How to Play a 6/8 Time Signature

The 6/8 Time Signature is just one of many that you will learn as you progress in your piano playing.

By the time you are ready to learn this new time signature, you have already learned and played in the 4/4 time signature and probably even 3/4 & 2/4.

All of these three specific time signatures have the same bottom number, which is 4. The top numbers, however, are different.

Do you remember what the significance of each of these numbers is in a time signature?

  • The top number tells us how many...
  • The bottom number tells us of what...

A "4" on the bottom always means that the quarter note gets the beat.

  • So a 4/4 time signature tells us that there will be 4 quarter notes in each measure, 3/4 means that there are 3 quarter notes in each measure and 2/4 means that there are 2 quarter notes in each measure.

Now, however, we have a different number on the bottom; an 8 - along with a 6 for the top number.

Ask this question - how many - of what?

  • 6 over 8 (6/8) tells us that there will be 6 eighth notes in each measure.

Instead of counting quarter beats in each measure like we did with the 4/4 time signature, this time we're counting 8th beats...and we'll be counting 6 for each measure.

Next, let's look at some of the different ways that we can count and play the 6/8 time signature.

Step 1: Different Ways to Count the 6/8 Time Signature

Since we're giving the 8th note the beat in the 6/8 time signature, we start in image #1 with six even 8th notes that we count - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; very straightforward.

Image #2 combines several different note values: a quarter note, and 8th note, and a dotted quarter note.

  • Since we're giving the 8th note the beat, there are two 8th note beats in every quarter note - because two 8th notes = a quarter note. So the quarter note gets the first 2 beats in this measure.
  • The 8th note gets one beat.
  • The dotted quarter note gets 3 beats because the quarter note receives 2 counts and a dot adds 1/2 the value of the note, so the dot = an 8th beat, or 1/2 or a quarter beat.

Image #3 introduces a half note into this mix.

  • Since a half note = 2 quarter beats, it will get 4 eighth beats in the 6/8 time signature; or 4 beats total.
  • The quarter note in the last part of this measure gets 2 beats.

Image #4 adds in 16th notes and if you'll notice, the counts are written on the top and the actual 8th beats are noted under the 16th notes to help you combine them easier in your counting. That's because there are two 16th notes in each 8th beat or note.

  • So for every 8th beat, you would count two 16th beats or apply 1 beat in 6/8 time to every two 16th notes. The "+" sign in the written counts stand for "and", as we count 16th notes by saying: 1&, 2&, 3&, and so on.
  • In this measure, we count 1 for the first 8th beat and 2+ for the 2nd beat and then continue in the same pattern for the rest of the measure.

OK...that's a lot of information to process but what will really help to reinforce it all is to go over each one of these at the piano with me in the final step.

Step 2: Come Practice With Me!

We'll start with the first example measure and go through each of the rest of them plus one that I didn't talk about here in the written portion of this lesson.

  • (It shows you how to group the six 8th beats into just 2 beats, which makes it easier to count and play a lot of times!)

The 6/8 time signature is really fun once you learn it and it will enable you to play a wider range and variety of musical genres plus more advanced music in your classical studies.

  • Make sure that you understand how to count and play each measure before moving on to the next one, and play them slowly.

Anytime you have any questions or doubts, just come back to this lesson to review and then you can apply this to any piece that you find a 6/8 time signature in.

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