So what is three time, and why is it special?
So what is three time anyway?
One of the most important elements in rock music (and in most other kinds of music) is the rhythm. In many songs the rhythm is a straightforward pattern of four beats. In other words it simply goes one-two-three-four. Sometimes it's close to an even simpler one-two pattern. This is the most common rhythm, and in many musical genres you rarely hear anything else. In reggae interestingly the pattern has four beats as well, but with emphasis on the third one: one-two-three-four.

It's somehow much harder to write a good song with a three beat rhythm. Songs that follow this pattern are said to be in three time. One of the most well known examples is Three times a lady (note the reference in the title) by Lionel Ritchie. The rhythm follows an obvious one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two-three pattern. This example is also a good example of how songs in three time generally tend to be a bit slower, a bit less dynamic than those in regular four time. By the way, in some songs not every emphasis on the first beat is equally strong. Instead they alternate between a stronger and weaker one. You could describe this by a one-two-three-one-two-three pattern. Musicians usually call this a six eighths pattern.

So why is it so special?
Since songs in four time are appealing more quickly, are usually more dynamic, are easier to dance to and are probably easier to write as well it's no surprise that they form a huge majority. Over the years several rock bands have tried to write creative and alternative efforts, and it's there we can find several examples of three time. Still, even in rock music alternative rhythms are not too common, so it is amazing to find that the Cocteau Twins often wrote a large part of their material in three time - on Treasure more than half the songs are in three time, something very rare indeed.
So do you have any examples of bands and songs?
In the table at the bottom of this page you'll find a number of examples, mostly in alternative/indie rock genre. Where many bands just produced the odd song in three time the Cocteau Twins wrote an amazing forty-one songs in this rhythm. As you can see Dead Can Dance are another band who wrote many creative rhythms. From several other bands or artists you'll find a number of entries, but in many cases it's just one or two. Three time songs are pretty rare!
(Note: this list is definitely not even close to complete, so if you feel you have some useful additions to this list why don't you mail them to ).
Some of those songs are not so slow though...
When you listen to a song like Beatrix it's clear this is a typical example of a slower song. Similarly Grail Overfloweth, Five Ten Fiftyfold and Road, River And Rail are not too quick. But songs in three time can have much quicker rhythms by making the three beats so quick that the listener actually experiences the three beats as one 'superbeat'. This is a technique the Twins used often. In The Tinderbox (Of A Heart) the three time pattern is still obvious, but already too quick to easily move along with. In Ivo the three time is even quicker. The quickest three time they ever did is probably in Athol-Brose where three beats are fired so rapidly it's hard not to experience them as a single beat.
But what about other rhythms? Or perhaps you can mix them!
Well, yes, of course, you could use still other rhythms. You could use a five beat rhythm (usually called 5/8) - Take Five by Dave Brubeck is probably the most famous example. Songs with such rhythms are even rarer though. Mixing two different rhythms into a single song is another extremely rare technique. They do exist though, and you'll find the few examples of such unusual rhythms that I am aware of described in the second table below.

