A 6/8 march is a lively tune written in compound time that is played with a palpable and definite “swing” rhythm. Picture a pipe band marching down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, playing a sprightly 6/8 march, with their kilts swinging to and fro. That’s what we’ll be shooting for as we discuss 6/8’s.
While each beat of a “simple time” tune, such as a 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4, can be divided by two, in a compound time signature each beat is divided into three parts. There are six eighth note values in each bar, and there are two beats per bar.
Before discussing a 6/8, however, let’s review a simple 4/4 march, and then contrast the two different time signatures. The first line of Murdo’s Wedding is shown In Figure 1. The different note values in this example have boxes drawn around them. Note that there are four beats in a bar, and a quarter note value gets each beat. In this example, observe that there are quarter notes, eighth notes, a single half note, dotted eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. A 4/4 march rhythm is verbally expressed as “one and two and three and four”, with the numbers on the downbeat, with the “and” representing on the upbeat.
In contrast, Figure 2, which is the first line of the classic Bonnie Dundee, shows how the note groups are often arranged in a 6/8 march.
The rhythm of a 6/8 can be verbalized as “one and a two and a” for each bar, with the downbeats on the numbers “one” and “two”. Figure 3 shows the types of note arrangements found in 6/8 marches.
Typically, a 6/8 march has the following components, shown respectively in the boxes above: 1) a quarter note followed by an eighth note, 2) a dotted quarter note, 3) a dotted eighth note, a sixteenth note, and an eighth note, and 4) a sixteenth note, followed by a dotted eighth note and an eighth note. Observe that each of the note groupings enclosed in each box make up the equivalent of three eighth notes. It is very helpful to be able to recognize these four rhythm patterns and to be able to play them properly.
Although 6/8 marches are not played as often as 2/4's in solo competition, they are an important part of any piper's repertoire. Certainly, good pipe bands always have a 6/8 set that can be played on a moment's notice for big events, such as the bands' "march past" at the end of the World Pipe Band Championship, or just marching down the Royal Mile.