How to Write a Song in Three or Six

How to Write a Song in Three or Six

How to Write a Song in thre or six (image)

Did you ever notice that the majority of songs in our culture have a four-beat rhythm? This is referred to as Common Time, which translates into four beats per measure. And when songwriters in western cultures start thinking about how to write a song, it is usually the first, and often the only, time feel that comes to mind.

But this was not always the case. In certain earlier periods in history, three beat rhythms were the most popular. The waltz is a good example of what was once a very popular dance constructed from three beat rhythms. And there is an enormous amount of folk music from many cultures that is written in, what is technically termed, Triple Meter.

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The next time you find yourself asking how to write a song, consider that there is a large list of other styles from the past that are constructed from three beat rhythms: swing, country & western ballads, marches, circus music, minuets, scherzi, double jigs, polkas, sega, tarantella, barcarolles, loures, and the list goes on.

But that is not nearly as important as the fact that triple meter is alive and well, although underrepresented, in most forms of popular music today. Therefore, learning how to write a song in these time feels can open up huge doors of creativity for your songwriting.

But first let’s take a quick look at the difference between the two most common time signatures that use groups of three: 3/4 and 6/8.

In 3/4, there are three pulses per measure, each of which can be subdivided into two 8th notes (1 and 2 and 3 and) with a strong beat felt on the downbeat of 1 every measure. In 6/8 we have the opposite, there are two pulses per measure, each of which can be subdivided into three 8th note triplets (1 and a 2 and a), with the accented beat 1 being stronger then the accented beat on 2. Try counting these a few times and you will quickly begin to feel the difference.

To put it another way, in 3/4 time we feel a strong accent as the first of every three beats, (1 2 3 1 2 3) but in 6/8 time we feel a strong accent on beat one of the first group of three, and weaker accent on beat one of the next group of three (1 2 3 4 5 6), with beat four having a weaker accent than beat one. And 6/8 time can also be counted in twos as (1 and a 2 and a).

Another way to depict how to write a song in triple meter is that 3/4 would sound like 3 solid beats per measure (ONE and TWO and THREE and), while 6/8 would sound more like 2 solid beats (ONE-2-3-FOUR-5-6-). Try counting it this way.

And to really hear the difference between these two, I suggest listening to the song America from West Side Story, which is a quite bizarre, yet very famous song that alternates a measures of 6/8 and 3/4. It can be counted like (1 and a 2 and a; 1 and 2 and 3 and) with the lyrics “I like to be in America” counted as (6/8): I like to be in A – (3/4) me – ri – ca.

So what is the difference between the bottom note, the 4 or the 8, and how does that effect how to write a song? This is a technical point for music notation, a process which modern songwriters use infrequently, so for our purposes it is not that important. But for the curious, the 4 stands for quarter notes, and the 8 stands for eight notes, and it simply means that when notating 6/8 time we think of an eight note instead of a quarter note as what is counted as one beat.

Many of us songwriters get trapped inside four musical walls of 4/4 time and become blindfolded to the possibilities of different time feels. Let’s take those blindfolds off for a moment with an exercise about how to write a song in triple meter.

Exercise: Start writing a section of a new song with any kind of three feel, with chords and rhythm only. Don’t worry about which type of triple meter time feel you are precisely using, you can figure that out later. After you have established the triple feel, add a melody as a second and step. Next, set lyrics to the melody as a third step. Then build out the next song section, and continue in this manner until a rough draft of a song emerges.

And remember, when you experiment with how to write a song in new ways, you might have to do it a few times to gain mastery over the new language, but the new ability of how to write a song in triple meter will make it all worthwhile.

Below are some familiar songs that are based on different kinds of triple meter (groups of three, six, nine, or twelve). Please add to this list in the comments section; I can let you know which feel the song is in if you are not sure.


