subjects:

figure 1

The above image (figure 1) is fairly self-explanatory (the metronome marks are a modern interpretation of a 1705 French work by l'Affillard, I believe): faster dances with quicker steps are notated in 3/8, slower ones in 3/2 or 3. N.b. it appears that 3 can mean duple 3-time similar to 3/2 as well as what we would recognise as modern 3/4 time.

Now, the following diagram (figure 2) summarises the transitions between using different metres and tempi. Van Biezen writes in Dutch; Geheel means whole as in normal time where you are really concentrating on counting in 3, think of a Menuet (3/4), and Half means half as in half-time, like a Sarabande with a drawn-out beat but with possible subdivision of that beat (3/2).

Figure 2 is saying the following: if your dance/music has a 'whole beat' feel to it, then use one of the time signatures on the left. If it is fast, use 3/8, if it is slower, use 3/4. If your dance has a 'duple subdivision' feel, use a time signature on the right. If it is fast, use 3, if it is slow, use 3/2.

However as time progressed, it seems the antiquated 3 was replaced by 3/4, which is a sort of one-size-fits-all time signature in that it can accommodate both 'whole' and 'half' time feel.

figure 2

Take four cases (I'm using Bach cello suites as examples because they are based on dances as was the done thing back then, and also because they're awesome pieces of music).

  1. A grave Sarabande in 3/2, (bottom right of figure 2); this is slow and the duple subdivision is accentuated in some bars, especially at cadences and throughout the second part of the piece.
  2. A slightly more urgent Sarabande could be written in l'Affillard's antiquated 3 (top right of figure 2) to show that the beat should be between crotchet = 60 and 120, but that you still have the duple subdivision. Bach, however, writes it in 3/4, which is acceptable and we still understand that it's a sarabande.
  3. A menuet would have a gai tempo, but the metre is somewhat ambiguous. Obviously there is stress on each beat of the bar, but we could place emphasis on the quavers too, as in this example. We might therefore use the antiquated 3 signature (top right of figure 2), but really 3/4 (bottom left of figure 2) is adequate and this is what Bach uses.
  4. A vite gigue is unambiguous, Bach writes it in 3/8 because it's rapid and we feel the whole beats (top left of figure 2).

Later on his page, van Biezen also refers to the time signature as determining the shortest value at which notes inégales can be used. It's not strictly important here but is quite interesting, so read the pages linked in this and above paragraphs.

Furthermore, as has been alluded to in other answers, in both Baroque dance music and more modern pieces, 3/8 can be used as the sub-unit of a hypermetre (i.e. counting one-in-a-bar to express a phrase lasting longer than 3 quaver beats). This may be useful if the composer wishes to highlight a sense of urgency in the music, or perhaps if it becomes somehow easier to represent complex cross- and counter-rhythms.

This might be interesting reading too, a discussion on whether Bach really did use time signatures as tempo directions.


Tl;dr: If you're in 18th century Europe and need your crew to know how fast and in what mood to play your new triple-time dance piece, you would choose 3/8 or 3/2 etc. as a matter of convention.

If you're in 21st century anywhere, use the time signature that you think conveys the mood of your piece or which you feel best expresses your phrasing.


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Do you have any insights into this question? music.stackexchange.com/questions/6799/… – Dave Jun 16 at 13:36
    
Possibly... I wouldn't have known the answer off-hand but this very interesting book offers a couple of theories on tactus books.google.co.uk/… I may try to write a short answer based on this chapter The chapter starting on P17 is also relevant to the 3/4 versus 3/8 books.google.co.uk/… – ChristopheLynch Jun 16 at 22:32

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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Typically, 3/8 is also subdivided into 2 subdivisions. Dividing it into 3 make much more sense a compound triple meter. Not saying it doesn't ever happen, it's just not the common use for the time signature. – Dom Jun 15 at 3:30

My answer is that it has to do with feel. I heard a concert where the conductor changed from 4/4 to 3/8 quietly he counted "one and two" that implies 3/8 eighths while a 3/4 has : one and two and three and, from this you feel the difference, and the difference is quite big.

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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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