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  • Writer's pictureJenny Ferris

Simple vs. Compound Time

Following on from my recent posts about metre, today I'd like to talk about simple and compound time and how to teach the difference between them.

I remember first being taught about 6/8 time in my AMEB-based piano lessons as a child and they were explained to me much like fractions were. This led to some confusion about why 6/8 time was even a thing when 3/4 time already existed. Surely they were the same as each other, right?

This showed a lack of understanding of the basic difference between simple & compound time - whether you are working in groups of 2 or groups of 3.

I believe one of the key ways to learn this difference is to feel this difference.

Therefore I start my simple vs. compound education long before I introduce the terms "simple time" or "compound time" (in true Kodaly fashion!)

With my lower primary students I talk about "skipping music" vs. "marching music" and I include partner songs that contrast between the two with lots of actions so that students can feel the difference.

One such pair of partner songs is "Bow To Your Partner" and "I Will Bow To You"

Bow To Your Partner

Bow To Your Partner is a simple time, or "marching music" piece. The actions are straightforward and are performed in a single partnered circle (a singular circle where students are paired up, one person facing clockwise, one person facing anti-clockwise)

Each student follows the instructions in the lyrics (bowing in bar one and bar three, stamping with the right foot, then the left foot then turning in a half circle to face a new partner).

The song is usually sung twice (so that students can repeat the actions with the partner on either side of them) before moving on to "I Will Bow To You"

I Will Bow To You

I Will Bow To You is a compound time song, providing a nice contrast in metre.

The students are in the same partnered circle formation as before, but will now be numbered off as Partner 1 and Partner 2 (usually I say anyone facing clockwise is Partner 1 and anyone facing anti-clockwise is Partner 2).

Partner 1 bows in bar 1. Then Partner 2 bows in bar 3. Then in bars 5 - 8, they link arms at the elbow and skip around (do-si-do) one full rotation before taking one step forwards to face a new partner.

This song can be repeated as many times as you like, though I usually stick to 2 times to keep it consistent with "Bow To Your Partner".

By continuously oscillating between the two songs, students are given the opportunity to feel the difference in metre and can describe them using the terms "skipping" or "marching" music.

Then, in older years, when students are ready to formally learn about compound time and make conscious rhythms like ti-ti-ti and taam, then they already have a broad repertoire of experience to draw on.

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