In this Part 3 of our “Time Signatures Explained” series, we explore the incredible time signature of 12/8—how it works, who has used it, and how you can write songs in it.
We’re assuming you're already familiar with the basics of time signatures, including reading, writing them, and creatively using them in your songs. If you feel like you need a refresher on the topic, head on over to Part 1 of our series to brush up on the basics, and Part 2 to learn all you need to know about writing songs in 3/4.
What is 12/8 time?
12/8 is one of the more interesting time signatures that you will find used in pop music. So what exactly is it? With each measure consisting of twelve eighth notes, at first sight, 12/8 may look a little scary, but let's take a closer look and see why you'd want to notate things this way.
As you remember from Part 1, the reason 4/4 has become the most popular time signature is its steadiness and stability. It can provide us with a very balanced pulse. The second most popular time signature is 3/4. This one, also called waltz-time, has a nice flow to it that breaks the rigidness of 4/4, replacing it with three beats in each measure, which helps make things more fluid. But what if you could have the best of both worlds? A steady 4/4 pulse with a 3/4 feel embedded inside? You can!
What I love about 12/8 is that it's a little bit like a musical version of Inception. It's 4/4 time with a 3/4 hidden inside of each beat. The incredible thing about that is that it gives you a brilliant hybrid of the waltz quality of 3/4 and the steadiness of 4/4.
In regular 4/4 time, every measure consists of 4 beats that are equally divisible. So each bar consists of four quarter notes, or eight eighth notes, or sixteen sixteenth notes, and so on. So where does the number 12 come into play? Well, what if instead of having each beat divided into two straight 8th notes you had each beat subdivided into three sub-beats? Meaning that each quarter note beat consisted of a group of three eighth notes (also called an eighth note triplet). With 4 beats and 3 sub-beats in each (4x3), you get a total of 12 sub-pulses. This is the basis of what we call 12/8.
You may be wondering: If the sub-beats are triplets but the main pulse is still a steady 4/4, can't we notate it as 4/4 with triplets everywhere? Of course, you can. And some people do. However, sometimes writing out such a huge amount of triplets becomes visually messy. This is why 12/8 notation was born.
12/8 allows you to instead write out 12 straight eighth notes without losing anything from the groove, as 12/8 automatically implies that the eighth notes are grouped in sets of threes. See the above comparison of the same melody notate in 4/4 vs 12/8. As you can see, 12/8 makes notation easier to write and read as you don't have to write everything in triplets.
Who has written songs in 12/8?
Many artists have performed songs in this time signature. It's one that sounds incredible on ballads, but also can be the basis for some awesome grooves in mid- and up-tempo songs. The easiest way to recognize 12/8 is if the main pulse is a nice steady 1-2-3-4, but the sub-pulse of each beat consists of a 1-2-3.
Here are some songs that were written in 12/8:
Michael Jackson - “The Way You Make Me Feel”
R.E.M. - “Everybody Hurts”
Gwen Stefani - “The Sweet Escape” ft. Akon
Rihanna - “Love on the Brain”
Ed Sheeran - “Perfect”
Whitney Houston - “I Have Nothing”
Whitney Houston - “Saving All My Love for You”
Sam Smith - “One Last Song”
Backstreet Boys - “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”
Alicia Keys - "Fallin'”
The Beatles - “Norwegian Wood”
Toto - "Hold The Line”
Tears For Fears - “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”
James Brown - “It’s a Man’s World”
Etta James - “At Last”
Charlie Puth - “Dangerously”
How to write a song in 12/8
All you need to do is make sure that you're giving yourself a nice steady pulse that follows the rhythm you're going for. If you're using Spire Studio, head over to the Tempo tab and set the metronome to 4/4 time. You'll just have to remember that each one of those "clicks" should consist of 3 sub-beats rather than two. Turning on the "click" will allow you to stay within the parameters of the time signature and will help you write a song in that meter.
If you're using a DAW on your computer, you should be able to set the meter to 12/8. Alternately some programs may allow you to configure your song as being 4/4 with a triplet sub-pulse. This will help you tremendously in feeling each one of the beats.
Once you're set up with the metronome, start writing. This shouldn't differ in any way from how you write your songs. Just remember to always make sure your song takes us on a journey.
12/8 is a fantastic time signature. It gives you the best of both worlds. Thousands of songs have been written in this meter, so it's time for you to try writing in it as well! It's a super useful tool to have in your songwriting toolbox. You'll be surprised how much it can change the groove of your song and make it flow differently. So if you've been suffering from "it all sounds the same" syndrome, take 12/8 for a spin and see what it can do for you.