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The question is already fully stated in the title; this question came to mind recently: Why is a reasonably slow 3/4 beat (or 6/8 for that matter) so suitable for ballad type songs?

EDIT: Maybe I should rephrase it like: I am a listener to mostly Rock, Pop music. If I hear a song in 3/4, it's disproportionately many times a slow, ballad-ish song -- why?

  • What about those ballads that are in either 4/4 or 12/8? – Lars Peter Schultz Jun 27 at 15:41
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    3/4 and 6/8 are not related - except they're both time sig. And there are plenty of ballads in 4/4. – Tim Jun 27 at 16:00
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First, like @Tim said, 6/8 is a whole other conversation, it’s 2 pulses per bar and 3/4 is 3 pulses per bar. They each have a distinct and different feel from each other despite having the same number of notes per bar so I’ll just focus on the 3/4.

Good music is good music and is also subjective so a ballad can be in whatever time signature the composer decides he/she wants to write it in, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc. We decide as listeners whether they’re good songs to us based on the content more than the time signature.

Historically music in 3/4 time has been composed at many different tempos from ballads to blisteringly fast in many different genres such as classical music, opera, jazz and musical theater to name a few. The reason I believe that rock and pop music uses 3/4 mostly only in slow songs is because upbeat rock and pop music is so ingrained with the backbeat on 2 and 4 in 4/4 or 12/8 time that a fast waltz in a rock or pop style would be unusual. You can put a backbeat on a faster 3/4 groove either on beat 2 or 3 and it will work (and has worked) but most people are just used to hearing that big 2 and 4.

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  • +1 as usual. Sarabandes used 3/4 but with the emphasis on beat 2. Never worked out what that was all about - too late now! But don't ever consider that a particular time sig. is relevant - unless you consider waltz, perhaps, which does need 3/4... – Tim Jun 27 at 20:04
  • Just revisited Golden Brown, and would class that as a ballad. 6/8 and 7/8. Or maybe I'd have written it 3/4 and 4/4. Does that re-define 'ballad..? – Tim Jun 28 at 7:08
  • @Tim I hadn’t heard the Sarabandes, they are really amazing pieces, you can really hear the influence Satie had on modern jazz. I don’t get the beat 2 emphasis either so you’re not alone. On Golden Brown the right hand plays quarters and the left more of a 6/8 pattern but like you I would go 3/4 and 4/4 just because the melody is mostly quarter notes. During the verses it almost has that Spanish bulerías flavor of 3-3-2-2-2. I didn’t hear and 7/8 in there, maybe I missed it. – John Belzaguy Jun 28 at 18:24
  • It's the 123, 123, 123, 1234. I remember playing in a Greek combo that used 13/4 the same - 123, 123, 123, 1234. 6/8 would work with 6/8 followed by 7/8. – Tim Jun 28 at 18:34
  • @Tim oh I get what you’re saying now, more of a long meter. I hear it as each individual 123 is either a bar of 3/4 or a bar of 6/8. – John Belzaguy Jun 28 at 18:41
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There is a strong tie between 3/4 and the waltz. The waltz is a couples dance and for the time, in the 1700's, it was very sexy. I think that 3/4 is used in the waltz for the same reason as in ballads. The 3/4 feeling has a natural bounce that just suits romance. It feels buoyant, like floating on water. 4/4 is steady, romance is more surprising and aloof than that. Of course as others have pointed out 4/4 can be turned into something romantic but 3/4 has romance naturally, regardless of the speed at which it's played. Coltrane's 'My Favorite Things' is played at a decent clip, but it still carries those same feelings for me.

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I think it's the 'reasonably slow' element that suits a ballad. 3/4 is fine for a ballad, but so is 4/4. And there are probably a lot more in 4/4.

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