Distinguishing Compound and Triple

It turns out that there are a lot of 2s in musical meter. Measures are most often duple/quadruple, and beats most often break down into two divisions (“simple”). As a result, when there’s a 3 somewhere—whether there are three beats in the measure or three divisions in each beat—it sometimes really sticks out, giving a strong sense of “three-ness” in the music.

Yet in our experience, students sometimes have difficulty figuring out exactly where that three-ness comes from. Is it in the relationship of beats to measures (triple meter), or in the relationship of beat divisions to beats (compound meter)?

To distinguish these, make sure you are tracking the beat with one of the physical motions we recommended: arm waves, toe taps, nods, etc. (Finger taps may lead you to find beat divisions, while whole-body sways may lead you to measures.) Then determine: are these motions grouping in threes (triple meter, represented physically be a conducting pattern with three beats), or do they themselves break down into threes (compound meter, represented by tapping three fingers within each beat)? (Or, in rarer circumstances, both?)

Remember that sometimes there are multiple good answers for the speed of the beat: for example, if a song has important things happening at a rate of 50 beats per minute as well as at 150 beats per minute, you might track either of these speeds as the beat. If you consider the faster speed the beat, then you’re hearing triple meter. If you prefer the slower speed as the beat, then you’re hearing compound meter. The most important thing is to make sure you’re understanding the meter correctly according to the beat you hear.

Fortunately, if you are purposeful about focusing on the beat and using your physical motions to make this distinction, it is usually fairly straightforward: most mistakes come from simply neglecting to perform this step.

It is worth noting, however, that culturally-specific conventions also affect how we describe meter in music. For example, the dance type called a “waltz” is specifically associated with being “in 3” (that is, as notated, the measure is three beats long), and specifically in the time signature “three-four.” Some waltzes, particularly slow waltzes, are easy to feel in this way. However, many waltzes are extremely fast—too fast for that cycle of 3 to be easily felt as three individual beats. While such waltzes are still most often notated in the time signature three-four or sometimes three-eight, ensemble conductors typically conduct them “in 1” with a single wave of the hand per measure instead of the usual wave per notated beat. Listeners, too, often gravitate to the notated measure as the beat; often, measures feel like these measures group in pairs or fours, giving a sense of compound duple/quadruple meter. In this case, is “simple triple” (the notated time signature) or “compound duple” (what many people would most naturally move to) the more “correct” answer? It depends on our goals, but since this textbook is focused on aural skills rather than notation, we’ll suggest you focus on your perception—and just keep in mind that it may or may not match what’s notated.


Activity: Distinguish compound and triple meters

Goal: Develop the habit of purposefully distinguishing the two types of “three-ness” we hear in musical meter: compound and triple.

Instructions: The playlist below is full of examples that have “three-ness” somewhere in their meter. Listen to each song and track the beat with an action such as waving your arm, tapping your toe, or nodding your head. Then determine: according to the beat you’ve found, does the “three-ness” come from compound meter (three divisions within each beat) or triple meter (three beats in each measure)? Some examples may be able to be reasonably described either way depending on the speed of beat you’re using for reference.


Activity: Relate compound and triple meters to waltzes

Goal: Relate culturally-specific conventions about waltzes to the way you hear meter.

Instructions: The playlist below includes a wide variety of waltzes. As you listen to each song, consider whether you hear the meter as compound (three divisions in each beat) or triple (three beats in each measure). Some examples may be able to be described either way. Recall that waltzes are typically written in three-four or three-eight—that is, triple meter. For each song, does that correspond well with how you’re naturally hearing the meter, or not? Optionally, transcribe the first 2–4 measures of the melody to demonstrate your understanding.


Suggest a song for this playlist!



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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