How to Play Music in 6/8

Getting sick of playing the same songs in 4/4? It’s high time to learn a new trick. This article teaches you to read, write, and play music in 6/8.

An essential part of the musical blueprint is time signatures. They help us communicate with other musicians and listeners about how we imagine the division of time in music. This blog taps into the pulse of the 6/8 time signature, exploring its feel and rhythm. 

What’s a time signature?

At the beginning of sheet music, you can see two numbers, one on top of the other. These numbers do not reveal the song length, or how many hours a day you should practice. It’s the time signature. 

The top number refers to the number of beats per bar. The bottom number indicates the type of beat. 2 is a half note, 4 is a quarter note, 8 is the eighth note, and so on. 

The significance of this division is that it allows you to keep count as the music plays. This opens up endless opportunities for dialogue about the music, like where each section begins, what part each instrument plays, how much momentum to create, or how laid-back to make it feel. 

What’s an eighth note?

An eighth note is one that you hold for an eighth of the length of a whole note. Depending on the tempo (speed) of the song, this could sound really fast or relatively slow. 

The idea of calling it an eighth note is to create a system whereby you can contextualize and communicate the length of each note in relation to one another. 

To practice understanding this, try setting the metronome to 60bpm in 4/4. Then go through all the different note values and practice clapping them. You could make a pattern like this:

If you’re just beginning to play piano, you may find a beginner’s guide to playing piano helpful.

What is a 6/8 time signature?

Most time signatures are either simple or compound time. Simple time is when you can divide the notes into groups of two. Compound time is dividing them into groups of three.

6/8 is when you have six eighth notes per bar, and it’s a compound time signature: 

You’re probably wondering: six eighth notes is like three quarter notes. Why wouldn’t you just call this time signature 3/4? Don’t they amount to the same thing? 

The answer is all about the feel. A 3/4 rhythm has a different pulse than 6/8, so the counting scheme is different too. The dotted quarter note characterizes the 6/8 feel. Adding a dot symbolizes adding half of the note’s value. So a dotted quarter note is worth three eighth notes. That’s why you l see a 6/8 bar divided like this:

And not like this:

How to notice and hear a 6/8 rhythm.

Knowing how these rhythms look and function is all good and well. But will you be able to recognize them in songs? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Let’s be honest – 4/4 is the most common time signature. 6/8 is sort of like its less popular cousin. So an easy starting point is to try counting 4/4 while listening to the song. If this feels clunky, you might have caught a 6/8 tune! 
  • Another common characteristic of 6/8 is its swaying nature. Tune into your body and see if the music sort of makes you want to sway from side to side. If it does, there’s a very good chance you’re listening to 6/8.
  • If you cannot figure out the counting, no matter how much you try – it’s probably using odd time signatures (like 5/8 or 7/8) or modulating between different time signatures. This can be super confusing for a listener, especially if you’re a beginner at music theory. Call a friend! 
  • If you’re determined to figure it out yourself, try breaking down your counting to the lowest common denominator. These will usually be sixteenth notes. Listen out for where the “one,” or the first beat of the bar falls. Usually, the kick drum and the bass will play together on this beat to create some consistent sense of time. From that “one,” count all the sixteenth notes until you hear the next “one.” See if you can use this system to discover the time signature mathematically. 

Different rhythmic combinations in 6/8.

The most straightforward rhythms in 6/8 include dotted quarter notes and eighth notes. When you start incorporating sixteenth notes and dotted eighth notes into your rhythms, things get interesting–and tricky. Let’s take a look at some different 6/8 rhythms:

You’ll notice that pretty much anything goes! Quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes, and dots can all be combined to make different rhythms. But there is a fundamental rule when writing rhythm in musical notation–you must always leave the middle of the bar clear. In 6/8, you place the notes into two groups of three eighth notes. Here is an example of how to and how not to write rhythms in 6/8:

Popular songs in 6/8.

Feel like you need some points of reference? Check out these popular songs, which are all in 6/8. Try tapping along. If that feels easy, see if you can transcribe some of the rhythms below by ear.

  • The Beatles – Norwegian Wood
  • Queen – We Are the Champions
  • Animals – House of the Rising Sun 
  • Metallica – Nothing Else Matters  
  • Goo Goo Dolls – Iris 
  • Seal – Kiss From a Rose

6/8 can be a complex time signature, but it stays once you feel it in your bones. 

Practice playing 6/8 songs on the piano with JoyTunes’ SimplyPiano app. Before you know it, you’ll be swaying back and forth and clapping dotted quarter notes wherever you go. 

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