I understand that 12/8 can be counted as 4/4 time where each beat gets a triplet but I don't understand why some songs that seem apt for 12/8 still get written out in 4/4. What are the criteria for which gets chosen?

  • I reckon, sometimes, there's no good answer... – Tim May 17 '18 at 9:27

And why is 4/4 sometimes used for music apparently in 12/8?

Here's a classic example. Written in 4/4 (well, 2/2 'cut time' actually, but let that go for now) rather than 12/8. Beethoven has chosen the time signature that suits the melody with its dotted 8th - 16th rhythms rather than the accompaniment with its (LOTS of) 3-groups.

enter image description here

and here are two approaches to notating a shuffle (NOT swing - just for once that 'metric modulation' 8th = triplet notation is accurate) tune.

(Publishers usually go with the 12/8 option for 'Blueberry Hill, perhaps someone thought that too 'hard' for guitarists?):

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Key sig. or time sig? (Para.2). – Tim May 14 '18 at 5:39
  • Thanks but why did Beethoven choose to write it like that? – armani May 17 '18 at 8:49
  • Like I said, he had to pick triplets for the accompaniment or duplets for the melody. In some pieces the convention is that dotted rhythms over three-groups are played as triplets. Not, I think, here. – Laurence Payne May 17 '18 at 16:22

Most likely ease of writing, and ease of reading. In 4/4 it needs to be stated that each crotchet is to be treated as 3 quaver triplets, which then can give the piece a swing feel, instead of a straight eight feel. Swing is roughly (sometimes exactly!) the first two quavers tied, followed by the third. I call it the 'Humpty Dumpty' rhythm.

So, unless the piece has specifically lots of separate quavers, amounting to 12/8, it's written in 4/4 with a note at the top.

  • Oh dear. No, Swing is NOT 12/8 or triplets. If you want swing, write 'Swing'. If you want 12/8 write 12/8, or triplets, or maybe 'Shuffle'. I don't know wht educators are so frightened of just asking for 'Swing'. It's been part of our musical vocabulary for 100 years now. – Laurence Payne May 15 '18 at 12:17
  • @LaurencePayne - We're going to agree to differ here. But often 'swing' or 'shuffle' is notated at the top with two quavers = a triplet with the first two tied. Funny that. – Tim May 15 '18 at 13:33
  • Which is correct for shuffle, not for swing. Yes, it's done for swing. I'm suggesting it shouldn't be. – Laurence Payne May 15 '18 at 16:09
  • @LaurencePayne - could be the start of another question... – Tim May 15 '18 at 16:12
  • Ok for ease of notating I can understand but this song (see link at the end) is clearly a shuffle and would be much easier notated in 12/8 but it is in 4/4 with all those triplet quavers and I can't understand why ibb.co/iq7d8y – armani May 17 '18 at 8:52

Some songs with a triplet/shuffle in 4/4 are written in 12/8 for ease of notation/reading but sometimes the notation in 12/8 will not allow for all the notes to be written this way so 4/4 must be used and all the triplets notated individually.


There isn't really a formula for this. It is up to the composer to write in such a way that makes sense to them and, ideally, would be easy for a performer to read. The choice will likely depend on the tempo of the piece. To quote Paulson & Cheyette:

"Composers do not always write in the meters best adapted to the speed or tempo of their compositions, but rely on the performer's sense of rhythm and interpretation."

  • No but there is logic and in my example ibb.co/iq7d8y nobody could explain why the piece is written in 4/4 when everyone will agree by first looking at it that it would be better in 12/8. Only a small section of the song has a part that would not be able to be written in 12/8 and that is why it is written in 4/4. – armani May 24 '18 at 11:41
  • I do not understand your comment. Your original post offered no example and I think my answer exactly addresses your comment, that when it seems obvious that a song would be in one time signature it turns out to be in an other. Music theory is not a set of unbreakable, unambiguous laws like math or physics. These are guidelines that have developed over 100s or 1000s of years. – ggcg May 24 '18 at 11:52
  • my response to Tims answer I provided an example of a song that could be written in 12/8 but the writer decided to use 4/4 and tediously write out each set of triplets. There must be a reason they didn't use 12/8. The reason is for one small part of the song that would not be able to be written in 12/8. – armani May 24 '18 at 14:43
  • I don't know how to address that comment. My answer is based on experience and standard music education. Why someone does or doesn't do something that makes sense to others is a matter of psychology :-). If you are looking for someone to "explain" someone else's decision this may not be possible (or worth the effort). – ggcg May 24 '18 at 14:51
  • You can change signature in a song. So a follow up question might be why didn't the composer/arranger do that so the music look nice all the way through? – ggcg May 24 '18 at 14:52

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