# Is there any practical difference between 3/4 and 3/8 time?

Is there any practical difference between 4/4 and 8/8? regards a common and unusual time signature; both 3/4 and 3/8 time are pretty common.

What difference in performance is implied in the the difference between 3/4 and 3/8 time signatures?

What would lead a composer to notate a work in one or the other?

• Answer this: Second movement of Beethoven's second (3/8, 8th = 120) Third movement of Beethoven's eighth (3/4, quarter = 126) What clues, if any, key the listener into one being in 3/8 vs 3/4?
– user7159
Sep 28, 2013 at 3:09

These two time signatures both indicate simple triple time (also known as waltz time). They are mainly used in the same genres:

• Formal dances such as waltzes, minuets, mazurka, and scherzi
• Country, R&B
• sometimes pop

All of these genres commonly use simple triple time i.e they have three beat per measure (usually with the first beat being the strongest). The obvious differences between 3/4 and 3/8 are the number and length of the beats (there is one other simple triple meter, 3/2). 3/8 has three quavers and 3/4 has three crotchets. However, 3/8 time usually suggests a higher tempo or a shorter hypermeter than 3/4. This is not always the case as there is no strict rule, but it is often implied.

There's no absolute rules as to when a composer should use one over the other - it often comes down to the tempo and feel of the music, but it is subjective. I've (for better or worse) seen Presto 3/4 pieces that go much faster than some 3/8 pieces.

The big difference in terms of timing is that 3/8 is mainly used as a compound time, whereas 3/4 is most commonly conducted in simple time. So if the composer "felt" that a bar should be conducted as a single unit rather than 3 individual beats, that might be a particular reason to choose one over the other. Tempo of course does come into it as well.

Of course, then we get to the question of why 3/8 should be used over 6/8, and so on - sometimes when the phrases work in odd numbers this is clearer, but more often than not it's just at the composer's discretion to emphasise various beats and timings slightly differently.

In the context of Baroque dance music or suites, then there are good reasons to use 3/8 in preference of 3/4 (or vice versa). In the days before metronomes, how the music was notated would be an indication of performance speed. The notation would also be specific to a particular dance.

I have borrowed diagrams from Jan van Biezen, who has written extensively on such subjects:

The above image (figure 1) is fairly self-explanatory (the metronome marks are a modern interpretation of a 1705 French work by l'Affillard, I believe): faster dances with quicker steps are notated in 3/8, slower ones in 3/2 or 3. N.b. it appears that 3 can mean duple 3-time similar to 3/2 as well as what we would recognise as modern 3/4 time.

Now, the following diagram (figure 2) summarises the transitions between using different metres and tempi. Van Biezen writes in Dutch; Geheel means whole as in normal time where you are really concentrating on counting in 3, think of a Menuet (3/4), and Half means half as in half-time, like a Sarabande with a drawn-out beat but with possible subdivision of that beat (3/2).

Figure 2 is saying the following: if your dance/music has a 'whole beat' feel to it, then use one of the time signatures on the left. If it is fast, use 3/8, if it is slower, use 3/4. If your dance has a 'duple subdivision' feel, use a time signature on the right. If it is fast, use 3, if it is slow, use 3/2.

However as time progressed, it seems the antiquated 3 was replaced by 3/4, which is a sort of one-size-fits-all time signature in that it can accommodate both 'whole' and 'half' time feel.

Take four cases (I'm using Bach cello suites as examples because they are based on dances as was the done thing back then, and also because they're awesome pieces of music).

1. A grave Sarabande in 3/2, (bottom right of figure 2); this is slow and the duple subdivision is accentuated in some bars, especially at cadences and throughout the second part of the piece.
2. A slightly more urgent Sarabande could be written in l'Affillard's antiquated 3 (top right of figure 2) to show that the beat should be between crotchet = 60 and 120, but that you still have the duple subdivision. Bach, however, writes it in 3/4, which is acceptable and we still understand that it's a sarabande.
3. A menuet would have a gai tempo, but the metre is somewhat ambiguous. Obviously there is stress on each beat of the bar, but we could place emphasis on the quavers too, as in this example. We might therefore use the antiquated 3 signature (top right of figure 2), but really 3/4 (bottom left of figure 2) is adequate and this is what Bach uses.
4. A vite gigue is unambiguous, Bach writes it in 3/8 because it's rapid and we feel the whole beats (top left of figure 2).

