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Part of the ABRSM Grade 2 piano exam involves the examiner playing a piece, with the student required to start clapping along when they sense the rhythm, and to then identify whether or not the piece was in 'double or triple time'.

I have my exam next week, and just encountered a bit of a curveball regarding this. My teacher did some aural exercises with me. She played a piece, which I said was in triple time. She told me I was wrong, and that it was double time. However, the time signature was 6/8. I had been clapping along correctly to the rhythm.

Now, my understanding has always been -

double time = number of beats in a bar is a multiple of 2 triple time = number of beats in a bar is a multiple of 3

If a piece in 6/8 is actually 'double' time, then I have no idea what this term actually means!

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    Wikipedia says: "Triple metre ... is a musical metre characterized by a primary division of 3 beats to the bar" (with emphasis on primary) – anatolyg Mar 23 '17 at 13:59
  • Strange terminology; it's been decades but I don't recall having to claim "double time" or "triple time" in my grade 2. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 23 '17 at 16:42
  • 6/8 is a compound triple. It is like playing 2 dotted crochets. In fact it is more accurate to say 6/8 is 2 dotted crochet beats instead of 6 quaver beats. – Ariana Mar 24 '17 at 15:01
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This is an old chestnut! 6/8 is compound time, so called because it's a sort of mixture. It can be counted in a slower two, or a faster six. ONE--TWO-- , or ONE two three FOUR five six.

So, it's easy to get confused. It's more correctly called duple (double) rather than triple time, because it's made up of two dotted crotchets in each bar, but if it occurs in an exam, saying 'actually, that's 6/8' should be enough. If the examiner still isn't satisfied, then 'double' will suffice. Good luck with the exam. I hope your teacher hasn't left the aural training till the last minute, like a lot do...

EDIT - I asked ABRSM, and the best I could get was that 6/8 didn't feature in the aural till grade VII - the earlier ones using 2,3 or 4 time only. So, you shouldn't get that thrown at you. And, maybe, your teacher shouldn't worry you with that either!

  • It was the first time we've done any! Honestly, I don't think I could tell the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 by listening alone - it would depend on the music and how it was played. To me they are two sides of the same coin anyway! The exact same music can be written in several different time signatures, after all. – Tom Davies Mar 23 '17 at 11:19
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    Not exactly! Listen very carefully to 3/4 time, and each ONE beat should be emphasised the same - at least by the examiner at grade II level. With 6/8, the ONE is more emphasised than the TWO (FOUR), so there is at least a subtle difference. And you do realise that even though 3/4 has 3 crotchets per bar, it's not interchangeable with 6/8, which appears to have 3 crotchets. – Tim Mar 23 '17 at 11:45
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    One way to get used to the difference between 6/8 and 3/4 is to think of the main theme in 'America' from West Side Story (1 minute into youtube.com/watch?v=enqhiEzfZz4). It alternates bars of 6/8 ('I-want-to BE-in-Am) and 3/4 (E RI CA). If it were all 3/4 the first part would be stressed wrong ('I-want TO-be IN-Am'). – dbmag9 Mar 23 '17 at 19:04
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    Well, I just had the exam, and had another surprise. The piece he played obviously had a 1-2-3 1-2-3 rhythm, but as I wasn't able to tell if it was 3/4 or 6/8, I answered by saying it was either 3/4 or 6/8, but the speed suggested to me that it was 6/8, therefore my answer is double time. He said "Since I asked 'double or triple', it can't be 6/8, so I think you should say triple time". So once again, I'm left baffled. – Tom Davies Apr 4 '17 at 14:34
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    @TomDavies - you are not alone! I'm baffled too, now! – Tim Apr 4 '17 at 14:46
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Was your teacher playing from an ABRSM publication of sample tests? I doubt they'd throw you a curve ball in a Grade 2 exam! But if they do, and you clap 'fast 6' to a tune in 6/8, I'm sure the examiner would be kind.

You might be excused for confusing one bar of 6/8 with two of 3/4. But be clear that 6/8 is described as 'compound duple', 2 beats to the bar.

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