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Sight Reading for Guitarists: Compound Time Signatures

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.


The topic of this article is compound time signatures. You can hear an audio track of the exercises in the video capsule and see the notation for each example on screen as it plays. No need to play along—just read mentally and try to visualise the guitar fretboard. The tab will help you do that easily.

When it comes to playing the exercises, keep focused on the beats and timing. Don't worry if you can't reach certain notes. Ignore them, but don't lose count. The point of these exercises is to become confident with the timing used with compound time signatures. Timing is everything in this tutorial; note pitches are secondary, at least for now.

Compound Time Signatures

The main difference between compound time signatures and simple time signatures is that in simple time signatures, the beats divide naturally into groups of two; in compound time signatures, the beats divide naturally into groups of three. The most common compound time signatures are 68 ('six-eight'), 98 ('nine eight') and 128 ('twelve-eight').

As standard music notation doesn't have any 'third notes', the beat unit is a dotted note so that it can be divided into three. A dotted quarter note, for example, can be divided into three eighth notes. As there's no numerical symbol for a dotted note, the bottom and top numbers of the time signature are expressed in the next smaller units, i.e., eighth notes.

A compound time signature of 6/8 means there are two dotted quarter note beats per bar, which is equivalent to six eighth notes, so the time signature is written as 68 'six-eight).


Compound Time Signatures and Their Simple Equivalents

Compound Time SignatureSimple Time Signature Equivalent







6/8 - 3/4 Confusion

Many people are confused by the difference between 6/8 time and 3/4 time as each bar can contain exactly the same number of eighth notes. The difference is in the grouping and accenting of the notes. The two examples below last exactly the same amount of time, but the notes are accented in a different way.

In three-four time, we can feel that the first note, which corresponds with beat one, is strongly accented, while the notes corresponding to beats two and three are weakly accented. Notes that come between the beats are unaccented.

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In the six-eight example, the notes corresponding with beats one and two (the 1st and 4th eighth notes) are accented and the others aren't. A way to remember the difference is that three-four time is typical waltz time and six-eight time is typical jig time. Keep in mind, though, that tempo also plays a part in how we hear meter (beat groupings). With faster tempos, two bars of 3/4 begin to sound like one bar of 6/8, and, conversely, at slower tempos one bar of 6/8 can be heard as two bars of 3/4.

Three-four time compared with six-eight time

Three-four time compared with six-eight time

Sight Reading Exercise in 6/8 Time

Here's an example of 'six-eight' time. If you're using a pick, you can ignore the bass notes as you won't be able to play them. They're there to show you the main beats of the exercise. Emphasise beats 1 and 2, (i.e., every melody note that coincides with a bass note).This is an extract from an Irish (or maybe Scottish) jig called 'The Exile Jig'.


Sight Reading Exercise in 9/8 Time

In this exercise, the first note of every group of three eighth notes is a melody note; the others are harmony notes. Make sure you accent it and let it sustain so that it joins up with the next melody note. The effect, if you do it right, will be three melody notes per bar with the others acting as fill in harmony notes. This exercise is taken from a classical guitar piece called, Romance, or Romanza. It's usually written in simple three-four time with eighth-note triplets, i.e., three eighth notes squeezed into the time normally taken by two. It produces the same effect.


12/8 Time

Just as 9/8 time is the same as 3/4 time with triplets, 12/8 is the same as 4/4 with triplets. Try Etude in A by Carcassi from the video examples. You can see the whole score written in 4/4 with triplets, which sounds exactly the same, so it will be good practice material. Don't worry if you can't play all the notes unless you want to actually learn the piece. For our purposes here, you just want practice material - so just focus on keeping that count of four going mentally and feel (don't count) the three triplet notes for every one of the four main beats.

Audio Demos of the Sight Reading Exercises

"Sight Reading for Guitarists" Articles

Sight Reading for Guitarists: Simple Time Signatures

Sight Reading for Guitarists: Position Playing

© 2014 Chas Mac

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