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"Ordinary" Compound Meter

  1. I was taught that 6/8 time, for example, meant "six beats in a measure; the eighth note (quaver) gets one beat." Similarly, 9/8 would be "nine beats in a measure; the eighth note gets one beat."

  2. Arriving at this website (SE MP&T), I encountered the approach in which 6/8 time is "two dotted quarter-notes (dotted crotchets) in triple divisions", and 9/8 is "three dotted quarter-notes in triple divisions."

"Irregular Compound"1 Meter

  1. The method by which I learned to understand compound time remains consistent for, say, 5/8 or 7/8: five (or seven) beats per measure; the eighth note gets the beat.

  2. The "dotted quarter-note per beat" approach cannot remain consist for 5/8 or 7/8, so how does a "dotted quarter-note beat" teacher explain irregular compound meters like 5/8 and 7/8 to a student?


1 There's no such thing as "irregular compound" meter. I've invented the term for use in this post as a shorthand for "irregular meters that have an 8 on the bottom".

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  • 2
    I’m wondering where you were told that 5/8, 7/8, etc. are compound meters. They are not. Having an 8 on the bottom does not make a meter compound, it’s having a 6, 9, or 12 on top that makes a meter compound, especially when there’s an 8 on the bottom. 9/4 and 12/4 would most likely be compound, but 6/4 could go either way. Oct 7, 2022 at 10:08
  • @ToddWilcox That's why I put "irregular compound" in quotes — it's a made-up term for "irregular meters that have an 8 on the bottom".
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 10:24
  • 1
    Why are you distinguishing based on the 8 on the bottom? 7/8 and 7/4 essentially have the same concerns when counting them. Oct 7, 2022 at 10:39
  • 2
    I understand your question well enough now to have posted an answer. As a side note, I’d like to point out that teaching that the 8th note gets the beat in 6/8 or 9/8 time is just as wrong as teaching that 8 on the bottom means dotted 1/4 gets the beat. Both of those oversimplifications will have to be replaced as the student progresses or else the student will run into some serious problems down the road. Oct 7, 2022 at 11:34
  • 1
    Did the teacher(s) in point (1) address a situation such as 6/8 with dotted quarter= 80? Most metronomes don't go up to 240, and with good reason.
    – phoog
    Oct 7, 2022 at 20:43

6 Answers 6

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There isn’t one answer, but the teaching methods for time signatures with prime top numbers can be summarized by saying we delay explaining them and then when we explain them we both refine the understanding of compound meters and address the nuances of unusual and additive meters.

When we teach a student who is closer to being a beginner that 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 don’t actually have 6, 9, or 12 beats of 1/8 value, we’re already contradicting our first day of teaching meter when we said the top note is the number of beats and the bottom indicates which value gets the beat. When we teach compound meter, we might oversimplify by saying that 8 on bottom means it’s compound, but that’s not fully true. When we do that, we set ourselves (or some future teacher) up for having to replace that simplification with a more nuanced understanding as the student progresses and encounters meters with 8 in the bottom that are not compound.

Because there is quality literature suitable for advanced beginners that is in 3/8 meter, and we don’t always want to have to use over-edited student editions of music (at least some of us don’t), some of us choose to avoid oversimplifying at the beginning. Even if we say "when there’s an 8 on the bottom and the top is divisible by 3, then it’s compound", that’s not always going to work because 3/8 is usually simple and 9/4 usually compound. For this reason some teachers will specifically teach 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 and not try to use a general rule for recognizing compound meters, but this has its own pitfalls.

We often make analogous oversimplifications for key signatures also. Teachers in general are challenged by how to teach basic understanding to young and beginning students in every field without having to reteach and replace understanding when students advance.

In math, for example, we couldn’t teach first graders how to add by starting with monads and groups with axioms for the binary operators and identity elements. We teach counting and whole numbers knowing full well that some of the understanding will be refined and replaced as the student learns more.

