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If I want to express the time signature for common time in inline text (like the text you're reading), without the use of special graphics or symbols, I find it tempting to type it this way:

4/4

But wait a minute. Where does that slash come from? It's not a fraction. It's a time signature. There is absolutely no reason for using a slash, and this can send the wrong message, especially to learners. The slash gives me a bad vibe.

Is anyone aware of a standard way to type this in-line, preferably from some style source? I'm actually wondering what the book Behind Bars would say about this, if anything, but that's more for standard notation. I don't have a copy, but I know it's become a pretty solid reference.

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  • Waiting for a good answer ! 'C' is another way to show common time, but it's not far off a fraction. The numerator tells how many, the denominator tells what each bit is.3/4 and 6/8 are not the same (as in fractions), but each digit is absolute.However, if you saw 34 or 68 it would be meaningless.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 14:59
  • Well, note names are fraction names, whole note, half note, quarter note and so on. Thus writing the time sig as a fraction relates directly to the note names and therefore makes sense. Anyway a standard in printed music is to write one number on top of another number without a line, but can also be written with a slash or a horisontal line. In a text 4/4 is just fine in my opinion. Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 21:15

7 Answers 7

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In plain text you can use the vertical bar symbol | (aka pipe) instead of /. It's a very common character, so your keyboard should have an easy way to type it. It would look like this: 4|4.

You can check the list of Unicode characters and search for other characters that might be used instead of /, like ⧘ ⦙ ⬍, there's a lot of them (some have mathematical implications too, though). If you find no other symbol is useful, and using slash really bothers you, I think using over instead is a good alternative, as in 4 over 4.

I don't think it's possible to put one character over another in plain text.

In more formal documents with more formatting options, you have the option to put one character over the other. The way of doing it is system dependent.

  • In Wikipedia you use {{music|time|4|4}}) to notate 4 over 4.

  • In LaTex you would use \overset{4}{4} in math mode.

  • In LilyPond you would use \time 4/4.

  • In a word processor you can use equation mode (all popular word processors have it) to write one character over another, inline.

With that said, I don't think using / is a big issue, as long as the context is clear (which should be while talking about music theory).

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  • 1
    In LaTeX my musicography package gives some good options for writing time signatures. Commented Sep 22, 2021 at 14:19
  • In Lilypond, how would you do that \time 4/4 in a \markup block? When I try \markup { \time 4/4 }, I get unexpected MUSIC_FUNCTION instead of an inline time signature in my markup.
    – cjm
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 4:21
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The only reason not to use a slash is that it implies division.

But it's the closest match to standard notation and the symbol there looks even more like division. You're trying to reproduce what standard notation does, so use /

That / will be the least of your learners' worries. I'd say the numbers themselves will be more worrisome. Triple meter? Have fun! And it's something they'll just have to get over just like everyone else did.

Use /

Also, yes, Behind Bars is a great book to learn to draw standard notation correctly. I have it.

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    "The only reason not to use a slash is that it implies division": and since time signatures began as ratios, it's not a particularly strong reason.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 15:51
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It's not a fraction. It's a time signature.

Time signatures evolved from fractions. The fractions were applied to the mensuration signs that survive now only as 𝄴 and 𝄵. (No, the symbol 𝄴 does not come from the first letter of "common.") In the French Baroque, time signatures such as 2 and 3 were common.

There is absolutely no reason for using a slash, and this can send the wrong message, especially to learners.

Perhaps, but most people ought to be able to deal with an explanation such as "time signatures look a bit like fractions because they evolved from fractions."

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    Yes, the numbers originally represented proportions. Commented Sep 22, 2021 at 14:20
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...Where does that slash come from? It's not a fraction.

The slash doesn't mean fraction or division necessarily. The symbol has many meanings depending on context.

Here on SE the slash is pretty commonly used, like 4/4. In a context of musical time I think several things would be understood: 4/4, 4|4, or even 4:4, although personally I wouldn't use a colon. The point is some mark is necessary, otherwise you would have 44, which could be read "forty four."

...this can send the wrong message, especially to learners.

Learning what? If it's how to read staff notation, you really shouldn't use only plain text, because you won't be showing what the student needs to see.

But this is really mixing two different issues. To someone who understands time signatures, 4/4 in plain text presents absolutely no problem. To make instructional materials for a learner, you need to show notation, and you can't do that properly with plain text.

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Behind Bars does not appear to address this directly. However, even in paragraphs of text, Gould consistently prints time signatures as two numbers stacked on each other, in bold face, exactly as they would appear on a staff.

enter image description here

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    OP has stipulated "without the use of special graphics or symbols."
    – user39614
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 15:51
  • 4
    @exnihilo but OP has also asked "I'm actually wondering what the book Behind Bars would say about this."
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 15:56
  • @phoog -- yet OP is asking about "a standard way to type this in-line," which Behind Bars does not appear to address; the book is typeset, but this is not typing inline.
    – user39614
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 16:00
  • 1
    @exnihilo Ok, so the first sentence of this answer addresses part of the question, and the rest of the answer gives some contextual information that will be of interest to some readers (among whom I include myself) who don't have Behind Bars.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 16:08
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"x over y" is an expression used in music, and in mathematics. The time signature can be thought mathematically as x * 1 / y, for example, 4 * 1 / 4.

I wouldn't worry too much about it looking mathematical, personally, since when used in context it will be correctly understood, and not confusing in a musical context.

What are you doing in inline text, about the rest of the musical symbols? Will they all be crammed onto a single line?

Incidentally, 4/4 is not a proper fraction anyway, is it?

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I tend to choose a proper fraction notation instead, using U+2044 (fraction slash), thus:

Fraction notation of time signature
A proper fraction using EB Garamond.

It is not ideal, but from a typographic standpoint far better than using a regular solidus. Any modern word processor (and phone, tablet, etc.) will use the font’s built-in set of superscript characters and replace the full size 2⁄4 with true fraction notation: 2⁄4. To get access to the character in a word processor, type 2044 and press Alt + X. If the numbers are next to digits or the letters a–f, the word processor will interpret them as part of the number (it is a hexadecimal number); you can avoid that by simply highlighting the number 2044 before pressing the key combination. (You can also use this trick next to any character (for example by copying from a page to your word processor) to figure out what the Unicode code point of that character is.)

Another way of doing this, is to set a character style and add the typeface option frac to the font definition, e.g. EB Garamond:liga&calt&onum&pnum&frac (ligatures & contextual alternative & old-style numbers & proportional numbers & fraction notation). Both in LibreOffice and MS Office this can also be done by checking the desired special features options when creating the character style. When using such a character style on the desired text, ‘2/4’ will be changed to be displayed as though the solidus (‘/’) was a fraction slash (‘⁄ ’).

There are sources online that say you can write proper time signatures in MS Word using a built-in function, but as I do not have MS Office, I cannot check the veracity of this.

A final notes: People using TTS (text-to-speech) engines will thank you for using the correct fraction slash (U+2044, ⁄) for text. Some are blind, some have poor eye-sight, some suffer from illnesses that make it hard to use bright screens. There are many reasons for using a TTS. For anyone making web pages or anything that is meant to be accessed by the public, using the correct glyphs is important to assure accessibility; poorly set text forces these engines to guess. A fraction slash is used to create fractions; a division slash (U+2215) is used as a mathematical operator; a solidus (U+2f) has loads of other usages. If you are careful in using the characters assigned specific functions, your users will thank you.

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