How would a composer differentiate between a 12/8 and a 6/8 time signature?

On 3/4 timing you'd have 3 quarter notes as your rhythm, on 6/8 you'd have 2 dotted quarter notes correct?

I wrote a song that I tried to give a 12 8 feel, with strong rhythmic beats every 3 8th notes (i.e. 4 3/8 bars to make the 12/8 bar), and a melody that is basically a half note, and a quarter note.

Rhythm: | 1 - - 4 - - 7 - - 10 - - | 1 - - 4 - - 7 - - 10 - - | etc
Melody: | 1 - - - 5 - 7 - - - 11 - | 1 - - - 5 - 7 - - - 11 - | etc

Is this indeed 12 8? Or am I just running counter time signatures against each other that meet up every 12 bars (I mean beats)..

The song sounds nice with this timing, is there any reason to be careful on timing such as this?

10/02/15 Since edited to:

Rhythm: | 1 - - 2 - - 3 - - 4 - - | 1 - - 2 - - 3 - - 4 - - | etc
Melody: | a - a - a - a - a - a - | a - a - a - a - a - a - | etc

7 Answers 7


A composer differentiates between 12/8 and 6/8 depending on phrase-lengths / structures. If a structure repeats a certain number of beats less than 12/8, the time signature should be reduced to fit the song appropriately.

Yes, you are correct - in 3/4 you would have 3 quarter notes, in 6/8 you would have 2 dotted quarter notes.

I actually don't believe your song is phrased in 12/8. Your melody and rhythm line up every six beats, not twelve. Your ostinato repeats every six beats, so unless you have a countermelody or something that indeed makes full use of longer phrase structures, there would be not point in notating the song in 12/8.

You are super-imposing two time signatures here:

  • Rhythm: 6/8

  • Melody: 3/4

This poly-signature groove is interesting, and I really wouldn't worry about being "careful". Your 6/8 provides a steady beat while the super-imposed 3/4 provides great rhythm interest that pushes the song forward. In terms of notation, I would not worry about trying to write the melody in "3/4" - just leave the signature in 6/8 and it'll be a good easter egg for anyone who wants to take the time to analyze your song.

  • What "melody" are you speaking of? He hasn't told us a melody; those numbers are counts not pitches. So we don't know the phrasal shape of his tune. Obviously, I don't know it either, but I'd be quite surprised if his phrase was only four notes; indeed, I'm guessing we got the example of two bars not only the one necessary to ask the question precisely because in the asker's head two different things happen in them. tl;dr: @zach, use 12/8 unless you have super-short phrases. Feb 8, 2015 at 18:22
  • @jjmusicnotes - if the OP has written 12 counts in each bar,(top bit), would it more likely be in 12 rather than 6?
    – Tim
    Feb 8, 2015 at 18:51
  • @Codeswitcher The OP labeled the lower rhythmic count as "melody" and referred to the "melody" as being a half-note and a quarter not. I wasn't suggesting that his phrase(s) were only four notes - only that if he had short phrases, he should restructure metrically. If he has longer phrases, then 12/8 is acceptable. I disagree with your thoughts about "super-short phrases". The OP should use 12/8 if the phrases "feel" in four and 6/8 if the phrases "feel" in two. Feb 8, 2015 at 19:51
  • @Tim Yes, it is currently in 12/8; I proposed a metrical restructuring more inline with the rhythmic tendencies that would effectively double the number of measures. Therefore, instead of 2 measures of 12/8, you'd have 4 measures of 6/8. Feb 8, 2015 at 19:52
  • I've written a bunch of songs, mostly just by ear and from feeling. And now I'm trying to place them, define a melody, and tighten them up. I actually have already recorded this one, but it ended up as a 6/8 which it isn't. With some help with a friend I've decided it's a 4/4 with a 3-against-2 melody :).
    – Zach Smith
    Feb 10, 2015 at 20:26

12/8 and 6/8 are subtly different.If the phrases of your song are longer rather than shorter, it's more likely to be 12/8. In 6, the emphasised beats come every six quavers (eighth notes), whereas in 12, they come half as frequently, every twelve. If you feel that the third dotted crotchet (quarter note) is just as loud or emphasised as the first, put the song into 6. If you feel that, even though it's louder, it's not as pronounced as the first, then it'll be in 12.

Another way to check would be to count a slow 2, or a slow 4.As in 1//2//1//2// or 1//2//3//4//. If it sounds more fitting to the 4, then it's going to be 12/8.

That MAY answer the question. But there's another inside. Your rhythmic patten is fine, with one against another. 12/8 would fit better than 6/8.And because the pulse combines on the first beat of each bar, there's none of the 'it'll coincide every 12 bars'. Every 12 beats, yes.


