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I know that a "repeated section" (i.e. I'm explicitly thinking about "enclosed in repeat-barlines") may be however long, 1 measure or 100. However, I'm wondering, whether there are "good" rule-of-thumb-like rules about when to use repeat signs in non-experimental pieces.

I came across a music sheet, where the first measures are like this:

ABCDBCE

And I'm wondering, whether it is OK to write it with a repeat on the measures BC with two different endings, something like:

A"BC"1D2E

Any pointers are welcome.

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    It doesn't work for your current example with different endings (hence comment rather than answer), but one common notation for a short number of repeated measures (1-2) is to use the symbol that looks like a %. In the middle of the measure it means to repeat the last measure. On the barline between 2 (otherwise empty) measures it means to repeat the last 2 measures. You can also have multiples in a row to repeat the same measure or measures more than just twice. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 25 at 15:26
  • Not really an answer, but "repeat with two different endings" is commonly indicated with D.S. al Coda, but only for entire sections, and limited to only once in a score. It would be unusual to use that with just a measure or two. – John Wu Sep 25 at 16:48
  • @JohnWu - From my experience, "D.S. al Coda" is typically done only when there are already repeat signs in the composition (often themselves with first and second endings). – Dekkadeci Sep 26 at 11:31
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...measures BC with two different endings...

Are the alternate "endings" in your example actual endings? If not, using voltas and repeats would seem to send the wrong visual clues about what is happening musically.

In other words, internal repetition within a phrase and alternate endings are not the same.

Regarding a rule of thumb, it seems to me the important thing is distinguish formal types of repetition. I can think of three types (I'm naming categories on the fly here:)

Mechanical...

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...pretty obvious in the case of exercises, but could also be sensible for something like an ostinato part. Repeat signs visually reinforce the idea to just keep doing something over and over. Perhaps when the exact number of repeats is lost upon the listener.

Proportional...

enter image description here

...or...

enter image description here

...the two-bar ideas could be enclosed in repeats, but they are written out. Often in classical music such repeats have some small variation necessitating the second iteration be written out, but even when it's a literal repeat it's still written out.

I call this "proportional" because I think the purpose of the repeat is to simply extend 2 bars to fill the space of 4. In both examples the sonatas both have phrase groups based on 4 bars. Composers could achieve 4 bars a number of ways in terms of repetition: 4 unique bar, a repetition with variation, or a literal repetition. If all three are consider just the same thing - a 4 bar phrase - then we can see why repeat signs aren't normally used for the literal repeat. It isn't so much that musical idea is about repetition, but filling the space of the proportions.

I think the listener is normally very aware of the repetitions, usually 2, maybe 3.

Structural...

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...it's hard to show with a short example, but these are the repeats demarking the first and second halves of a sonata. Of course sectional repeats like this simply double the play time. But, especially in the case of sonata form, the repeats emphasize the structural significance of the sections. You could abbreviate it like ||: I V :||: ? I :|| where ? means the "development" part. The repeated sections help emphasize that the first part sets up an incomplete ending (ends on the dominant) which is then made whole by the second part ending on the tonic. Repeats like this make the structural organization clear. In the case of classical form, it's tonal/harmonic contrasts demarked by sections and their repetition, but I suppose structure/repeats could be based on other aspects rhythms or melody.

I think for a casual/untrained listener these repeats may not be apparent regardless whether there is a clear stop at the end of sections.

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  • "prima volta and seconda volta" simply means "1st time and 2nd time". It does not need to be an ending at all. The "1st time bracket" just tells what should only be played the first time which means you skip that when you play the repeat and instead continue from the "2nd time bracket". Yes you can certainly find those brackets a lot in endings whether it is the end of a section or the end of a piece but it can also appear other places, any place where you want a different continuation at the end of a repetition. Thus it is about the end of the repetition, not the end of the piece. – Lars Peter Schultz Sep 25 at 19:02
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    @LarsPeterSchultz, I didn't say "end of the piece." I meant phrase/section ending. I'm sure you can find all sorts of uses of repeat signs if you look at enough scores. But part of the question is about "rule of thumb." I'm trying to reason out why we see these typical uses of repeat sign in some cases, but written out, literal repeats in others. – Michael Curtis Sep 25 at 21:09
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    You did say QUOTE: 'Are the alternate "endings" in your example actual endings?' UNQUOTE. But that is irrelevant, it doesn't matter whether it is actual endings or not. What matters is legibility as @SteveMansfield pointed out in his answer. – Lars Peter Schultz Sep 26 at 13:01
  • Yes, but legibility comes from understanding. And using voltas for endings (of phrases, section, or whole pieces) helps understanding that "here we could do the same, but here is the difference". In my example those aren't endings, it's just an internal repeat withit the phrase. If I understand currently correct. – D. Kovács Sep 28 at 5:12
  • The point I'm make through actual example scores is small internal repeats are usually written out instead of using repeat signs. IMO it's best to follow that convention. – Michael Curtis Sep 28 at 12:31
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With music notation, one important consideration is legibility; and on that count I’d suggest that your single-bar example fails the test, in that it introduces navigational complexity without saving much space on the page.

There may well be musicologists who have devoted treatises to the subject, but I suspect a good ‘rule of thumb’ would be ‘does this repeat make the music easier or harder to read’?

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  • Thanks for your answer. Yes, I think legibility is the deciding factor, which does not give an explicit answer, but close enough :) With the "1 bar repeat" I was thinking of for example "In C" by Riley that's why I explicitly mentioned in the question that I'm asking about non-experimental pieces. – D. Kovács Sep 25 at 10:27
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    Another factor is the form of the piece, if it has one. As an example, a song in AABA form. If you write out the AA as opposed to A, Repeat A, it may not be quite as clear as you'd like that you're actually repeating the A section. – Duston Sep 25 at 13:54
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Typically repetition is used for a whole section, a closed piece of music, like a verse of a song, a part of a dance. I don't believe there are strict rules there. Perhaps you may ask yourself: would the score make logical sense if you put a double bar line at the boundaries of the repetition? In practice I rarely see repeated sections shorter than 8 bars.

If you're desperately looking to shorten the length of the score, e.g. to fit it on one page, then anything is permitted, but you are likely sacrificing readability, especially with something as short as two measures with voltas. I wouldn't recommend doing it on a regular basis.

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I suspect it depends on whether the musician playing it primarily sight reads or plays by ear.

I finally stopped flunking site-reading tests when I learned to sight sing, so that I could just ignore the printed music and concentrate on playing what I'd just sung. I eventually got better at sight reading, but I like short marked repetitions as they allow me to read once and then play twice.

In contrast, my mum could sight-read music as a child before she learned to read English, so for her using repeats on short blocks is pointless, and having to relocate her visual focus on a repeat block is somewhat of a distraction.

That said, repeats that go back to previous pages are worse distractions, and short be avoided if possible.

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  • Michael Curtis's answer makes a good case that repeats that go back to previous pages are not only permitted but also common in classical music pieces such as sonata-allegros and scherzo and trios. – Dekkadeci Sep 26 at 11:41

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