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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 12 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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