Last week I wrote about developing rhythmic reading within simple time signatures. This week I am going to cover reading rhythmic patterns within compound time signatures. Some confusion can surround compound time signatures but there is nothing that is any more difficult with them than you encounter with simple time signatures.
Simple Time Signatures
The best way of thinking about this is just to consider whether the main beat divides equally into 2 or 3. Simple time signatures have main beats that will divide into 2 equal beats. For example in the time signature 2/4, there are two main crotchet beats. These two main beats divide into quavers.
2/4 is known as simple duple as there are two main beats in the bar, 3/4 is known as simple triple as there are 3 main beats in the bar and 4/4 is known as simple quadruple because there are 4 main beats in each bar.
Compound Time Signatures
Compound time signatures have main beats that can equally be divided in to 3 beats. A time signature of 6/8 has two main beats in the bar and the main beats are shown in dotted crotchets. Each of these dotted crotchets can be equally divided into 3 quaver beats:
When working with compound time signatures it is usually a good idea to think in quavers, even when you are counting the main beat in dotted crotchets. This will give a more accurate feel and pulse to the music and allow the music to sound as though it is in a compound time signature.
Compound time signatures include 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8. 6/8 is known as compound duple as there are two main beats in each bar, 9/8 is known as compound triple as there are three main beats in each bar and 12/8 is known as compound quadruple because there are four main beats in each bar.
When you see a rhythm in 6/8 you will notice that the quavers can be grouped in different ways. You could have two groups of three quavers that fit in line with a two in a bar pulse. Alternatively you could have three groups of two quavers. These go across the main beat in 6/8 and give the feel of a bar that is in 3/4. A good example of a piece of music that uses this rhythmic idea to great effect is America from West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein. If you listen to the main pulse in the music you can hear that the beat changes from having a feeling of two beats in each bar to three.
To clarify this,
I like to be in A – is syllabic and has a quaver per syllable (6/8)
Mer-i-ca – is syllabic and has one crotchet per syllable (3/4)
The main quaver beat can also sub-divide and you can work with semiquavers in a compound time signature. You would count this in exactly the same way as we worked with simple time signatures. Always set your metronome to give the subdivision of the beat initially. This will mean that the metronome may be going quite fast but it will ensure that you are working to the correct pulse.
When the pulse is internalised and can be felt, you can set the metronome to the main dotted crotchet pulse. It is important to remember both of these steps as it is really important to get the subdivision rhythmically correct and to develop the feel of the internal pulse of a dotted crotchet.
The following rhythms can be counted like this:
Triplets in simple time can be used to divide the beat into 3. This goes against the simple time feel and can create a compound time feel. For example, the following rhythm sounds the same in 2/4 and 6/8:
In 2/4 the triplet creates a cross rhythmic feel as 3 notes are played in the space of two. The best way of playing this so that the notes of the triplet are even is to think the word pineapple across the whole of the main beat as you play the notes. This will provide a really even triplet.
The most important thing when reading rhythms, whether they are in simple or compound time, is to always keep in mind the overall pulse of the bar. With this overall pulse clearly in focus it is possible to rhythmically subdivide the beat into as small a rhythmic value as required.