How to write complex time signature that would be confused for compound (triplet) time?

This question was sparked by many answers and comments on the site which describe 6/4 as a compound meter of 2 groups of dotted half notes (1 & a 2 & a), rather than the way I've always used and heard it (mainly in prog rock and metal genres) as simple meter of 6 groups of quarter notes (1&2&3&4&5&6&) or, if you prefer, a complex meter of 4/4 + 2/4 (1&2&3&4&1&2& 1&2&3&4&1&2&).

I've also been trying to write a piece that is in a complex meter of 4/4 + 1/8 (count 1&2&3&4&5 1&2&3&4&5) so mathematically that would be 9/8 but yet 9/8 feels like it should always be a compound triple meter.

Is there a standard way to denote that a piece should be interpreted as having a certain feel which differs from the "standard" interpretation of the meter, or are there alternate meters that would better convey my ideas?

• have a look at Bartok’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms (Mikrokosmos) for ideas
– user71850
Dec 12, 2020 at 12:38
• 4/4 + 2/4 might rather be written as 3/2. Dec 12, 2020 at 12:49

There's not a definitive standard, but there are various conventions.

One option is to include two time signatures: the "actual" time signature and, parenthetically, the "compound" version expressing the metrical divisions.

Another option would be to include, say, a dotted barline to help visually divide the measure.

As the previous two examples make clear, the notation itself can make clear the intended metric divisions. Baring eighth-notes in groups of four rather than three, or use of quarter notes rather than dotted quarters, signals strongly the intended interpretation, even in the absence of a "fancy" time signature.

And finally, if needed, you can add accents to really make clear where the metric stresses should be.

• Interesting, especially the second option. Dec 11, 2020 at 22:21
• I have been repeatedly told to not bar notes like dotted 8th note-dotted 8th note-8th note on NinSheetMusic (a video game transcription website I have contributed to) and to use dotted 8th note-16th note-tie-8th note-8th note instead. This implies that the unorthodox beaming may not be considered "proper notation" and may in fact impede readability rather than improve it. Dec 12, 2020 at 15:23
• @Dekkadeci These are not unorthodox beamings, they're orthodox beamings of unorthodox metre. It's pretty difficult to comment on the example you give without context, but in most metres, ♪.♪♪ ought not be beamed because it's not a "complete" group -- it would be perfectly correct in something like a duple metre subdivided into 7s. Dec 14, 2020 at 1:59
• There's another option I've seen in several band scores lately: Time signature is 9/8 and above the first system of 9/8 it says "(2+2+2+2+1)". For example, Frank Ticheli's "Vesuvius" has several sections in 9/8 time but counted in four beats with the second beat being 50% longer. Above the first 9/8 measure it says "(2+3+2+2). This seems to be what modern conductors and musicians are expecting. When otherwise 4/4 time is broken down into different beat lengths, the time signature is written as 8/8 and the grouping added above, such as (3+3+2). Aug 14 at 2:06

Adding to the other answer, which covers the 9/8 case very well.

The 6/4 example should probably be written in alternating 4/4 and 2/4 bars -- you can put both time signatures at the start of the piece like Tchaikovsky does here.

Literally the only 6/4 beaming that will unambiguously convey what you're after is 8 + 4, which is going to look very strange and only helps if you don't have any intervening crotchets. You could try halving all your note values and write it in 6/8, but it'll look even worse and upset traditionalists. You might decide that 3/2 is "close enough", but it's not an approximation I'd personally settle for. Alternating time signatures definitely seems the way to go.

Examples of actual modern practice below.

The first is from Jubilate Deo (2016) by Dan Forrest. I believe the publisher is Hal Leonard or one of their subsidiaries. The time signature is 9/8 but there are four beats per measure, counted and conducted like "1 & uh 2 & 3 & 4 &".

The next two are from "Vesuvius" (1999) by Frank Ticheli, published by Manhattan Beach Music. The first example is again 9/8 time but counted and conducted "1 & 2 & uh 3 & 4 &".

The second example is 8/8 instead of 4/4 because the grouping is different from 4/4. This is "1 & uh 2 & uh 3 &"

This method of indicating non-standard beat groupings is the only method I've seen in scores over the last few years. I think any other method would seem outdated unless it was for an older work and was meant to re-create the manuscript faithfully.