In short, across all fields, we generally teach inaccurate and incomplete information to beginners to get them started even though we know we will have to admit to having done so in the future and retrain the student with a more sophisticated understanding. Many teachers and people who study education have wanted to find ways to teach accurate information from the very beginning, and I think the best teachers work hard to be as accurate as possible as early as possible. But I’m not aware of a field where pedagogy has been developed that never requires retraining on beginner concepts as the student progresses.

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    With you on your penultimate para. Youngsters are taught 'you can't take 5 from 4', which at their level, is acceptable. Don't understand the para. prior to that, though, about key signatures.
    – Tim
    Oct 7, 2022 at 12:11
  • @Tim Very young students are often taught that one sharp means G major as if minor keys don’t even exist, or they are only taught that one sharp in the signature means always play F# instead of F with no mention of keys. I’ve also seen it taught that looking at the last bass note tells you the key of the piece. Just more examples of how we oversimplify to get students started and then have to go back and refine to take into account real-world scenarios. Oct 7, 2022 at 12:15
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    Thanks for taking the time to understand the question! This is exactly the kind of answer I'm looking for, and very well explained. (And are you saying I would have spend less time eating glue and crayons if our first grade teacher hadn't started from Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica?)
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:47
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    @Aaron I don’t know, I remember glue and crayons being pretty tasty. ;-) Oct 7, 2022 at 15:56
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    "Time signatures with prime top numbers"? Such as 2/4 and 3/8?
    – phoog
    Oct 7, 2022 at 20:40
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Answer to (2). It doesn't. With irregular compound times, there will not be an extra regular rhythm involved, only one rhythm every bar. Compound means (to me) that each bar can be interpreted in two ways. Read on...

Irregular time sigs. are just what it says on the tin - not regular. The top number is going to be an odd number (excluding the basic 3 and multiples thereof) so creating a 'lop-sided' rhythm.

Let's look at 6/8. So many beginners find it difficult to understand, thinking, well, it's just a re-incarnation of 3/4. Mathematically, it is. But the big difference is 3/4 has the 'beat' of a crotchet, of which there are three, giving the familiar 1 2 3 1 2 3. Whereas 6/8 is perceived as having two alternate counts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6, AND 1 & & 2 & & , so could get counted in either, or both ways, depending on the tempo of the piece.

That, eventually, we all come to understand and respect.

However, with irregular time signatures, there's no simple way to split the bar evenly. So we just bite the bullet, and for 5/8, it ends up as 1 2 3 4 5, or 1 2 3 4 5 . in similar vein, 7/8 is divided into 2s and 3s. Of which there are several combinations, but never two 3s and a 1. We seem to favour 2s and 3s in most translations of time signatures. Sometimes straight 4 gets involved, but that's as far as it goes. Even in a Greek 13/4, we'd maybe count 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 (emphasis on the darker numbers).

So, translating all that into /8 times, there could be a dotted crotchet (or two!), or tied notes, which would show the splitting rhythm of the bar, and piece. Thus producing, for 5/8, for example, dotted crotchet, crotchet, or crotchet, dotted crotchet, but that's about as far as it would go, for me - on the premise I've understood the question. If not, please guide me further!

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  • I'm asking how someone who teaches the "dotted crotchet per beat" method for compound meters teaches a student how to understand 5/8, since the initial method no longer applies. Does the teaching revert to the "five beats, and the quaver gets the beat" approach?
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 8:44
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    I believe it has to. After all, in most signatures, the bottom note tells the beat - even in 6/8, so the counting (for me and my students) is done on that premise. Can't see another way.
    – Tim
    Oct 7, 2022 at 8:51
  • @Tim you seem to be suggesting that in 6/8, 12/8 etc 8th notes are 'the beat'? That's undoing all the good work others are attempting in this thread!
    – Laurence
    Oct 8, 2022 at 9:57
  • @Laurence - depending on the tempo. 'All Blues', for example - written (on my orchs) in 3/4, but with, I believe a 6/8 feel, gets counted in, and conducted with that 6/8 feel, every 8 being a baton move.
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:00
  • What, the Miles Davis number? You'd get a very sore arm conducting that in 6!
    – Laurence
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:10
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The books I've learnt from teach "dotted-crotchet = one beat" in a compound meter, but they didn't cover irregular meters.

