9.ThCompound Time

In all the music that you've read so far, the beat has subdivided into two or four. This isn't always the case, however - think of an Irish jig or a Blues shuffle and you'll notice that the underlying framework is - 1 & a 2 & a 1 & a 2 & a 1 & a 2 & a etc. - the beats split into three.

When the beat splits into three, we call it a compound rhythm.

This being the case, we are going to need a note that lasts for a third of a beat but we don't need a new note value for this. Note-values are relative, not fixed, and we are simply looking for a group of three equal values to represent the thirds of the beat.

Any note-value could be used in this role, but the commonest way to notate a compound rhythm is to use an eighth-note / quaver to represent a third of a beat. Three eighth-notes/quavers add up to a dotted quarter-note/crotchet so It follows that a duration of one beat is now represented by a dotted quarter-note.

Counting 6/8 Time

The commonest compound metre is 6/8.

A 6/8 time signature tells you that there are two beats in a bar, each dividing into three. Alarm bells may be ringing. If there are two beats in a bar, why is the top number a 6? If a dotted quarter-note is now one beat long, why does the time-signature have an 8 at the bottom?

The problem is that we can't represent a dotted quarter-note/crotchet as a simple fraction of a whole-note/semibreve. A dotted quarter-note is three-eighths of a whole-note and we'd be putting a fraction at the bottom of a fraction if we used that . . .

The solution is an understanding that, if the top number of the time-signature is a multiple of 3, we'll need to divide it by 3 to find out how many beats are in a bar. If the top number is 6, there will be two groups of three. If it's 9, there will be three groups, and so on . . . *

To count compound rhythms, we initially only need to acknowledge three subdivisions, and 1 + a 2 + a rolls off the tongue so clap, count & loop the following typical 6/8 rhythms -


Check those rhythms? Two bars in, each pattern four times . . . .

*A solution to this pointless inconsistency was proposed by composer & music educator Carl Orff some time ago. The idea was to replace the bottom number of the time-signature with whatever kind of note represented one beat. 6/8 tells us that there are two dotted-quarter-notes/crotchets in a bar, so why not say so? Like this -

My Image

Why hasn't this been adopted? There's a general resistance to innovations of this kind amongst the 'guardians' of notation. Music publishers have a backlog of music that they don't want to reset and customers that they don't want to frighten. Music educators and performers don't want to un-learn a system they've invested thousands of hours learning . . .

The Rakes Of Kildare

You're ready for every Irish Jig there ever was, now, so here is The Rakes Of Kildare.


Of course, no-one plays only the notes as written in this style (or any other, actually). It's assumed that you'll phrase it and accent it the way you've heard other Irish music phrased and accented, and that you'll personalise the piece with grace-notes and other decorations. When you're reading music, apply the freedoms and conventions associated with the style. When you're notating music, don't bother the player with the obvious, and stop adding detail at the point where the player should be free.