Electronic Music Theory: 3/4, 6/8 and Triplets

I’ve had a few questions come hurtling at me through the intertubes about something called “3 Time.” What is this mythical beast and what in the sam hell does all this music theory have to do with producing in Ableton?

To be honest, there is no such as thing as “3 Time.” What this name refers to is a group of time signatures that have, as their base, groups of 3. Most time signatures have 2, or a multiple of 2, as their base.

Usually, when people are interested in incorporating 3 Time in their music, they are referring to one of 3 things: 3/4, 6/8 or the use of triplets. They are each a little different, but share the fact that they incorporate mulitples of 3, as opposed to the more common multiple of 2. Confused yet? GREAT!

3/4 Time

3/4 time or three-quarter time is characterized by the fact that each bar has three quarter notes. If you change the time signature of a clip in Ableton, you’ll notice the difference on the time grid of the piano roll.

This is all fine and dandy, but what does this mean for you? Well, almost as important as the number of quarter notes in a bar is where the stress falls in a bar. While almost no one mentions this when discussing time signatures, the reality is that the conventional stress placement is what makes certain time signatures sound like “themselves.” The most characteristic stresses in contemporary music is the stress on the 2 and 4 (also referred to as a backbeat).

In a bar of ¾, the stress falls, weirdly enough, on beats 3 and 4. I illustrate this in the above video, where the stresses are shown with either snares or sidesticks. Listening to this, one can hear the “waltz” quality that the beat takes on. This time signature lends itself to either 1) plodding, downbeat-heavy music or 2) lilting, delicate music. Since there is not that much room between the stressed beats, there is not much room for upbeats or syncopation (think of the upbeat hi-hats that characterize many dance beats).

6/8 Time

6/8 is the total package. This is because, while it has a base of 3 (usually manifesting itself in the eighth notes in the hi-hat, as in the above video), it can also have a backbeat. This is because it is possible to have a kick on the 1 and a snare hit on the 4th 8th note in the bar. This gives the time signture a familiar “kick-snare” feel. For this reason, 6/8 tends to be the most palatable of “3 Time.”

Listen to the example in the above video and you can hear how the three pattern is held in the hi-hat, but that the kick-snare pattern is basically the same as a 4/4 beat (the time signature that we spend most of our time in).


So, where do triplets fit into this scheme? The main difference is that, while the above time signatures form the basis of a beat, triplets are usually used as a form of variation. A true triplet is experienced as a somewhat unexpected deviation in an otherwise conventional 4/4 beat. This creates a tension that can give rise to some really rad “swing” effects, as well as some cool, surprising fills. In fact, what we refer to as “swing” is often somewhere between a true triplet and a new time signature like 6/8. EVERYTHING in a 6/8 beat is using a base of 3, so it is not surprising.

Think about it this way: When Björk dressed like a weirdo, it was surprising and refreshing. Now, it’s 2012 and every mediocre pop star dresses in meat dresses and crazy clothes, so what was once surprising is now formulaic and stale. Björk’s swan dress was a triplet, Nicki Minaj’s pink wig is 6/8.

Holy metaphor, Batman.

Now, substantially, you can accomplish the exact same things using either 6/8 (or it’s bigger brother 12/8) and triplets. It is mostly a matter of how often you want to change the beat grid, haha.

P.S. If you are interested in getting more useful electronic music theory learnin’, why not check out the Ableton Cookbook Live Course? It has a whole module dedicated to Music Theory! Plus, you get a 25% discount for being an email list subscriber! Holy discount!

5 Responses to “Electronic Music Theory: 3/4, 6/8 and Triplets”

  1. Navarre January 4, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    You crack me up, Senor. I like Ableton’s new bank of grooves, including all of the 8th note swing emulations. Still exploring it. That one Flying Lotus track, Do The Astral Plane, is easily the best incorporation of alternate swing settings in a “dance” tune. It’s at a house tempo, has a house back beat and four-on-the-floor, with syncopated hi-hats, but it has this post-Dilla janglin’ “swang” that makes it infinitely more interesting. I almost never hear that kind of groove in a house track, killer stuff. Great tutorial, mang.

    • Anthony January 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      Do the Astral Plane is seriously next level. I have a hunch that he uses a section of a drum loop as a hi-hat a lot of times. If you select a section that includes some of the attack of the next hit, it can lead to some really cool “swing” sounding stuff, because the hi-hat will have a second, unpredictable beat in it. Try it out!

      Theo Parrish, Motor City Drum Ensemble and older Armand Van Helden all do something similar, IMO. Theo Parrish is a god of wonkiness.

      • Navarre January 5, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

        Wow, you dropped some serious names; I like how you said older Armand Van Helden lol. Theo is pretty wonked out. I’m going to try that looping trick as soon as I get home. So it’s basically a “frame-shift” on a drum loop, offsetting the hits, if I have that right? All this time I thought it was meticulously sequenced 8th note triplet swing grooves or something; maybe it is still that sometimes. At times I get the feeling that half of what these producers do is smash loops and sounds together, every once in a while a new technique or a wonked out groove coming out.

        Thanks again.

  2. weight loss August 8, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

    • Anthony August 13, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

      Thanks! I’ll check those out now.

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