How do you know if a song has triplets in 4/4 or if the tempo is 3/4 ?

For example, consider this song :

For the first line , I can count 1,2,3 ,1,2,3 ,1,2,3 ,1,2,3
or simply 1 ,2 ,3 ,4

Does the song have 4 triplets or is it 3/4 ? I am confused as to how to find if a song like this is in 3/4 or 4/4

  • So the above song is 3/4 and not 4/4 . Am I correct ? Jul 1, 2016 at 11:09
  • 1
    When the music has constant triple note-grouping, here is no "correct" answer until we see the notation. Even then, the decision to write compound time or simple time with triplets is arbritary. A fast 3/4 WILL fall into groups of (typically 4) bars.
    – Laurence
    Jul 1, 2016 at 13:14

5 Answers 5


Technically speaking, you can't ever say for certain until you see the composer's original score (if there even is one); a piece could literally be written in an infinite number of time signatures. As such, we have to make these decisions based on a knowledge of prior practice and on what makes the most practical sense. So, let's look at this excerpt notated in the two manners you suggested:

Example 1: Notated in 4/4 with triplets

enter image description here

Well, that seems a bit hectic, doesn't it? Let's try this instead:

Example 2: Notated in (a fast) 3/4

enter image description here

Hopefully you agree that Example 2 is a bit more user-friendly than Example 1! Indeed, this alone should be enough to suggest that this was probably conceived in a fast 3/4, and this is not uncommon; though the individual beats themselves are quick, music like this is often felt "in one" instead of in three. So we don't feel it as a lightning-fast onetwothreeandonetwothreeand but rather as a more leisurely ONEtwothreeandONEtwothreeand. Thus I would bet that it was originally considered in a triple meter (as in, 3 on top in the time signature) instead of triplets in a duple or quadruple meter.

Edit: And here's another example to show what Tim discusses in his answer.

Example 3: Notated in 6/8

enter image description here

In my opinion, 6/8 is almost as good as 3/4, but 3/4 is still a little better. The left hand in m. 6 of Example 3 could definitely throw a sight-reader for a loop, whereas the same spot in Example 2 (m. 11) is as easy as it gets.

  • In the 2nd example (Example 2: Notated in (a fast) 3/4) , shouldn't the first note (G note ) count for 1 bar . Shouldn't G be sustained for 3 counts instead of 1 ? Jul 1, 2016 at 11:32
  • If that first G were extended to last the whole bar, then every subsequent quarter note would also have to be extended to a full bar, and then the eighth notes would necessarily be dotted quarters in a hemiola-type arrangement. You could notate it that way, but in my opinion it's needlessly complex.
    – Richard
    Jul 1, 2016 at 11:38
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    Oh, thanks, I didn't know that! (I was searching for it when I made my comment, so that's great to know...apparently it's also tanpura in English.) Based on your description, where the third count has three notes, it sounds like you're focusing on the lower-voice melody (played on the tablet in the video). That's notated starting in measure 9 of Example 2.
    – Richard
    Jul 1, 2016 at 11:46
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    I agree. It might be because the piece has a clear four-bar hypermeter (by "four bar" I mean four bars of 3/4). The 4/4 notation nicely groups that into a single measure, and we sense it intuitively, I think, in the 3/4 notation. In contrast, the 6/8 notation splits that hypermeter in two, which seems odd to me.
    – Richard
    Jul 1, 2016 at 12:56
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    I felt that some of the time, the '3rd beat' of 12/8 was closer to the '1st beat' of the next 6/8, which is why I suggested 6/8 rather than 12/8.
    – Tim
    Jul 1, 2016 at 14:35

I'd put it in 6/8, due to the triplets feel, but the phrasing kind of repeats every two bars, thus two lots of 3/8, making 6/8. Why /8? Well, it's fairly quick, so I'd write it as quavers instead of crotchets. There is a recent question on that subject - quavers to play give the feeling that they are quicker - I know it depends on the tempo mark, but nevertheless...

It could be construed as 4/4, which may translate into 12/8, or could even be left as a simple 3/4, albeit a fast one.

