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Looking over this piece and I'm stumped trying to interpret the 4s in bar 29 and the 3s in bar 30. Also bar 30 is perplexing because there are 6 quarter notes. The piece is in 6/8 time. I don't think these are fingering suggestions. Bar 30 is completely confusing.

Alkan Prelude in Ab minor, Op. 31, No. 8, mm. 29–31

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    Looking at your other Alkan question, I have strong reason to believe that this screenshot is from a poorly formatted Musescore version of the Alkan piece. I highly recommend checking scores of the Alkan piece in IMSLP. – Dekkadeci Jun 12 at 15:10
  • @Dekkadeci You're absolutely right. As I mentioned in a later comment, I'm referencing IMSLP from now on for scores. But in fact there is no pertinent difference between my excerpt here and what's on IMSLP. imslp.org/wiki/25_Preludes%2C_Op.31_(Alkan%2C_Charles-Valentin) – markmarz Jun 12 at 18:34
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The 4s and 3s both indicate tuplets, as indicated in other answers. However, the quarter-note triplets especially, being equivalent to just writing eighth notes, beg the question: why did Alkan chose this confusing notation?

The reason is to clearly communicate the slowing of the music as this portion reaches its conclusion. To see this, consider also the preceding measure, 28. Here is a transcription of measures 28–30, just the right hand, which is the key element.

X: 1
T: Prelude in Ab minor
T: measures 28–30, right hand
C: Alkan
M: 6/8
K: Ab minor
=g'/2b'/2b/2e'/2b/2e'/2 b/2e'/2b/2e'/2b/2e'/2 | (4be'be' (4be'be' | (3(b2e'2)  (b2(3e'2) (3(b2e'2) ||

Considering 6/8 as having two beats per measure, the music moves from 6 notes per beat to 4 notes per beat to 3 notes per beat. At the same time, Alkan has indicated molto rallentando. The quarter-notes, then, best communicate the musical intent, though confusing at first glance.

Were Alkan to have extended the phrase two bars further, they presumably would have looked like this:

X: 1
T: Prelude in Ab minor
T: imaginary measures 30a and 30b
C: Alkan
M: 6/8
K: Ab minor
(2b4e'4 (2b4e'4 | (2b8e'8 |

...expressing 2 and 1 note per beat, respectively.

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The piece is in 6/8 time.
The 4's in bar 29 indicate quadruplets : four 8th notes in the duration of three. The '4' is notated in the wrong place, it should be on the beam side.
The 3's in bar 30 seem to be wrongly notated, they should be on the stem side and have brackets. They are presumably intended to denote three quarter notes in the duration of three eighth notes. The composer could (and should) have notated the bar as six eighth notes.

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  • I disagree about the "and should". Although that would be the standard notation, the notation as given better communicates the musical idea. I've elaborated on this in a separate answer. – Aaron Jun 11 at 19:54
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I agree with Tom Serb that it's not a great notation, but I think they must be tuple markings rather than fingerings, if the time signature is 6/8. As the OP points out, that's too many 8th notes, so I think it means "take the main beat unit, the dotted quarter, and subdivide it into 4 instead of 3."

As you say, bar 30 is confusing. My best guess is that it's hemiola, and has in fact fused two bars into one. Here the quarters are worth two (normal) 8th notes (not the 4-tuple 8ths of m. 29); thus the first Bb-Eb-Bb is one 6/8 measure and Eb-Bb-Eb is another, but they are notated as one measure to emphasize their grouping into sets of two quarter notes, with the second Bb "belonging" musically with the next Eb even though it would be in a different 6/8 measure.

Meaning that it could have been notated:

X: 1
K:Cb
L:8
M:6/8
(b2 e'2)(b2 | e'2)(b2 e'2)

All of which sounds really confusing, but translates simply to a progressive slowing; with the molto rallentando added, I'd be inclined as a performer to "ease" my way from ordinary compound time 6/8 to the "square" 4-tuple 8th notes to the quarter notes—the point is it keeps relaxing and getting bigger.

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It looks to me like the 4s are finger numbers for the Eb notes, and the 3s are indications that the quarter notes in the second measure are triplets.

It's poor notation - quarter note triplets should be indicated with a bracket to avoid confusion with fingerings.

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    Note that the 4's are offset so they're between 2 notes - that should be a good clue that they are not fingerings. The 3's aren't, but only because there's an odd-number of notes in those tuplets. Even so, it wouldn't make much sense to read those as fingerings either, as one 3 is above an Eb and the other above an Ab in the alternating notes, which would be a rather awkward fingering to use. Agreed that brackets would remove some ambiguity, but it's not at all uncommon to see them omitted. – Darrel Hoffman Jun 12 at 16:08

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