My guess is to put the bar lines where aesthetically a phrase ends and another begins, but it seems completely abstract and I want to be precise.

The phrases of the piece that I'm writing are of variable length so I think the most proper is to write free time rather than changing time signatures in every measure.

Any thoughts are welcomed

  • 2
    There are a couple of considerations here, which will help us to answer. Is this a piece for a solo performer, or for two or more players? If it is for a group, do the players need to be synchronised (i.e. playing "in time" with each other), or is the piece completely rhythmically free? Commented May 14, 2022 at 16:22
  • The piece is for one guitar, it has rhythm I think but the phrases that it consist are of variable length and it is difficult to force it in a specific time signature
    – tool
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 16:31
  • 1
    @tool Are you sure? In my experience most - but granted, not all - pieces actually benefit from "forcing" them in a specific (succession of) time signature(s) Also, there's a lot you can do with tempo changes and fermata's. Leaving out time signatures and barlines is IMO almost always more of an artistic choice than a notational benefit.
    – Creynders
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 10:03
  • 1
    Have you tried tapping a foot or nodding rhythmically while listening to or playing this? Most pieces will have some sort of recurring rhythm pattern, giving a clue to the time signature.
    – Tim
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 11:17
  • 1
    Every measure having it's own length if very different than free time. Free time is pretty much completely absent from structure using barlines only as accents/phrasing. You can have a piece with rapidly changing meters that all respect the meters they are put in. Similarly how something can have complex tonality and shift through many keys, but it's still tonally structured and not atonal.
    – Dom
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 21:09

3 Answers 3


A piece that is truly in free time — where there is no regular ("metered") pulse — either omits bar lines or uses them to indicate phrasing. Dotted or partial bar lines are sometimes used to help circumvent a regular bar line's association with meter and downbeats.

In a piece that has a regular pulse but irregular pattern of emphasis, then it's okay to omit the time signature and use bar lines to delineate the phrases/emphasis points. Again, dotted or partial bar lines can be used if there are lesser emphases within the larger phrase/bar. This is especially helpful for long phrases. Elaine Gould in Behind Bars offers the example of a measure with 21 beats, subdivided by dotted bar lines to assist with placement of emphases and to help to eye keep track of where one is in the score (p. 178).

Another possibility is to include time signatures that are just a single numbers indicating the beats in the particular unit. This can be a useful cue when reading.


Aaron's answer pretty much says exactly what I was going to (but I had my dinner instead...) So, I won't add any more info. But I did want to provide an example. This is something I wrote back in the dim, distant past which is also in free time, and for solo guitar (just the first few bars here...) Although the phrases vary in length, there's no real need for time-signatures, but dotted bar-lines help to make the music clear, and are useful for rehearsal and practice purposes.

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  • 3
    Have you, by chance, made a recording of this that could be posted in the chat room (or, in The Auditorium — after reactivation)? I'd love to hear it.
    – Aaron
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 21:11

If I can share my initial instructors viewpoint regarding reading music. The symbols and tempo and meter were equivalent to signs that are used when driving. His explanation for the situation you're describing would be determined by the eqivocation to the top number in the time signature. Regardless of how the amount of measure was parsed out be it quarter notes, eighths, rests etc. Once that capacity was attained a bar was placed. There are symbols that indicate a continuance in the music as if the bar isnt there.

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