Music Theory

Simple vs Compound Meter: Examples & Free Resources

By Hannah Kendall

Learn the difference between simple and compound meter in music

Meter forms the rhythmic backbone of a piece. It gives structure and organization to music and can vary significantly, depending on the song. Some songs have a straightforward, steady meter while other songs sound more flowing and rolling, with less predictability. The two rhythmic structures, simple and compound meter, play a crucial role in shaping the overall feel and interpretation of music. 

In this article, you’ll find that the difference between compound and simple meters is, well, simple! We’re going to explore these two basic types of meter and help you to become a better musician.

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What is the difference between simple meter and compound meter?

To understand simple and compound meter, we first need to know what meter is. Meter simply refers to the structured pattern of strong and weak beats in a piece of music. It organizes beats into repeating patterns, called measures, and also determines how the beats are divided. In simple meter, the time signature designates that each beat is divided into two equal parts. In Western music, the most common time signatures for simple meter are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. 

It’s important to know that there are a few different types of simple meter:

  • Duple Meter – In duple meter, there are two beats per measure. It includes time signatures like 2/4 and 2/2. Notice how the top number (2) gives the number of beats in each measure, while the bottom numbers (4 and 2) give the beat unit–the note value that gets one beat. The 4 on the bottom indicates that the quarter note lasts for one beat. If the bottom number is a 2, then the half note lasts for one beat.  
  • Triple Meter – In triple meter, there are three beats per measure. It includes time signatures like 3/4 and 3/2. 
  • Quadruple Meter – In quadruple meter, music is grouped into four beats per measure. It includes time signatures like 4/4 and 4/2. 

Example of simple meters.

Compound meter divides each beat into three equal parts. This includes time signatures like 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. This type of meter gives a more rocking, swaying feel than simple meter, and so it is often associated with dances and folk music.

Like simple meter, there are also a few different types of compound meter:

  • Compound duple meter – just like simple duple, with two beats per measure, but each beat is divided into three parts. This includes time signatures like 6/8 and 6/4 time. 
  • Compound triple meter – just like simple triple, with three beats per measure, but each beat is once again split into three parts. Examples are 9/8 and 9/4. 
  • Compound quadruple meter – same as simple quadruple, with four beats per measure, but each beat is divided in three. These time signatures will look like 12/8 and 12/4.

Example of compound meters.

You may have noticed that compound meter time signatures don’t always make as much sense as those for simple meter. A simple meter time signature shows you how many beats there are per measure (in 2/4, the top number, 2, is the number of beats in each measure). In compound meter, however, the time signature shows how many beat divisions there are per measure (in 6/8, there are indeed six eighth notes per measure, but these are really grouped into two beats of three). So in faster tempos 6/8 is really two beats per measure, even though the top number says 6! In 9/8 time, there are really three main beats per measure, and in 12/8 there are four.

How do you decide if a piece is in simple or compound meter?

Here’s the shortcut to figuring out the meter: look at the top number in the time signature. Generally, if the top number is a 2, 3, or 4, that’s simple meter. If the top number is 6, 9, or 12, the music is in compound meter. 

You can start to discern simple or compound meter based just on how it feels. Music in simple meter tend to have a predictable, steady, and driving feel to it. On the other hand, compound meter has a more swaying, rocking feel. It often has a flowing, lilting or swinging quality due to the triple division of beats. When listening to a piece, tap the pulse of the piece. Does the rhythm feel predictable and easy to follow? If so, it is likely a simple meter. Does the rhythm feel swinging and lilting? That’s probably compound meter. 

What are examples of songs in simple meter?

There’s a good chance your favorite song is in simple meter! It’s very often used in pop and rock music. A classic example of simple meter is “Let it Be” by the Beatles. Try tapping along to the beat. With its straightforward and consistent rhythm, it’s easy to feel the pulse of the song. 

Interested in playing piano music written in simple meter? Check out these pieces in our Hoffman Academy store:  

What are examples of songs in compound meter?

Compound meter can be heard in just about any genre: pop, jazz, folk, classical, rock, and more. Listen to House of the Rising Sun by The Animals. The time signature of 12/8 gives this song a swaying, rolling feel.

Another famous song in compound meter is “Scarborough Fair,” a traditional English ballad written in 6/8. Covered by Simon & Garfunkel, the lilting meter adds to the wistful, medieval atmosphere of the track. 

In contrast, the Irish jig is a traditional dance in compound meter that has a fast, steady rhythmic sound. As you listen to the first part of this performance, see if you can count along 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-3 very fast. After that, the musicians transition into a reel, which is in simple meter. Now you’ll be counting 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4. Listen to the different feel of the two dance tunes, even though they’re being played by the same instruments and have a similar musical style.

Interested in playing piano music written in compound meter? Check out these pieces in our Hoffman Academy store:  

Simple vs compound meter: Free resource for compound meter

With practice, you’ll be able to easily differentiate between simple and compound meter. However, if you feel stuck remembering the difference between the two meters, check out our free resources! This Simple Meter Rhythm Chart describes different types of note values in simple meter. This Compound Meter Guide shows how rhythms are divided in compound meter.

We hope you have fun exploring different meters! If you’d like to learn to play piano, check out Hoffman Academy for free video lessons and hundreds of music learning resources.

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