Newbie question! The time signature for this tune is 3/2 but could it just as correctly be marked as 6/4? What criteria would you use to decide between the two or is there no difference?



  • 1
    Perhaps this isn't quite a duplicate: 3/4 isn't the same time signature as 3/2. But it's close. The relationship between 3/2 and 6/4 is precisely analogous to the relationship between the much more common 3/4 and 6/8. If you read over the post yours is said to duplicate, you will find a lot of explanations that apply equally to your question.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 18:30
  • I feel this is genre-specific. Traditionally, yes, 6/4 would be two groups of three quarter notes and 3/2 is three groups of two quarter notes, just as we would see the same relationship hold between 6/8 and 3/4. But in popular music, I don't know that the same conventions apply. In rock music, 2/2 is typically used to indicate a half-time feel, with the backbeat on 2 (once per bar), while 4/4 has the backbeats on 2 and 4. The Police's "Synchronicity I", which feels distinctly like six beats per bar with the backbeats on 2, 4, and 6, is almost always notated in 6/4, possibly for that reason.
    – Brian Tung
    Commented May 18 at 8:44

5 Answers 5


There are good answers here. But something that is unwritten in those answers thus far, but nevertheless will help you to understand them is that, traditionally, time signatures in multiples of 3 starting from 6 (ie. 6, 9, 12, 15, etc) are called compound meters, and have (n/3) beats beats per bar. This is in contrast to simple meters, which are meters that subdivide exclusively into halves. (4/4 is the most common simple meter.)

Since a numerator of 6 implies a compound meter, 6/8 actually has two beats, not six, and is often counted something like "One-and-ah Two-and-ah".

This makes 6/4 fundamentally a different meter from 3/2.

  • 3/8 time is not compound.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 19:09
  • 1
    I agree, and I specifically said that it wasn't. "starting from 6" is even italicized.
    – Ben I.
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 19:11

On paper it looks very much like 6/4, because of the positions of the minims, but actually it is syncopated. The computer performance is very slow and misleading. If you listen to a real performance, it is definitely 3/2, not 6/4.

That's because there are three beats in each bar, not two.

It is conventional to write 3/2 for three minims in a bar, and 6/4 for two dotted minims. They might be the same in terms of arithmetic, but the 6/4 form draws attention to itself as not 3/2, so it was adopted centuries ago as a way of saying "this is compound time."


3/2 is three half-note beats in the bar. 6/4 is two dotted half beats. Like 3/4 amd 6/8. Is your piece predominantly three-in-a-bar or two-in-a-bar?

  • Apologies for being a bit thick - why is 6/4 considered two dotted half beats and not six quarter notes per bar (mathematically the same but certainly different in my eyes)?
    – nigelr
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:17
  • @nigelr By convention, meters labelled as "6" are always subdivided as 3+3, not 2+2+2. If you want 2+2+2, that's what triple meter is for. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:45
  • Music almost invariably groups in twos or threes. It's obvious why 3/2 was chosen to represent three in the bar. As there's no bottom number in a time signature 'fraction' to represent a dotted note, we use 6/4 (or 6/8, rarely 6/16) for compound duple (beat divisible into three, two of them).
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 14:41

I haven't listened to the piece, but given that we're deciding between 3/2 and 6/4 based on sheet music and not a recording, I'd listen to the piece and figure out whether every second quarter note sounds more emphasized (so 3/2) or every third quarter note is (so 6/4).

(If I were to decide on time signatures based solely on recordings, I'd likely use 3/4 or 6/8 instead, but I'd also have to figure out whether the emphasis is less on every second "triplet" (so more likely to be 6/8), for starters...)

  • My thought is that the majority is phrased as 2 groups of 3 crotchets except for bars 5 and 7 which are definitely 3 groups of 2 crotchets. I'm confused!
    – nigelr
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:20
  • This is the piece: youtube.com/watch?v=A9uUlgV2IKM
    – nigelr
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:24

Those time signatures have very little to do with each other. 6/4 is compound duple time with a beat consisting of a dotted minim where 3/2 time is simple triple time where a beat is equal to a minim.

You can covert simple an compound time signatures to each other while you keep to the amount of beats. You can make, for instance compound duple time into simple duple time, so 6/4 into 2/2. You can also turn simple triple meter into compound triple meter, so turn 3/2 into 9/4 for instance. You cannot convert triple time into dubbel time

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