Songs in Three: 3/4

Manic Depression – Jimi Hendrix

My Favorite Things – Rodgers and Hammerstein (from “the Sound of Music”)


Songs in Six: 6/8

(6/8 can be felt as two groups of 3, the first group with a stronger accent: 1-and-a-2-and-a)

Breaking the Girl – Red Hot Chili Peppers

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away – the Beatles


Songs in Nine: 9/8

(9/8 can be felt as be felt as three groups of 3, the first group with a stronger accent: 1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a)

Morning Has Broken- Cat Stevens

‘Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring’ – J.S. Bach


Songs in Twelve: 12/8

(12/8 can be felt as be felt as four groups of 3, the first group with a stronger accent: 1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a)

Stormy Monday – Almond Brother’s version

Norwegian Wood – The Beatles

Schism – Tool (12/8 felt as a group of 7/8 + a group of 5/8)


Songs in Six: 6/4

(Felt as six beats with only one strong beat on 1)

Fell on Black Days – Soundgarden


Please add to this list above in the comments section below

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  • Dan

    I’m writing a song in 6/8 with a refrain in 4/4. Does it matter if my verse has 16 beats if my refrain only has 12?

    • Kevin

      Dan, when you change time feels within the same song there are several ways to do it. One way is to keep the tempo the same from section to section by setting a metronome for the lowest common denominator note value, which in this case would be eight note: 6/8: 1 2 3 4 5 6 4/4: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.
      If you are changing the tempo it can get a little more complicated.

      The number of beats should not matter, there are lots of songs that have a measure of 2/4 or 3/4 or 5/4 at the end of a section of 4/4, or sometimes even in the middle of a section.

      But to advise you further I would really need to hear what you have constructed. Feel free to sign up for Songwriting Coaching on this page:

      Keep experimenting with time feels, Kevin

      • Dan

        I haven’t recorded this yet. Most of the songs I’ve written were in 4/4. So I had a difficulty with the timing, when I wrote this one. But I plan on doing a simple bass line in 4/4 when the song is in 6/8 and playing it in 3/4 when the refrain is in 4/4. I’m hoping that it clarifies rythym instead of muddying it. But I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet.

        Thank you for your quick and helpful reply.

        • Kevin

          Dan, If all your songs have been in 4/4 I suggest writing a whole song in 6/8 or 3/4, it will help give you a feel for the more complex technique you are using now mixing time signatures in the same song.

  • Dr. EAR

    All these time meters as 3/4,
    5/4, 6/4. ,7/4. are all still in 4/4. these are hybrid time meters.

    • Kevin Thomas

      Dr, EAR, thanks for your comment.

      What all those time feels you mentioned have in common is the bottom number. The 4 on the bottom indicates two things:

      One, that the quarter note is the unit of counting equal to 1 beat, if there were an 8 on the bottom an eighth note would be equal to 1 beat instead.

      Two, that we are using simple meter, meaning that there is only one primary strong beat per measure, the first note in the group of 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 that the top number represent is slightly stressed each measure and heard as the downbeat of the measure. When there is an 8 as the bottom number we are using complex meter, with more than one song beat per measure.

      Here is the difference:

      6/4 ONE-2-3-4-5-6
      6/8 ONE-2-3-Four-5-6

      6/8 has two stresses, a primary stress on 1, and a secondary stress on 4. This designates complex meter, because it can be felt as either six, ONE-2-3-Four-5-6, or as two, ONE-and-a-Two-and-a. You can tap your foot to it either way. In 6/4, which is simple meter, you can’t feel it as two, only as six.

      But 4/4 is not the same thing as 3/4, 5/4 etc. They are different time feels with different number of beats per measure.

      I hope this helps clarify things. Kevin

  • John

    Thanks Kevin! One of my very first songs was in 6/8, which I didn’t even notice for quite a while after I’d written it! I’ve used 12/8 for 40 years, since its the blues ‘shuffle’. Then there’s Brubeck Quartet ‘Take Five’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. I’ve used 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 and also 9/4 grouped as 3,2,2,2. What has excited me is to learn how some really big hits have NOT been in 4/4, without me noticing! Regards, John.

    • Kevin Thomas

      That’s great John, and by the way, I already had used three of the songs you mentioned above for my next post about this that is going to go into odd time feels like 5/4, 5/8, 7/4, 7/8, etc. The one I never noticed until I had to teach a guitar student how to play it was that Pink Floyd’s ‘Money was in 7/4. That is really good use of odd time signatures, if you can weave it together so well with the melody that the unusual time feel is not even noticeable.

  • BJ

    Hi Kevin. So what are your thoughts about having just the chorus in 3/4 time with the verses in common time? What is the best way to transition?

    • Kevin Thomas

      BJ, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles has the verse in 3/4 and the chorus in 4/4. I think the trick with multiple time feels is making the sections connect in a natural sounding way so that the listener almost doesn’t notice that something extreme occurred with the rhythm of the song.


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