It's a form of hemiola, when you look at it at the half-measure: the half-measure is contrasting 3/4 against dotted crochets. The main differentiation between 12/8 and 6/8 is pretty much the same one as between 4/4 and 2/4: in 12/8, you count 1-2-3-4 much as you would in 4/4, but you divide the beats into triplets. Given that, in a lot of music, the even-numbered bars have slightly less weight than the odd-numbered bars, the distinction between 2 bars of 6/8 and one of 12/8 can be subtle. If you get a strong sense of "four-ness", go with 12/8.

So what you're doing here is running 6/4 in the melody against 12/8 in the accompaniment, thus:enter image description here

Note the second half of the example. If you never subdivide the beats in the accompaniment, or, a fortiori, if you subdivide the beats into 2, 4, 8, etc., consider writing the metre this way.


All structures can be reduced to simpler elements and time-based phenomena in music is no exception.

there is no such thing as a number greater than 3. Anything that appears larger is a combination of 2's and 3's.

9/8 = 3+3+3 or 2+2+2+3

7/8 = 2+2+3 or 2+3+2 or 3+2+2

4/4 = 2+2

6/4 = 2+2+2

6/8 = 3+3

Phone Number = 3 + 3 + 2 + 2

Zip Code = 3 + 2 or 2 + 3

for example try counting to six. You might be saying or thinking 4,5,6 but you're really counting to 3 again and linguistically labeling the 2nd instance of 123 as 456. Depending on where you place the accent you might be counting to 2, three times but labeling the 2nd and 3rd instances of two as "3,4" and "5,6".

Stay up all night thinking about this... there are only 3 numbers in total. They are listed as follows:

1 Nothing ( 0 )

2 One ( 1 )

3 Multiple Ones ( 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + etc )


It could be 6/8 or it could be 12/8. It depends on how it's implemented and how you want it to be accented. In 6/8 you are breaking the measure into two dotted quarter note beats and in 12/8 you are breaking the measure into four dotted quarter note beats.

Think of it in terms of syllables from common words*:

AP - ple (for duple meter)

Hot - po - ta - to (for quadruple meter)

They both have accents on 1 which is obvious. Notice on beat 3 on the quadruple meter there is a slight accent, but it as not as strong as the original accent on 1. That's pretty much the only real difference. So if you want beat 7 of your song to sound as strong as beat 1, then 6/8 would be the proper choice. If you want less emphasis on beat 7 then 12/8 would be the better choice. Also think about when you change chords. If it you change on beat 1 and 7 then again 6/8 may be better for you. If it's every measure I would think 12/8 would be better.

Just to demonstrate the difference compare the feel of Jimi Hendrix's Red House (in 12/8) :

To the Animals' House of the Rising Sun (6/8):

*Example from Pocket Music Theory

  • thanks for unearthing the Animals song! It's just proved a theory I've had for years. The last note of nearly every bar of 6/8 was played as an open G by the guitarist, rather than the note that belonged to the chord. Yes, on C, it works, but not Am, D, F or E!. Reckon he had trouble changing chords! Ah, the old days.
    – Tim
    Feb 8, 2015 at 13:33

The beauty of the duple/triple time signatures, whether 6/8 or 12/8, is their ambiguity. Your basic rhythmic element is the eighth note. (Or quaver, as I have been informed.) A 6/8 measure can have two or three stresses per measure, and you can happily alternate the scheme within a song if it suits your purpose.

Setting text is different than melody alone, but the length of phrase will dictate whether you go 6 or 12.

Triple/duple meters are "threshold experiences" that will lead you to more complex poly rhythms, and you seem to be well on your way to exploring more complex schemes.

  • Eighth notes are quavers.
    – user16935
    Feb 8, 2015 at 18:46

Because these answers are coming from a "music theory" perspective, rather than an audiation perspective, my hope is that this response adds clarity. Music moves in 2s, 3s, or a combination of 2s and 3s. That's it.

Note that I wrote "moves," as the basis for rhythm is movement.

"Time signatures" do not have the same meaning that they did when first used, centuries ago.

One may simply think of a 12/8 time signature as having measures with 12 8th notes - or the equivalent. Similarly, a 4/4 time signature signifies that each measure has the ewuivalent of 4 wuater notes. That's all.

Time signatures are, essentially, a composers convention, helping to visually organize music so that it may be read in the easiest way. Music written in 12/8 can be in duple, triple or unusual paired meters. Further, the notion that the first beat in a measure gets the accent is simply unmusical. Music flows, as in a river.

  • 1
    Hi - and welcome to Stack Exchange. I don't understand your answer.. But I'm sorry that it was downvoted and without even an explanation as to why. Most of the users on this site are nicer than that
    – Zach Smith
    Nov 10, 2019 at 15:31

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