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Time Signatures

I was always taught that a time signature should be written as a fraction without a line

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However, this is a bind, or even impossible, in emails, Word and texts, etc. So, I am wondering what the acceptable form is now, when using such a medium to give a time signature?

Examples:

I am writing a piano piece in 2-4

I am writing a piano piece in 2/4

I am writing a piano piece in 2:4

I am writing a piano piece in 2 4

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  • 2
    One important point: there's no "global rule." Like questions of language style and usage, there might be "in-house" style conventions for a certain periodical, publishing house, or academic institution. And I imagine most would recommend "2/4" in prose, but it's still up to them. Jun 22, 2023 at 14:17
  • You've certainly opened a can of worms with this one! Well done!+1.
    – Tim
    Jun 23, 2023 at 14:39
  • Out of curiosity and as a side question since so many oppose to the notion of fractions: How does one pronounce time signatures in English (or any other language for that matter)? E.g., in German, nobody would call the typical time signature of a waltz anything but a "Dreivierteltakt" and "drei Viertel" is unambiguosly and literally the fraction "three quarters" ... Jun 23, 2023 at 17:08
  • But it's not "without a line" at all. When the time signature is written on a staff, as they most often are, the middle line of the staff functions as the line in the fraction. Even on e.g. a percussion staff (with only one line), the 2 numbers go above and below that line. Jun 23, 2023 at 21:00
  • @HagenvonEitzen I was taught to pronounce time signatures as two numbers followed by "time", like "two four time" or "six eight time", even though the connection with fractions of a semibreve was blindingly obvious, and I would write them as (improper) fractions in text, like "4/4" or "6/8". Jun 24, 2023 at 3:37

5 Answers 5

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It's difficult to find authoritative style guides freely available online. It's fairly easy to find examples online, however, including from publishers whose house style guides are considered authoritative. These show a unanimous preference for the slash. Here are three examples from the world of journalism:

I also found a couple of academic examples:

  • a PDF on the site of the International Musicological Society using this style, the program for the symposium CURRENT MUSICOLOGICAL SCENE IN EAST ASIA, Celebrating the Foundation of East Asian Regional Association of The International Musicological Society, September 16–18, 2011 College of Music, Seoul National University.

  • An article from the February 2021 issue of Early Music, The metronome marks for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in context, published by Oxford University Press.

I didn't see any other formats reflected anywhere, though this was obviously a fairly cursory search, so it's possible that they have been used.

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  • It's more than only a disinclination to click through - if these links cease to work, the examples will then be gone, leaving the value of the answer in question. Now, while that's unlikely with so many links, it's not impossible, so keeping to the general recommendation that core information in the links be included in the post is still worth keeping in mind.
    – Catija
    Jun 23, 2023 at 5:14
  • @Catija do you mean that future users will disbelieve the assertion that the linked articles use the form 6/8 to express time signatures? I don't think so. Adding quotes to the list is going to make it more unwieldy and difficult to read without adding significant value, because the answer's assertion that a linked article uses that format is just as credible (or not) as its assertion that a linked article contains the string "the 7/16 time signature".
    – phoog
    Jun 23, 2023 at 9:44
  • @Catija Furthermore the linked sources are all (but one) identified sufficiently that they can be found independently, in print in most cases, for confirmation. I have improved the identification of the one.
    – phoog
    Jun 23, 2023 at 9:59
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Write it like you would a fraction.

I am writing a piano piece in 2/4

… by the same logic as maths, it's 2 over 4.

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4

On this site, which has many experienced contributors, I've never seen time signatures written in any other way than fractions - 3/4, 6/8. No, it's not technically correct, but it's the accepted way, here at least.

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  • 1
    "Not technically correct": the time signature did originate as a fraction, however, so it's not technically incorrect, either. It's more a matter of style than correctness, and even in staff notation there are examples using the line. A quick image search shows it was fairly common in the 19th century (Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann; not Schubert nor Rossini).
    – phoog
    Jun 22, 2023 at 11:40
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I think I also always see "2/4" style notation, which perhaps is an informal standard. It's easy to type, even in plain text, without any markup. Moreover, it's searchable.

On a music staff the time signature occupies quite a lot of space and is written with a large font. In some text processing programs you could produce a similar symbol by stacking two numbers on top of each other. If you use a full size font, then the symbol would require adding extra space above and below the whole line. If you use a small font, e.g. superscript and subscript on top of each other, the resulting symbol might be too small to be read easily. And you would need to use some functions available only in a specific program, and the result might not be easily searchable.

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I've never seen it written any other way than with a slash, i.e. 6/8, 4/4 etc. The discussion about fractions is, frankly, baffling to me. A slash can mean more than one thing.

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  • A 6/8 bar contains 0.75 semibreves, a 4/4 bar contains a whole semibreve, etc. (Improper (unreduced) fractions are used to convey additional information about secondary emphasis patterns.) Jun 24, 2023 at 3:34

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