What is the Difference between Simple and Compound time?

By Jade Bultitude
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If you haven’t done so already it is important to read through the time signature blog post and watch the video before reading this post. In this blog post we will be discussing, in detail, what simple and compound time are. However, in order for you to understand this topic fully, it is important for you to be clear on exactly what a time signature is first! 

(If you want to test your knowledge check out our free quiz at the end of the post!)

Remember, a time signature is made up of two numbers, the top number which tells you how many beats in the bar and the bottom number that tells you what type of beat. But a time signature signals so much more than this! 

Time signatures are described in two ways, either with the description duple, triple or quadruple. This is then followed by the description simple or compound . But what exactly do all of these words mean? 

What do we mean by duple, triple and quadruple?

The terms duple, triple and quadruple refer to how many beats there are in your bar (measure). 

Duple means that there are two main beats in a bar

Triple means that there are three main beats in a bar

Quadruple means that there are four main beats in a bar

Take a look at the below bar… where are the strong beats?

3/4 time, 3/4 time signature, quavers, simple time, short melody

In a 3/4 bar, the strong beats are quite clearly on the first of every two quavers, so this time signature would be considered a triple time signature as there are three main beats. Now let’s take a look at the below bar…

6/8 time, 6/8 time signature, compound time, compound time signature, short melody

As you can see, both of these bars have the same amount of quavers but the time signature has effected where the strong main beats land. 

The 3/4 time signature was a triple time signature because there were three strong beats in the bar! But the 6/8 time signature will be a duple time signature because there are only two main beats in the bar!

This is where our descriptions of simple and compound come in to play.

As you can see the above two bars have the same amount of quavers but the difference in their time signatures effects how we play the bar. 

So how do we know a piece is in simple time?

Simple time signatures are among the most common time signatures you will see in your music. They are the time signatures that are the easiest to count!

A simple time signature’s beats can be divided into two. These time signatures are extremely regular. 

Think back to our 3/4 bar and where the strong beats land.

3/4 time, 3/4 time signature, simple time

Notice how inside each main beat (or strong beat) there are two quavers. 

In a simple time signature the beats can always easily be divided into halves and quarters!

Lets take a look at a few more examples of simple time signatures…

3/2 time, 3/2 time signature, simple time, short melody

As you can see each beat here divides into two! There are two crotchets in a minim. This time signature would be considered a simple triple time signature

2/4 time, 2/4 time signature, simple time, short melody

Each beat in this bar also divides into two. There are two quavers in a crotchet. This time signature would be considered a simple duple time signature

4/2 time, 4/2 time signature, simple time, simple quadruple time

Each beat in this bar divides into two. There are two crotchets in a minim. This time signature would be considered a simple quadruple time signature

I hope that clears up your simple time signatures… Now let’s visit Compound Time!

What is compound time?

Compound time always causes a lot of confusion among music students. But it is actually really simple…

Let’s consider what we saw earlier…

6/8 time, 6/8 time signature, compound time, compound duple time
What do you notice about where the accents are?

The accents in the 3/4 time signature, landed on every two quavers. This made that time signature a simple triple time signature!

Now look at the 6/8 – where do the strong beats land here?

That’s right, the strong beat lands every three quaver beats. 

6/8 is what we call a compound time signature! A Compound Duple time signature to be more specific. (Notice there are only two strong beats = duple)

A compound time signature is where the beats can be easily divided into three

Let’s take a look at some more examples of compound time signatures…

6/4 time, 6/4 time signature, compound duple time,

As you can see each main beat divides into three. Three crotchets within every strong beat (a dotted minim). This time signature would be considered a compound duple time signature

9/8 time, 9/8 time signature, compound time, compound triple time

As you can see each beat here also divides into three. Three quavers within every strong beat (a dotted crotchet). This time signature would be considered a compound triple time signature. 

12/8 time, 12/8 time signature, compound quadruple time

Each beat in this time signature also divides into three! Three quavers in a dotted crotchet! This time signature is a compound quadruple time signature. 

Not so complicated after all?

Just remember

Simple Time Signature – Top Number can be 2, 3 or 4
– The Main Beat will always divide into two
Compound Time Signature – Top Number can be 6, 9 or 12
– The Main Beat will always divide into three

I hope that has helped you to understand the difference between your simple and compound time signatures! There is one more time signature that many of us find confusing and I will visit this next week! Can you guess what it is?

Time Signature Quiz

Check out our free time signature quiz to test your understanding. There a free quiz for each Grade and you can see the answers to learn from your mistakes.

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AUTHOR
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations. She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.

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