I've come to an understanding that irregular meters can be thought of as simply having beats of different value.

It is easier to count pulses (the subdivision unit), and these are usually used for tempi markings (PPM instead of BPM), but pulses are definitely not beats.


For example if I were playing the simplest 5/8 groove on the drums, I'd play:

5/8 groove on drum kit

I'd think of the bass drum as hitting the on the strong beat of the bar, the snare on the medium beat, and the hi-hat as hitting on all the weak pulses.

This'd be identical to 6/8, except the last pulse is cut off and the medium beat consequently shortened.


However if I were playing 5/4, I'd think of it quite differently. I'd play:

5/4 groove on drum kit

Which is 4/4 with an extra (medium) beat at the end. Or equivalently 2/4 + 3/4.

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  • FYI: I've edited the question in an attempt to clarify. I don't think it changes the meaning or value of your answer, but just in case ....
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 8:48
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    "I've come to an understanding that irregular meters can be thought of as simply having beats of different value." This is worth an upvote, but then the second and third sections of this answer which imply one can count an irregular meter any way that is comfortable is less accurate, imho. Even in rock music, there are implied beat lengths within irregular meters that we would be wise to let inform our counting and view of the subdivisions rather than simply picking a counting method and subdivisions that we are most comfortable with. Oct 7, 2022 at 10:20
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I was taught that 6/8 time, for example, meant "six beats in a measure; the eighth note (quaver) gets one beat."

Well, for a start, that was wrong, or you misunderstood. As wrong as saying "2/4 is four beats in a bqr, or 4/4 is eight beats".

6/8 is analogous to 2/4 with triplet 8ths. Whichever way you write it, it's ONE-and-a TWO-and-a.

(OK, this is SE, so I have to consider edge cases :-) A fast waltz, written in 3/4, is often conducted 'one in a bar'. To my mind, this makes it 'compound single', though this will attract argument. Well, what ELSE could an 'in 1' waltz be? 1/1 time is also occasionally encountered. Four quarters to a bar, but so fast as to be counted 'in 1'. 'Simple single'?

And yes, at the other end of the tempo scale a very slow 6/8 MIGHT be counted 'in 6', a very slow 2/4 MIGHT be counted 'in 4'.)

Broadly speaking, musical beats divide either into two (simple time) or 3 (compound time). 3/4 is One-and-Two-and-Three-and, 6/8 is ONE-and-a TWO-and-a.

But modern(ish) composers sometimes get more complex. They might mix up simple (2-group) and compound (3-group) beats in the same time signature! 5/8 could be grouped 2+3, a simple beat plus a compound beat, or 3+2, a compound beat plus a simple one. And the two beats are of different lengths! Equal 8th notes, but unequal beats! Groovy!

Yes, 5/8, 7/8 etc. MIGHT be a straight '5 or 7 to the bar'. But this rarely happens, rhythms just naturally fall into 2- or 3-groups. The only example I can recollect of a pounding '7 on the floor' without sub-grouping (it's written in 7/4) is the finale of Stravinsky's 'Firebird'. I'm sure there are (a few) others.

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  • Where is your example of 2/4 coming from? For that, I was taught "two beats per bar; quarter note gets one beat." Also, I don't need the meters explained to me, I'm looking to understand how meters are taught.
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:33
  • I guess we all start off with the over-simplified 'quarter-note = one beat'. But we quickly progress to the idea of other note values being 'one beat', and of simple and compound beat sub-divisions. But as your confusion between 6/8 adding up to eight 8th notes and 6/8 having eight BEATS is not uncommon, some of us may not be teaching it clearly enough.
    – Laurence
    Oct 7, 2022 at 22:15
  • What confusion? I just don't get where you're coming from. Again, I'm perfectly clear about meter and time signatures, I'm just asking about a teaching method.
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 23:47
  • Last para.: the bass line to "Money" is my go-to example for straight-seven.
    – nitsua60
    Oct 8, 2022 at 3:48
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5/8 and 7/8 - or quintuple and septuple meters - are not irregular compound meters: they are simple meters.

