I'm doing a composition with time signatures that alternate between 3/4 and 2/4. At first, the meter is a steady 2/4, before suddenly switching to 3/4. From that point on, the piece alternates between 3/4 and 2/4 consistently.

So the question is, is there fundamentally any difference between 5/4 and 3/4 + 2/4? If 5/4 is further subdivided into either 3 + 2 or 2 + 3, would it be better to turn any passage that alternates between 3/4 + 2/4 to 5/4?

  • I count that with five fingers tapping ! – Fattie Mar 25 at 19:08

Writing in 5/4 is perfectly reasonable. You could also make the time signature either (3+2)/4, which would mean "five beats per measure, with a 3+2 pulse pattern", or you could write both time signatures next to each other, which would mean "alternate measures of 3/4 and 2/4."

T:5/4 Time Signature Options
z | [M:3+2/4] z3/4 z2/4 || [M:32/44] z3/4 | z2/4 || 

(NOTE: the 4 should be centered at the bottom of the (2+3)/4 time signature.)

Loosely speaking, the fundamental differences would be these:

  • 5/4 would mean one strong beat per measure (beat 1), and one semistrong beat per measure (beat 4).
  • (3+2)/4 would be equivalent to 5/4
  • [3/4][2/4] would mean two measures both with strong beats (beat 1, respectively).

These are interpretive rules of thumb, but phrasing or other musical considerations could make them more equivalent or less.

It also should be noted that the metric divisions within 5/4 time (3+2 or 2+3) can be clarified, if necessary, by the use of a dotted bar line. This is particularly helpful in a situation where the divisions change.

5/4 Time with Dotted Bar Lines

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    Obviously nonsensical as a symbol for a time signature, but when I first saw the (3/4)(2/4) example image, I read it as (32/44) and balked before I realized my mistake :) – user45266 Mar 25 at 5:35
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    @user45266 Yeah, that's an unfortunately limitation of ABCjs. In fact, it's coded as 32/44, which is the only way to get a multiple time signature like that. – Aaron Mar 25 at 5:37
  • Ah, makes sense. Nice workaround! – user45266 Mar 25 at 5:38
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    “5/4 would mean...one semistrong beat per measure (beat 4)” – does it though? I agree that seems to be the most common, but in principle 5/4 could also be 2+3. – leftaroundabout Mar 25 at 13:12
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    I'd go with either of the first 2 options. The 32/44 thing, even if you fixed the spacing issue, is still more likely to be confusing to the reader. – Darrel Hoffman Mar 25 at 13:29

Using 5/4 instead of constant changes between 3/4 and 2/4 would certainly de-clutter the score.

But is it useful clutter? Maybe not. Where the grouping is consistently 3+2, a single indication of that where the 5/4 starts should be sufficient.
enter image description here

Is there any need for dotted barlines? Not, I think in a bar as short as just 5 beats. Maybe in 10/4, 11/4 etc. enter image description here

You might be able to make the problem go away completely by notating in 5/8, where beaming can easily indicate groups. enter image description here


"From that point on, the piece alternates between 3/4 and 2/4 consistently."

Alternates on what scale?

If it alternates each measure consistently, then it really is the concept of additive time...


But if it goes a few measures of 3/4 then changes to a few measures of 2/4 alternating meter at a phrase level then it probably should change time signatures accordingly.

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