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What would make you want to use 4/4 time compared to 3/4 time? Or 6/8 time over 3/4 time? I'm starting to get a grip on understanding different rhythms and how to read them etc. but I want to understand why I should choose a certain time signature/rhythm when creating a song.

How do you approach building the rhythm when creating music?

  • Umm, how do you decide what size of shoes to buy? A size 40 foot will fit into a size 45 shoe, but it will probably not be comfortable while walking. A time signature depends on the length of repeated patterns. */4 versus */8 depends on the "least common denominator" of a pattern. If most of your notes are 8ths, it makes a lot more sense to say that there are N 8ths within a measure as opposed to N 4ths. – Pyromonk Oct 8 at 3:30
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    @Pyromonk - lowest common denominator makes more sense! – Tim Oct 8 at 7:29
  • @Tim, my bad, thank you for pointing out. – Pyromonk Oct 8 at 7:57
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It totally depends on the mood you're going for, and honestly I'd say deciding a time signature, a key, a melody, and a concept are all things that are a part of your decision when composing a piece of your own and there shouldn't really be an answer.

That being said, here's my personal tip: start with trying to find a basic melody, or at least a subject / motif that you will repeat throughout your song. If you can feel the theme of your song usually a rhythm will come from that; rather than deciding and forcing your time signature and mechanically creating a melody from that, try creating your melody and basing your rhythm on that.

My advice personally is to start with 4/4. If you've never composed before or have very little experience with it, I find it to be easier because your measures are automatically divided into equal halves, which are then divided into equal halves on the beat. Triple time (like 3/4) carries the imbalance of the one strong beat to two matched weak beats and if you're more familiar with that style (waltzes are always triple time and you might have experience with that feel) then by all means start there.

If you find a melody you really like and really want to work with but it doesn't seem to work under either, don't be afraid to use compound time (5/4, 7/8) to fit your melody or even move between time signatures during the song. But as a start, I recommend using 4/4 (3/4 but only if you have especially more experience with triple time, for whatever reason that might be) and trying to envision a melody from that, and if that doesn't seem to work, try thinking of a chord progression for both 4/4 and 3/4 and going between them until you find a suitable melody you want.

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    6/8 is not a triple time, it does not have "one strong beat and two weak beats". – Peter Smith Oct 8 at 6:57
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    @PeterSmith Right, I'll correct that. – HyperNeutrino Oct 8 at 13:55
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If the piece is a vocal, the stress pattern of the lyrics generally indicates the rhythm. There some options as to the number of unstressed syllables between stressed syllables. For example, dactyls can be represented by a long note and two short or an accented note and two unaccented or something similar.

A choice may be chosen based on tradition (makes sightreading easier.) Waltzes are almost always written in 3/4. Some classical pieces are in 3/8 (and one in 5/8); never in 6/8 (or 6/4 as these are compound meters). Foxtrots, tangos, rumbas, boleros, mambos, cha-cha-chas, quicksteps, etc. are generally written in 4/4. Some years ago, tangos (and rags) were written mostly in 2/4 but played as 4/8 with the eighth note as the pulse; one must be cognizant of performance practice. Marches are often written in 4/4 or 2/4 or 6/8 depending on whether a triplet feel is wanted (Washington Post vs Stars and Stripes Forever). Samba is often in 2/2 (cut time)

Older dances (not commonly danced nowadays) have their own conventions. Sarabande is in 3/2; gig is usually in 6/8; gavotte is in 4/4 but starting mid measure; polonaise is in 3/4 as are minuet and mazurka.

Some centuries ago, time signatures also carried tempo information. Some of that carries over; one tends to play 6/8 a bit faster than 6/4 if not other information is made.

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  • I can name loads of clasical music in 6/8 time (e.g. most Chopin ballades), and Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor is even mostly in 6/4 time. If you meant "never in 6/8" to be for waltzes only, please make this more clear. – Dekkadeci Oct 8 at 11:55
  • I meant that for waltzes. Thanks. There is a slight problem in that dance patterns move in pairs of 3/4 measures. Most of the music pairs up the measures too. It's not so easy to describe, 6/4 describes triplets with a 2-beat feel and doesn't really sound like a single two 3/4 group. So just using 3/4 is fine. (Many dancers count waltzes as repeated 1,2,3 and some count as 1,2,3,4,5,6; like 4/4 is counted as either eighth notes or measure pairs.) Still modern conventions beat those from 1200-1500. – ttw Oct 8 at 21:27

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