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Is it possible to tell the difference between a single measure written in 3/2 time vs 6/4 time, when looking solely at what is written, with no audio available?

For example, consider a measure which consists of the following notes:

halfnote, halfnote, quarternote, quarternote

If I'm asked to fill in a time signature, are both answers correct? And if so, are they equally correct? or should I be looking for clues as to which answer is better?

Edit: Thanks to the editor for fixing my errors. I still had intervals on my mind when typing the question. :)

  • I've added a more thorough description of compound vs. simple meter at the end. If my post answers the question you had, I encourage you to click the "check mark" at the top left of where my answer starts. This is a way of saying that my post does the trick and gives you the description you were looking for. If later answers come along and you like them better, you can switch and give one of those the check instead. If my post raises further questions, feel free to ask follow-up questions in a comment and I can improve my post. – jdjazz Nov 18 '17 at 14:10
  • I never once dreamed of not accepting. I just don't, as a matter of principle, accept answers until I have had time to read them fully. I'm travelling right now so I'm checking back when I can. Thanks again for the phenomenal answer and explanation. I will be likely reading it several more times. – Kyle Schlitt Nov 18 '17 at 16:06
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    That's a great philosophy! There is certainly no rush to accept an answer. And it really hadn't been very long when I commented. Sounds like you are already familiar with how to use the site, which is great. Given that you've accepted an answer relatively early, please do choose another answer if something better/clearer/more suitable comes along. – jdjazz Nov 18 '17 at 16:29
  • Possible dupe: music.stackexchange.com/questions/25035/… – ericw31415 Dec 7 '17 at 3:05
  • @ericw31415 I think the two questions are not at all alike. – Kyle Schlitt Dec 7 '17 at 3:36
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Summary

In your example, the notes create a rhythmic grouping of 2+2+[1+1]. Fundamentally, these notes divide the measure into three primary beats. That quality is sufficient to qualify the rhythm as 3/2 and not 6/4, because the convention is that 6/4 divides the meter into two primary beats of 3+3 whereas 3/2 divides the meter into three primary beats of 2+2+2.

Meter in General

A song written with 6 beats could be broken into different groupings. You could group the beats 2+2+2 or 3+3. The groupings tell us where the strong/primary beats lie. 2+2+2 implies that there are three primary beats (occurring on 1, 2, and 3), and each primary beat has 2 sub-beats (1 & 2 & 3 &). A grouping of 3+3 implies that there are two primary beats (occurring on 1 and 4), and each primary beat has 3 sub-beats (1 2 3 4 5 6). (In fact, when counting 6/4 time, many feel it like this: "1 and uh, 2 and uh.")

This difference has a name: simple meter vs. compound meter. Simple meter divides the primary beats into two sub-beats. Compound meter divides the primary beats into three sub-beats. This difference is how we will determine what the meter is in your example.

But there's a second important characteristic of any meter: how many primary beats the song has.

  • duple refers to meter made up from two primary beats
  • triple refers to meter made up from three primary beats
  • quadruple refers to meter made up from four primary beats

We can combine these two qualities of the meter:

enter image description here

As you can see by looking at the table above, meters written as 6, 9, 12 (and any other higher multiple of 3) are, by convention, compound meter. Meters written in 2, 3, or 4 are, by convention, simple meter. We need a way to distinguish the two, and this is the convention we've created to achieve that goal.

Your Meter Is Probably 3/2

Music tends to emphasize the primary beats. This is evident in how the music appears, sounds, and feels. So in 3/2 time we would expect notes to fall on beats 1, 2, and 3 because those are the primary beats. But in 6/4 time, we would expect notes to fall on beats 1 and 4 because those are the primary beats.

enter image description here

As the top picture shows, your notes line up perfectly with the primary beats of 3/2. By contrast, as the bottom picture shows, your notes barely line up at all with the primary beats of 6/4. This suggests that the rhythm is probably in 3/2, because music tends to emphasize the primary beats. It's not impossible for music to emphasize the upbeats--it's just less common in many forms of music.