A quick Google trawl sees it written both in 6/8 and 12/8 - intriguing?

  • I would have gone for 12/8, but it's entirely subjective. Jul 1, 2016 at 14:44
  • @MichaelKay - see my comment at the end of Richard's answer. It's only a bit subjective.
    – Tim
    Jul 1, 2016 at 14:46

In contrast to what Richard has written, I do not believe that this is in 3/4 time, and choosing a meter by which is visually easier (whatever that means) is misunderstanding what a meter really is. Meter is ultimately about what we can hear, and choosing a meter based on visual simplicity gives short shrift to our own ears.

In William Caplin's book Classical Form, he discussed real meter vs notated meter. The notated meter can not be determined by listening, whereas the real meter can only be perceived through hearing. As has been pointed out, this theme could be notated in many meters: 3/4, 3/8, 6/8, or 12/8. Heck, you could even notate it in 1/4 time, and the first doop doop doo-doo would take three measures. No matter how Ramin Djawadi chose to notate it, ultimately, what he wrote down is merely the notated meter, and unless one of us gets a chance to see his score, we will simply be guessing as to what that might be.

The real meter is also somewhat debatable, but there are some principles that we apply. Are these principles iron-clad? No. Nothing about real meter is iron-clad, but they are suggestive.

First, a measure should be long enough to carry a meaningful musical unit. This usually means that it carries more than a single impulse. This is the reason that I would reject 1/4, and suspect that 3/4 and 3/8 are both improbable as the real meter.

Then, we typically aim for roughly 8-bar phrases with 4-bar half-phrases. This is also a convention, but let us see where it takes us. 3/4 or 3/8 would lead to to 16-bar phrases. 1/4 would lead to a whopping 48 bar phrase. 12/8, however, with 4 triplets per bar, would bring us a 4 bar phrase.

This brings me to the conclusion that the most likely real meter is 6/8, which has 8 bar phrases, and measures that carry more musical material than a single impulse.

Now, as for the notated meter, that is a research question, and anyone's guess unless the composer or one of the players lets us know.

Edit: I found the actual notated meter

By total random chance, I have just seen a signed copy of the first page of Ramin Djawadi's score (!), and I can now confirm that the he notated it in 6/8:

enter image description here

  • 1
    +1, great answer! While I agree with most of what you said, I'll just point out that Caplin's book (I took the liberty of correcting his last name) is titled "Classical Form," and so what he discusses doesn't always translate to later musical genres, in this case 21st-century film scores. Nevertheless, great information you've shared!
    – Richard
    Jun 1, 2017 at 11:21
  • Thanks for the correction. And, to be honest, I found large tracts of that book to be rather inscrutable. But his section on rhythm wasn't really in regards to classical music - he was just making a distinction between notation and hearing, because otherwise you end up trapped, unable to proceed. Maybe it could be tweaked, but it's really a principle that applies to any music that has phrases.
    – Ben I.
    Jun 1, 2017 at 12:05

We must also consider - although different options always available - where we want the downbeat (accent) to be placed. So in this example in the 4/4 time the emphasis will be on the 1st note of the quaver group and not the other first notes of each group in the bar. But if you listen to the original of this piece the emphasis is given on every first note of the group of quavers, so you could be forgiven for thinking in 3/4 BUT if you listen to the tune in the bass it is every 2 beats so it would have to be 6/8 - a 3/4 would destroy the "feeling of the downbeat of this melody".

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You've almost answered your own question. At different time scales, different groupings appear: groupings of 3 ("is it in 3/4") within longer groupings of 4 ("is it in 4/4"), within even longer groupings ("is this two 2-bar phrases or one 4-bar phrase"). The composer has to choose one of these levels as the quarter note, just to be able to write it down. But a listener can pay attention to any of these levels.

For example, Liszt's famous Mephisto Waltz #1 (piano score and recordings easy to find on youtube) is notated as about 900 bars of 3/4, but counting 1-2-3 1-2-3 that fast is too exhausting. It's much easier to hear a "downbeat" on every fourth bar, or even every eighth bar.

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