Sorry if this is a really basic question but I'm really confused about the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 and was hoping to get some explanation about this bar in particular:

quarter note tied to dotted eighth–sixteenth pair, then dotted eighth-sixteenth

This bar can be read both as 3 quarter notes or 6 eighth notes, so I'm not sure whether it is in 3/4 or 6/8.

Appreciate any help, thanks!


3 Answers 3


From the notation alone we can already see that this is at least thought to be 3/4 by the composer. Even more in 3/4 the rhythmic distrubution is quite uncomplex. If we were to take this as 6/8 this would become much more complicated, as you can see here:

enter image description here

I’d say the 6/8 one would be quite hard to perform ...


Simply put: 3/4 is three quarter-note beats and 6/8 is two dotted quarter-note beats. ...Leaving aside the variety of exceptions....

The way to know (presume) this bar is 3/4 is the way the beams are placed. They clearly delineate three beats. Were the bar intended as 6/8, it would be written as a dotted quarter-note tied to a sixteenth note. That sixteenth note would be beamed to a sixteenth note, an eighth note tied to another sixteenth, and a final sixteenth, as shown below. Note how the beaming divides the bar into 2 halves.

6/8 reinterpretation of OP rhythm

The difference between 3/4 and 6/8 is a common topic here. For example:


Elaine Gould's Behind Bars does not directly address this situation, and the closest examples could be interpreted either way in terms of using a tie versus a dotted note. However, IMO, the dotted version (see @Lazy's answer) is preferable.

  • I don't have Behind Bars hand, but I'll double check on whether the center tie or a dotted eighth should be used, and update as appropriate.
    – Aaron
    May 16 at 4:41
  • My money's on the dot. May 17 at 11:18

Sometimes taking one bar in isolation isn't enough to decide what the time signature is (or should be - take 'America').

However, as a basic premise, the fundamental difference is the feel. 6/8 is duple time, so can be counted both as a six time, or a slower two. And will be written as such, to help the reader. So, the bar can be seen to be split into two equal halves, each containing three quavers. 3/4 time will be written in values equal to three separate parts - three crotchets, so there won't be a sectioning into two halves.

Since this example is obviously split into three separate crotchet parts, so to speak, then it will come under the 3/4 time signature 'ruling' rather than 6/8, which it certainly doesn't align to.

  • If someone were asked to transcribe an expressionless recording of a piano playing the vocal melody for the chorus of "America", I don't think anything within that part would reveal whether it should be 3/4, or alternating 6/8+3/4, since both interpretations would make sense. Lyrics come to the rescue, though, since "I want to BE in a-MER-I-CA, SO much to SEE in a-MER-I-CA" fits normal speech patterns much better than would "I want TO be IN a-MER-I-CA, SO much TO see IN a-MER-I-CA".
    – supercat
    May 16 at 17:31
  • "Lyrics come to the rescue..."? I come to rescue the lyrics! "I like to be in America, O.K. by me in America". They are already in America :-) May 17 at 11:25

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