To summarize, here's the first big consideration we've just looked at: which beats does the rhythm emphasize? But there's a second consideration: how the music is actually notated. Music is often notated so that the primary beats aren't hidden. Technically, there are actually two ways to annotate your example:

enter image description here

enter image description here

The top picture shows where beats 1, 2, and 3 are, whereas the bottom picture is written to specifically show where beat 4 is. If we saw the bottom notation, we would think "oh, beat 4 is being shown, so it must be a primary beat. This music is probably in 6/4." So the fact that your rhythm is notated like the top picture (and not like the bottom picture) suggests 3/2 rather than 6/4.

  • Thanks so much for the thorough answer. I will read it very carefully. – Kyle Schlitt Nov 18 '17 at 0:20
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    Thank you for writing this so I don’t have to. Small point of consideration: tempo. You typically don’t see pieces in a fast 6/4 unless some sort of ostinato is employed, at which point, the ostinato would determine how beats are grouped in the measure. Apart from feeling every beat in that scenario you’re basically left with either 1+5 or 2+4 / vice versa. – jjmusicnotes Nov 18 '17 at 6:00
  • Oh I just saw your explanation of compound meter and it’s important to clarify a couple points: in compound meter, divisions of 3 are also compound - at faster speeds they are felt “in one”. – jjmusicnotes Nov 18 '17 at 6:06
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    if this answer works for you please consider accepting it. – Neil Meyer Nov 18 '17 at 7:38
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    @KyleSchlitt, the notation software I used is noteflight.com. It's a free, web-based notation software. It can connect with a Google account without having to create a separate account. I find it intuitive and easy to use, and I really like that it's web-based. For some of the diagrams in my answer, I took screenshots of the Noteflight sheet music, copied the pictures into Powerpoint, and added text there. – jdjazz Nov 18 '17 at 18:58
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Your example is clearly in 3/2. It is grouped as three half-note beats. 6/4 would be grouped as two dotted-half beats. (The first naming is intuitive, the second just a convention.)

As with so much of music theory this is a framework, not a 'rule'. If it's established that the pulse is 'three-in-the-bar' (3/2) it's perfectly allowable to notate a syncopated 'two-in-the-bar' against it. Playing a 6/4 rhythm against an underlying 3/2 is a very different effect to changing into 3/2 completely.

But, if this is a 'theory exercise question', don't get too clever. It's 3/2.

  • I think it's important to explain why that's true. For readers to improve their understanding, it's important to understand the justification. This is a great summary of the answer, but there's no explanation of the rationale. For students who are still learning, I think the rationale is as important as the final answer. – jdjazz Nov 18 '17 at 14:42
  • But that's all there is to it. Three half note groups - 3/2. Two dotted half groups - 6/4. The first is intuitive, the second just a convention. Sometimes too much explanation just confuses. – Laurence Payne Nov 18 '17 at 15:32
  • That would be a valuable addition to your answer. Currently, your answer doesn't explain that it's a matter of convention. But as soon as you mention that this is just part of a convention, it raises the question: "what is this convention?" The answer to that is "meters written as 6, 9, 12 (any higher multiples of 3) are, by convention, compound." – jdjazz Nov 18 '17 at 15:55
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    @jdjazz Thanks for that. My instinct was to label it as 3/2 also but I hesitated since 6/4 seemed legitimate also. I can definitely accept the fact that 3/2 is a more natural answer. My goal is. to learn the rules as well as I can so I can start breaking them! :) – Kyle Schlitt Nov 18 '17 at 16:50
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    You aren't 'breaking a rule' by grouping notes 'against the beat' (as long as you do it on purpose). You're probably indicating a syncopation. Playing - and notating - a 6/4 rhythm against an underlying 3/2 is a very different effect to changing into 3/2 completely. – Laurence Payne Nov 18 '17 at 17:50

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