Their cousins 15/16 and 21/16, although ambiguous (due to also being ways to write 3 groups of 5 16th notes and 3 groups of 7 16th notes, respectively), are ways to write the true compound meter parallels of 5/8 and 7/8.

15/16 as a compound quintuple meter is "5 dotted 8th notes in triple divisions", while 21/16 as a compound septuple meter is "7 dotted 8th notes in triple divisions".

Beam 5/8 and 7/8 in whichever way you want - 3 & 2, 2 & 3, 4 & 3, 2 & 3 & 2, 3 & 4 - it is the fact that their component 8th notes get subdivided into 2 (or 4) sub-beats and not 3 sub-beats that makes them simple meters and not compound meters.

The "dotted-crotchet = dotted quarter note = one beat" approach is already deeply flawed. This approach also fails to explain compound meters such as 6/4 and 12/16. In 6/4 time, one beat is a dotted half note instead of a dotted quarter note, while in 12/16 time, one beat is a dotted 8th note instead of a dotted quarter note.

A better rule of thumb for detecting compound meters is to check whether the top number is both divisible by 3 and not equal to 3. If both are true, then we have a compound meter on our hands (unless the beaming is like "Blue Rondo a la Turk"'s 2-2-2-3 or nastier). If at least one is false, then we probably have a simple meter on our hands (the first ambiguous case I can think of is 10/8, which can be grouped as "quintuple-pound" duple meter or as an irregular beaming like 3-3-2-2 - my experience with 8/8 is that it is generally reserved for strangely beamed measures of eight 8th notes and is therefore better thought of as a simple meter).

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  • I'm not making the connection with how teachers address the seeming contraction between 6/8 having two beats but 5/8 having 5 beats.
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 9:00
  • @Aaron - Made an edit addressing the seeming contradiction.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 7, 2022 at 9:12
  • That helps. You might double-check about 6/4 time. I was just going through some ABRSM theory materials, and they treat 6/4 as having three groupings rather than two (i.e., like 3/2 rather than like 6/8).
    – Aaron
    Oct 7, 2022 at 9:17
  • @Aaron - Huh, my Royal Conservatory of Music theory books were pretty consistent about treating 6/4 as having only 2 groupings. (Possibly the most famous piece primarily in 6/4 time is Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, which treats 6/4 as having 2 groupings.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 7, 2022 at 9:19
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    @Aaron Ohhhhhhh… I think I get your question now. The real answer is we teach it “wrong” and then teach it more and more “right” as students progress, because trying to teach all the nuances of meter to a five year old who is still struggling with 4/4 versus 3/4 benefits no one. The same thing is done all over the place in mathematics. Second or third year of university, math majors basically reconstruct all of math from scratch in a more sophisticated way. We don’t teach it that way starting in first grade because it’s just too complicated. Oct 7, 2022 at 10:53
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I always approach it from a conductor's point of view: some beats are longer than others. 5/8 is two beats per measure, 7/8 is three, and so on. Some beats are 50% longer.

I don't have any sources handy, but every conducting textbook I've seen approaches it this way.

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  • Perhaps I've just had the misfortune of only ever seeing conductors conduct all the quintuple-meter measures I've ever had to play in concert band with 5 beats (admittedly, they probably were able to vary whether Beats 2 & 3 or Beats 3 & 4 were on the same side).
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 8, 2022 at 3:13
  • 'If some beats are 'longer than others', I'd question whether they actually qualify as beats. For me, the term beat signifies something more constant. Like each of the 5 'beats' in 5/4, or 5/8. Rather than a long and a short 'beat'.
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2022 at 7:17
  • I'd call 5/8 two beats, 8 pulses. We can argue over the terminology. But it's certainly two of SOMETHING!
    – Laurence
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:07

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