Later on his page, van Biezen also refers to the time signature as determining the shortest value at which notes inégales can be used. It's not strictly important here but is quite interesting, so read the pages linked in this and above paragraphs.

Furthermore, as has been alluded to in other answers, in both Baroque dance music and more modern pieces, 3/8 can be used as the sub-unit of a hypermetre (i.e. counting one-in-a-bar to express a phrase lasting longer than 3 quaver beats). This may be useful if the composer wishes to highlight a sense of urgency in the music, or perhaps if it becomes somehow easier to represent complex cross- and counter-rhythms.

This might be interesting reading too, a discussion on whether Bach really did use time signatures as tempo directions.

Tl;dr: If you're in 18th century Europe and need your crew to know how fast and in what mood to play your new triple-time dance piece, you would choose 3/8 or 3/2 etc. as a matter of convention.

If you're in 21st century anywhere, use the time signature that you think conveys the mood of your piece or which you feel best expresses your phrasing.

3/8 is more suggestive of a single beat per measure (a dotted-quarter note made up of 3 sub-beats) whereas 3/4 is more suggesting of three beats per measure (each a quarter note).

• Not at all. While sometimes counted as one downbeat both represent 3 beats per measure. You can do the exact same thing in 3/4 with a dotted half note.
– Dom
Jun 15, 2016 at 3:24
• Dom, the fact that you can do the same thing does not mean the two meters suggest exactly the same thing. Jun 16, 2016 at 1:06
• @PhilFreihofner no, but the fact they are both simple triple meter conveys the base usage of each is similar not that they both only represent one beat. There's a bigger picture missing from this answer and others which is why I put the bounty on this question.
– Dom
Jun 16, 2016 at 1:23
• @Dom I'll grant it is a subtle difference, but it is real. Three eighth notes usually are in meters where the three eighths are beamed together as a single notational unit, i.e., 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8. Quarter notes cannot be beamed together. Beaming has meaning both as a sign and a symbol. There is the mathematical, lexical meaning (symbol) and the connotations that come with the binding together (sign). You can rewrite 12/8 as 12/4, but the metrical accents will not be as easy to read. Same for 3/8 vs 3/4, where Tauber's answer is perfectly valid. Jun 16, 2016 at 1:46
• @Dom We may have to agree to disagree. Yes, both convey strong-weak-weak, but the degree to which the strong differs from the weak can often be slightly greater in 3/8 than 3/4. Saying that beams are not significant is akin to claiming a font does not change the interpretation of words written with it. There are felt differences that arise from shapes and graphics. Music engraving, when well done, has many elements where the appearance on the page helps put across the meaning. It' not just the symbolic significance. A common beam helps bind together where stems have notes standing alone. Jun 16, 2016 at 3:34

Typically from what I've seen, 3/4 music is conducted using three baton movements per measure, whereas 3/8 music is conducted with a single baton downbeat per measure; I'd consider 3/8 to be closer to 6/8 than to 3/4 in terms of feel and conducting.

• In the same way, 3/4 is very similar in feeling to 6/4, so I don't buy this.
– yo'
Aug 7, 2017 at 11:29
• @yo': From what I've seen, 6/4 is usually conducted by adding another left and right motion to a 4/4 pattern, and has stresses on the first, third and fifth beats; I'm not sure why that would seem similar to 3/4. Aug 7, 2017 at 14:22
• It depends, I've got sheet music where 6/4 is clearly expressing a (2+1)+(2+1) pattern, so basically a 3/4 + 3/4 just written this way to give it a more fluent feeling.
– yo'
Aug 7, 2017 at 14:24
• @yo': Some music uses 6/4 in a way equivalent to 6/8 or 3/4+3/4, but I think it's more often 4/4+2/4, which really wouldn't have any other equivalent using a single time signature. Aug 7, 2017 at 15:15

While many things said in these answers are correct, I think the actual difference has been missed.

