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I'm still an amateur composer, but I've been wanting to explore time signatures outside of 4/4. The trouble is, I'm having issues figuring the actual time signature of what I've written. I was arranging the track with my DAW set to 3 beats per bar at 135bpm. However, when I went to transcribe it onto a sheet, I started questioning exactly what the best time signature is to express the song.

The song follows this drum pattern. A snippet of the actual arranged song is this. Finally, a basic computer-played piano arrangement sounds like this, but it is quite flat in terms of dynamics so I'm not sure it's very helpful.

I'm heavily leaning towards 3/2 at 67.5bpm per half note, especially because I think the piece is a lot slower than I would expect 135bpm to sound. Any help identifying what would fit best would be really helpful!

Below, I've transcribed the sheet music in the various signatures. I'm still new to making sure rhythms are properly grouped, so if you notice an error, please feel free to point that out as well.

Here, I've expressed it in 3/2: 3/2 time

And 3/4: 3/4 time

And 6/4: 6/4 time

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3 Answers 3

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This type of question in general can be considered opinion based but there are underlying factors here that make some choices better than others.

Looking at the rhythms in both hands but especially the left, I would say 3/2 is out because there is a strong sense of a division of the 3/2 bar in the center. 6/4 works because it divides the bar into two halves but there is a distinctly different feel in both halves of the bar so I would prefer to separate those with bar lines.

Your choice of 3/4 is good. 6/8 is also potentially a good choice. The thing is your basic pulse for this in eighth notes is 123 123 12 12 12. The first half is a perfect 6/8, the second a perfect 3/4.

Aside from some Flamenco music I’ve heard, a few specific songs some to mind. The first is “America” from West Side Story that has this 3,3,2,2,2 feel pretty much throughout. The others are several from “Man of La Mancha”, the title song, “It’s All The Same”, “Dulcinea” and “Aldonza”.

I have seen arrangements of “America” notated both in 6/8 and 3/4. I think the original time signature is actually 6/8(3/4), indicating alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4. “Man of La Mancha” is written in 3/4 but has that underlying feel in the melody. In the other two, they actually alternate bars of 6/8 and 3/4 throughout in the score and parts. Changing time signatures every bar is unusual but they did it and it has been read, played and performed that way for decades. The same thing can be accomplished by using a time signature with a sum: 6/8+3/4. If you use the “America” or the “sum” solution it wouldn’t hurt to add a small note at the beginning indicating your intentions. Here are samples of two of them songs:

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    +1, another good point. Time signature doesn't need to stay the same, and two time signatures can even coexist at the same time. Aug 11, 2023 at 16:51
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    As soon as you counted it out as 123-123-12-12-12, my mind jumped to “America” before reading anything further. Would definitely agree with your points here Aug 12, 2023 at 4:54
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    I'm used to see the pattern of alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4 written as "6/8 + 3/4", and I think it would make a good fit here, indeed. Aug 12, 2023 at 5:47
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    I like the 3/4+6/8 idea. You could emulate Brahms and write 3/4+6/8 as a time signature then use beaming to help with reading.
    – ttw
    Aug 12, 2023 at 10:04
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There are two primary considerations:

  1. Where (e.g., on which notes) do the pulses fall, and
  2. Which pulses are relatively stronger and weaker.

3/2

In 3/2 time, there are three pulses, presumed to be Strong - Weak - Weak unless otherwise indicated, corresponding to the half note. So the pulse pattern would be as shown here.

Score in 3/2 with pulses indicated

3/4

3/4 time is similar insofar as the notation is identical except for the bar line placement. The beats in 3/4 come at double the notational "speed" as in 3/2, since they correspond to the quarter note rather than the half note. This means that the strong beats occur twice as often.

Score in 3/4 with pulses indicated

6/4

6/4 is nearly identical to 3/4, with every other bar line removed, but now there is a Strong - weak pulse pattern that corresponds to the dotted half note.

Score in 6/4 with pulses indicated

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Aaron gives some helpful pointers, but I'd like to point there is one more topic you need to understand to make your decision, and that's syncopation.

Syncopation occurs when the accent is shifted from a strong beat to a weak one, and results in strong emphasis. Your music quite certainly includes lots of syncopation. You need to figure out which notes are syncopated.

For example, in the second measure, the right hand plays two dotted half notes. In both 3/4 and 6/4 these notes would fall on the metric accents thus sound agreeable, stable, calm, while in 3/2, the second note would be syncopated, that is startling, unexpected, emphasized.

enter image description here

The drum pattern provides more hints. I wrote it down below, marking strong accents with color. In 3/4 the accent would come on the first kick drum (down beat), then the following snare hit would be syncopated, and thus accented, and then the next snare would come on another downbeat. Note how it differs from 3/2, where the last kick drum would be accented instead. In 6/4 the syncopation would occur on the first snare hit, but since a weak beat would be syncopated, perhaps the resulting accent would be less strong as well.

enter image description here

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