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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?

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

3 Answers 3

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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.

Time signature with parenthetical secondary signature

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

Use of dotted barline to set off 1/8

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.

9/8 time signature with clear note beaming

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

9/8 time signature clarified by accents

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  • 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.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 12, 2020 at 15:23
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    @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.
    – Esther
    Dec 14, 2020 at 1:59
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    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, 2023 at 2:06
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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. enter image description 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.

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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 &".

enter image description here

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 &".

enter image description here

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 &"

enter image description here

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.

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