The most important thing to remember when considering the difference between the two is probably that people often speak of 3/8 as having 'three beats in a bar' - but it actually has one. 3/8 has one beat in a bar, 6/8 has two, 9/8 has three, and 12/8 has four, where each beat is a dotted crochet.

There is indeed a difference in the notation of the two, but the main difference is how they feel when you subdivide them (divide them into shorter note lengths such as when counting in your head).

Subdivision is very important for orchestral musicians as it allows them to keep in time and understand how to play rhythms which look strange at first sight when sight reading, for example. Conductors will often tell you about their 'internal metronome' - many constantly hear the subdivision of the beat in their heads while conducting.

So what's the difference?

In 3/8 time, there is one beat in each bar (one dotted crochet) and each beat feels like it's in three - you can split each beat up into three quavers.

In 3/4 time, there are three beats in each bar, and each beat feels like it's in two - you can split each beat up into two quavers.

So, when you listen to a piece in 3/8, you can clap to the beat and, depending on the speed, you can count 'one, two, three, one two three...'.
But when you listen to a piece in 3/4, you can clap to the beat and, as you clap, say 'one two, two two, three two, one two, two two....'

So in conclusion, a 3/8 piece will sound like it's in three, but a 3/4 piece will sound like it's in two, even though there are three beats in a bar.

So whereas it can be very difficult (or not really possible) to tell the difference between 4/4 and 2/4 when listening to a piece, and both are often considered correct in aural exams when it is hard to tell, there is a very notable difference between 3/4 and 3/8, and the two do not actually sound the same.

Hope this helps!

• Typically, 3/8 is also subdivided into 2 subdivisions. Dividing it into 3 make much more sense a compound triple meter. Not saying it doesn't ever happen, it's just not the common use for the time signature.
– Dom
Jun 15, 2016 at 3:30
• 3 8 definately does not have one beat Mar 7, 2017 at 17:50

My answer is that it has to do with feel. I heard a concert where the conductor changed from 4/4 to 3/8 quietly he counted "one and two" that implies 3/8 eighths while a 3/4 has : one and two and three and, from this you feel the difference, and the difference is quite big.

For me it depends on context. I'm writing a piece that contains 3/8 and 4/8. Why? Because it begins in 5/8. Obviously 5/8 doesn't translate into a /4 time signature and this way it's easier for the players as they continue to count in quavers instead of trying to switch between /4 and /8 time.

On the other hand, if I was switching between /4 times and I wanted a measure with three beats then I'd use 3/4.

It's also a question of what makes sense. If your piece is more easily notated in semiquavers/quavers, use 3/8. If it's a quaver/crotchet, use 3/4. If it's crotchet/minim, use 3/2. If the time signature divides the piece in a way that's easy to read then you've found the right one.

Both 3/4 and 3/8 have been used over the years for everything from a funeral procession to a one-in-a-bar fast waltz. And 3/8 by no means always implied a faster tempo. 3/8 is unusual in today's popular music, but common in more academic styles.

The 4/4 and 8/8 answer is different. 8/8 is mainly used when the eighth-note grouping is irregular, or even varies from bar to bar.

3/8 and 3/4 traditionally referred to certain type of dances in the old days. as far as the performance is concerned, dances that associate with 3/8 time signature start the phrase in the last beat of the meter, whereas dances in 3/4 start at the first beat of the measure. As mentioned by someone above, 3/8 dance is typically passipied; 3/4 waltz. However, it doesn't really matter now.

someone mentioned that 3/8 gets just one beat and treated as if a dotted quarter note. This isn't typically true unless the tempo marks dotted quarter=mm. However, it wouldn't be uncommon for the conductor to conduct the first downbeat for triple meter piece because they are typically very fast. beethoven 5th symphony 3rd movement for example.

• Yes, @user43766, Beethoven 5 is an illustrative example here: the 1st mvt is in 1-beat-per-bar 2/4; the 2nd in a slow 3-beat 3/8; the scherzo is 1-in-a-bar 3/4; the finale starts 2-in-a-bar 2/2, but speeds up to 1-in-a-bar at the coda. Nov 17, 2017 at 3:23