I am working on this score (so far just cellos violas and bassses) which uses a changing rhythm but in modern music this could be notated in 4/4 time too with syncopation. In fact, the rhythm used is a very common rhythm in pop and rock music which I am most familiar with. Is it normal to write everything like this in classical music or for an orchestra with changing time signatures and is a syncopated rhythm in 4/4 time actually 4/4 time or is it the "lazier" way of writing everything? I quite like writing it like this but it is very new to me to see something written with varying time signatures which I would notate in 4/4 time. enter image description here

  • 3
    Why are you repeating time signatures when you do not need to? Bar 25 has a 4/8 time signature so bar 26 does not need one. Ditto bars 29 and 30.
    – JimM
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 11:10
  • 2
    If the music will be conducted then it can make a big difference. Will this be conducted? Also when composers write they are trying to communicate their musical intention and syncopated 4/4 is a different intention from changing meters. Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 11:17
  • Jim, thanks for the tip, no need to repeat the time signature, it was just like this in my DAW ;)
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 12:35
  • Todd, I am actually arguing that it makes no difference. If you think it makes a difference then that is the kind of answer I was hoping to receive so please post an answer why you think it is different. If I wrote this piece in 4/4, why would the intention change. THe strong beats would remain the same, the only difference is that in this score the strong beats happen at the beginning of a bar. In other words, the barlines have been moved to accomodate the syncopation.
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 12:37
  • One comment that is tangential -- since your sets of 3 eighth notes always happen twice in a row (once as a 3/8 and once as part of a 5/8) we are most likely to hear/feel them as a single 6/8 bar. I'd suggest always having those 6 eighth notes beamed together in sets of 3 in one 6/8 bar, and fill the other space with 2/4 or 3/4 bars. If you choose to use a mixture of time signatures, I think that would be clearest.
    – nuggethead
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 13:30

5 Answers 5


For me, it's easier to read in just one time signature, i.e. 4/4, using accents for the accented notes (obviously!) That way, I don't have to keep changing my counting, keeping the basic 4 pulse going, but just providing more emphasis on those notes with their accents.

If, however, the rhythm over many bars is duplicated, as in it's a pattern, it's possible to show the breakdown at the top of the piece, so the reader understands what's expected. But for just a few bars, keep the same time signature as is.

  • Thanks! Many popular songs written in 4/4 time use this rhythm throughout the song which makes the barlines contradict the meter. Yes ok, we say that the rhythm is "syncopated" but that is only if you actually want to write in 4/4 time. By insisting on writing in 4/4 time It kind of makes the barlines redundant. This way uses the barlines to good effect becuase you feel the 1st beat as the strong beat and this is shown in the notation. I, personally am going to have to rethink this because to me, it seems much more useful this way. But I understand that this can be personal preference.
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 9:39
  • It could as well be argued that insisting on changing meter all the time even though it's really 4/4 with accent sometimes not on 1st makes things difficult to read without a good reason.
    – ojs
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 11:11
  • @ojs - of course it could be argued both ways, but from experience, counting 4 all the time, with emphases on different numbers has always worked better for me.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 12:18
  • @Tim I agree with you on this one, I was replying to the OP.
    – ojs
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 13:11
  • Tim, 3/8 - 5/8 has a different set of downbeats, but I agree it's not clear the OP understands the "intent" of measures. Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 20:03

When there's more than one way to notate the music, although they might be logically and mathematically the same, they won't be performed the same. Here's an example, Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo A La Turk.

enter image description here

The first three pairs of quavers set up an expectation for what's going to happen on the fourth beat - but instead of two quavers there are three - so the listener hears this as a sort of lopsided four-beat pattern.

You could write this out slightly differently, using a composite time signature:

enter image description here

There are actually nine quavers in each bar, so we could write the passage like this:

enter image description here

Now there's no meter-change, and if you were to perform this there wouldn't be the same intensity that you get when there are meter changes. It would sound more relaxed, because it's now a syncopated three-beat pattern.

Meter changes make your performers concentrate more, and you might get an edgier performance than if you notate everything without those meter changes.


There is a pattern of "chord rest, chord rest, chord rest" which then flips to "rest chord, rest chord, rest chord". I would think regardless of written meter changes and bar lines, the aural effect will be accents on the chords. The question then seems to be which chords are supposed to feel like down strokes on strong beats, and which are off strong beats and syncopated?

enter image description here

The green boxes above show the written meter and where the syncopation might be.

The pink boxes show the pattern of two and where the syncopated chord might be.

It seems unclear right before and after the bar line at mm. 23-24.

If the patterns is meant to be in twos, I wonder if this notation might make the rhythm clearer?

enter image description here

  • THank you Michael but this "the aural effect will be accents on the chords" is dependent on dynamics. THat last chord in bar 24 is played very softly compared to the following beat of bar 25 so it is how you have it with the green boxes... even though there is a full chord there it does not make it a strong beat.
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 17:56
  • OK, but you have no dynamic or accent markings. I just wanted to point out the potential to hear a pattern of two. Accent marks would probably help a lot to make your intention clear. Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 18:35
  • I guess the point of having different bar time signatures intimates where the accents should come. Hence the question?
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 18:42
  • Yes, but it is possible to misuse time signatures that don't jibe with what is actually written or the writer's intention. Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 20:42
  • Syncopation by definition is misusing time signatures hence my post :) My argument is that writing it this way is a closer representation of where the accents are instead of reading it in 4/4 time with syncopated beats
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 8:20

You need to ask yourself "What is the top-level rhythm that a conductor might use?" If you music is consistently 4/8 - 4/8 - 3/8 - 5/8, you can indicate that at the start. Presumably the beats would be two, two, one, two(a 3-eighths and a 2-eighths pair).

Your sample suggests you might be better off with 4/8 - 4/8 - 3/8 - 3/8 - 2/8 , which would make it easier to read and conduct, as well as making it clear where the strong beats are. hmmm, in which case it could be notated as five 2/8 bars and two 3/8 bars.


There's a difference in feel between 'ONE two three FOUR five six SEVEN eight' and 'ONE two three ONE two three ONE two. It's a subtle difference, but it exists and is worth taking notice of. If you want to feel syncopation against a constant 4/4 framework write 4/4. If you want to feel ever-changing metre, write different time signatures.

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