Some bands and (some of) their songs in three time

Cocteau Twins
On Garlands : Blind Dumb Deaf; Shallow Then Halo; Grail Overfloweth
On BBC Sessions : (apart from songs appearing elsewhere as well) Dear Heart
On Lullabies : Alas Dies Laughing; It's All But An Ark Lark
On Peppermint Pig : Laugh Lines; Hazel
On Head Over Heels : Five Ten Fiftyfold; Sugar Hiccup; Glass Candle Grenades; The Tinderbox (Of A Heart); Musette And Drums
On Sunburst And Snowblind : Hitherto
On The Spangle Maker : Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops; Pepper-Tree
On Treasure : Ivo; Beatrix; Persephone; Pandora; Amelia; Cicely
On Aikea-Guinea : Rococo
On Tiny Dynamine : Sultitan Itan
On Echoes In A Shallow Bay : Melonella; Pale Clouded White
On Victorialand : Throughout The Dark Months Of April And May; Little Spacey
On The Moon And The Melodies : Sea, Swallow Me; Eyes Are Mosaics; She Will Destroy You; Ooze Out And Away, Onehow
On Love's Easy Tears : Those Eyes, That Mouth
On Blue Bell Knoll : Athol-Brose
On Heaven Or Las Vegas : Fotzepolitic; Road, River And Rail
On Four-Calendar Café : Theft, And Wandering Around Lost; My Truth
On Milk & Kisses : Ups
On Violaine : Circling Girl
On Volume 17 : Touch Upon Touch
Dead Can Dance
On Dead Can Dance : Frontier; Ocean; Wild In The Woods; Carnival Of Light; Flowers Of The Sea
On Throughout The
Realm Of A Dying Sun
Cantara; Summoning Of The Muse
On The Serpents Egg : The Writing On My Father's Hand; Ullyses
On Aion : Fortune Presents Gifts Not According To the Book; Black Sun; Radharc
On Into The Labyrinth : Towards The Within
On Toward The Within : I Can See Now
On Spiritchaser : Song Of The Stars; Indus; Song Of The Nile
On Anastasis : Opium; Return Of The She-King
The Smiths That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore; Meat Is murder; I Know It's Over; Never Had No One Ever; Stretch Out And Wait
Siouxsie & The Banshees The Staircase (Mystery); Playground Twist; Red Light; Obsession; Circle; Melt!; The Last Beat Of My Heart
The Creatures Pluto Drive; I Was Me
Genesis The Return Of The Giant Hogweed; Entangled; Like It Or Not
Garbage Can't Cry These Tears; Drive You Home
Lush De-Luxe; Thoughtforms; Covert; Laura; Monochrome; White Wood; Shut Up
Cranes Watersong; Thursday; Leaves Of Summer; Starblood; Sixth Of May; Wish; Beautiful Sadness; Adrift; And Ever; Golden; Fourteen
Echo and the Bunnymen Nocturnal Me; The Yo-Yo Man
Kate Bush Army Dreamers; Suspended In Gaffa; Night Of The Swallow
This Ascension Chameleon Room; Light And Shade; Angel Light; Placid; Forever Shaken
Mira Stainless; Pieces; Passerby; Nearest Exit
Big Country Close Action
Toyah I Want To Be Free
Catatonia Strange Glue
Echobelly Taste Of You; Cold Feet Warm Heart; Natural Animal; Something Hot In A Cold Country; Worms And Angels; Atom; Bulldog Baby
Journey Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'; I'm Cryin'; Stay Awhile; Open Arms; Happy To Give
Kansas Portrait (He Knew)
Paramore Throwing Punches; Feeling Sorry; My Heart
The Beatles Norwegian Wood; You've Got To Hide Your Love Away; She's Leaving Home
The Beach Boys Sail On Sailor
Emerson, Lake & Palmer Lucky Man
Queen Somebody To Love; We Are The Champions; I'm In Love With My Car; Drowse
Fleetwood Mac Albatross
Pink Floyd Astronomy Domine; One Of These Days
U2 Trip Through Your Wires
Moody Blues Nights In White Satin
Goo-Goo Dolls Iris
Procol Harum Broken Barricades; A Rum Tale
Led Zeppelin Dazed And Confused
Chapterhouse April; Come Heaven; Then We'll Rise
Within Temptation Mother Earth; The Promise; Never-ending Story; Overcome; The Howling; All I Need; Lost
The Gathering In Motion #1; My Electricity; Morphia's Waltz; Home
Krezip Gentle; There It Goes; Peace Of Mind; Where Are You Now

Some even more unusual rhythms and combinations

Cranes You won't find many rock songs in 5/8, but Cha Cha Escueta (on The EP Collection) and Pale Blue Sky (on Loved) are two rare examples.
The Beatles Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is probably one of their most famous songs. But did you ever notice the verse is in three time, but the chorus isn't?
Led Zeppelin The lengthy song Kashmir has a very complicated rhythm: it alternates many times between three time and four time.
The Stranglers Ever wondered why Golden Brown sounds so peculiar? The verse has a highly uncommon 3-3-3-4 rhythm.
This Ascension Both the first and last parts of Sandman, from their Walk Softly, A Dream Lies Here album are in three time, but the middle part starts out in 3-3-3-1 (10/16) before switching to 5/8.
Mira On the album Apart the band experiment a lot with rhythm changes. Green changes halfway from three time to four time before finishing off in three time again. In Plastique the band confusingly alternate between what appears to be three time but really is a 3-3-3-3-3-1 pattern and a regular four time, before closing off in proper three time. While Tick Tock is mostly in three time halfway it features a four time passage.
Siouxsie & the Banshees On their debut album The Scream there is Overground. The chorus has a standard rhythm, but the verse is in a 3-3-4 (or 10/16) rhythm.
Genesis The epic Supper's Ready on Foxtrot contains a lengthy episode where the rhythm famously has a nine beat pattern.
Garbage On Beautifulgarbage you'll find Silence Is Golden. The first part of that song is in three time, but the concluding part is in four time.
Dead Can Dance One of their most mystifying tracks on The Serpent's Egg is Echolalia. Most of this song has a dazzling 13/16 rhythm.

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