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Hi, any idea how to play this piece? The note on the last beats are not adding up to 6/8.

  • Weird. Yes, the first, second, and fifth measures can make sense, but the third and fourth seem to have those fast notes at their ends that cannot fit... I don't know this piece... Apr 24, 2022 at 4:57
  • Sorry, I don't know the title and composer of this piece. Somebody asked me to play this.
    – will
    Apr 24, 2022 at 5:45
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    Since there's a pause marked at the end of each bar, play it as you like. Time signature sort of goes out of the window at times like these.
    – Tim
    Apr 24, 2022 at 5:58
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    @Tim The time signature does not "go out the window" because of fermatas, regardless their placement.
    – Aaron
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:12
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    Apparently, the original source is F. Schuyler Matherw, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, biodiversitylibrary.org/item/70715 p. 254 or newer edition books.google.com/books?id=xCr50CCRhGsC Apr 25, 2022 at 15:24

5 Answers 5


The meter is 6/8. So, one bar is 6 eighth notes = 3 quarter notes = 2 dotted quarter notes = 12 sixteenth notes. "Notes" means pitched notes or rests.

In this bar...

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...there are 5 eighth notes and 1 eighth rest = 6 eighths. The 32nd notes are grace notes and don't apply to the basic rhythm of the bar.

In this bar...

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...there are 4 sixteenth notes = 1 quarter note and a half note rest = 2 quarter notes = 3 quarter notes = 6 eighth notes. And again the 32nd notes are grace notes.

F. Schuyler Mathews, Field Book of Widl Birds and Their Music, p. 254 is the original source.

It has a lengthy introduction about birds and music and notation, including particular details about rhythm. Mathews seems to believe birds have some sort of sense of meter and beat, but points out other researchers do not. Mathews gives an example of rhythm for the Peabody Bird, that it is not strict eighth notes in 6/8, but "probably more accurately a dotted rhythm in 6/8. Notice that he allows for a bit a approximation in notating rhythm. Later he says...

The fact is, no matter how doubtfully complete the song of the little bird proves to be, there is no question whatever about the singe keeping time! He can not sustain a melody of any considerable length, nor can he conform to our conventional ideas of metre, but he can keep time perfectly, and a knowledge of his rhythmic method, is, I believe, the strongest factor in his identification by the ear!

Personally, I interpret that to mean bird sing with a consistent rhythm, and that rhythmic consistency will aid in identification of birds by their songs, but those rhythms may not be exactly as notated, or not mechanically (in the sense of a metronome) perfect. Bird songs are about one bar in length. Don't be too concerned about performing the rhythms exactly. You wouldn't conduct these with a white baton!

...any idea how to play this piece?

Well... Schuyler compares the bird song to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and then says:

"...Like all the northern Thrushes, he is a transcendentalist, who is never satisfied with a creditable effort, but must try for something better and then "goes to pieces" in the attempt!"

I guess you have about 20 seconds to go full transcendental and push yourself until full collapse. But on the serious side, I think the grace notes are not graces in the normal sense of leading into a main rhythm note, but instead are a kind of punctuation ending the utterance. I can't really tell if it's meant to represent overtone singing or some kind of shake or tremolo. Probably either would be find. Keep in mind, you're never going to perfectly reproduce the sound on a piano. I think you have some leeway.

  • Outstanding! Finally an answer that involves actual, sourced research and isn't just guesswork and speculation.
    – Aaron
    Apr 25, 2022 at 16:56

As it turns out, F. Schuyler Mathews, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music is the original source, and its Page 241 details this for additional playback instructions:

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Note how the tiny notes are characterized as "a vibrating final note".

Those last, tiny notes are meant to be insignificant, but still spiritedly played, grace notes that do not count towards the meter.


The large noteheads (and rests!) do add up. The small noteheads are written as gracenotes and are to be played at indicated duration leading to the next large note head.

Take the first bar: 5 8th notes, followed by an 8th rest (which is easily overlooked). That’s a perfect 6/8. The three 32th notes are to begin after one 32th into that rest, as to end right at the end of the bar.

That’s the mathematical interpretation of this score. The style might be forgiving towards a more free interpretation.

Addition: gracenotes are usually written in the same bar as the note they lead to. But it is not uncommon that they are placed left of the barline, like in this score. However, what is somewhat unorthodox (Thank you, Aaron, for pointing it out to me) is to combine it with the fermates over the barlines. Where normaly gracenotes ‘stick’ to the next note, this is a strong visual suggestion that the fermate pause should fall between the gracenotes and the next note.

  • The problem is in bars 3, 4, and 6, which isn't explained here.
    – Aaron
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:07
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    @Aaron Bar 6 is also explained this way since its large noteheads and rests also add up (not as obviously, though). This actually explains the situation fairly well (neglecting rests) for Bars 3 and 4 assuming you have to input them into Musescore, as you can put grace notes after regular notes there and they'll play after those notes but (crucially to my ears) before the next beat.
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 24, 2022 at 19:18
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    Why is bar 3 and 4 not explained? The large notes add up. The small notes are gracenotes. Apr 24, 2022 at 22:00

Based on reading the grace notes, fermatas and most importantly performance directions under the notes, I think it's supposed to sound like this bird.

As explained in other answers, the note durations add up, but because of the grace notes and fermata, it is not played with strict rhythm. Some composers have written pieces with no regular bar structure without any time signature at all.


Despite the tempo instruction and mm mark, this isn't strict metrical writing. Just 'fit them in'.

And it's not a continuous piece of music. It's a collection of fragments. Play one, then stop. That's what the fermatas over barlines mean. The 'little notes' belong to and complete the preceding phrase. They aren't preparatory gracenotes belonging to the next one.

I guess the distinction between the three demi-semi-quavers (three beams) that complete the first bar and the three semi-quavers (two beams) that complete the second is intentional?

It would be interesting to know the source, though it makes no difference to the answer!

This sort of notation is not only found in birdsong imitations. Piano composers, particularly of the Romantic era, frequently wrote 'quasi cadenza' passages that made little attempt to 'add up'. We must use our own sense of style to decide how far the underlying pulse should be stretched to accommodate them. The mark of a great performer can be how they apply rubato while still maintaining a solid pulse.

  • 1
    I don't think this holds up. The fermatas at the bar lines imply a pause between measures, so a grace note doesn't make sense — it would have to be written in the same bar as the note it ornaments, which is the standard notation regardless.
    – Aaron
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:09
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    I can only conclude the fermate pause is to fall between the gracenotes and their leading note. Albeit unorthodox, grace notes seem the most sensible interpretation. Apr 24, 2022 at 22:31
  • Like I said, these are not gracenotes in the usual sense of decorating the start of a note. They come AFTER the main notes. We are just calling them 'gracenotes' because they've been notated as such.
    – Laurence
    Apr 29, 2022 at 10:44

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