This is my first twelve-tone composition, and I realize that it's terrible. My problem is that I was told that I'm not writing in 4/4 correctly, and I have no idea how I'm supposed to interpret that. The rhythms are irregular, no doubt, but I didn't think I wrote them wrong. Maybe my stems are weird? Perhaps you all can help shed some light on this. I seem to have exposed a fairly large gap in my knowledge, and all help would be appreciated.

Does this look right?

A twelve-tone composition

  • That apart, the dynamics look difficult to sing. Does it need so many drastic volume changes?
    – Tim
    Oct 29, 2014 at 9:32
  • It's just a part of the process. I used a kind of duration/dynamic scale and assigned each point a value... So when I come across a particular pitch class, I use the dynamic value. It was a really poor idea, I admit, especially for vocals, but if you see anything involving my stems, rhythms, or anything else, please let me know. Oct 29, 2014 at 9:34
  • 5
    Not a full blown answer, but you have a total of 20 measures and you have a tie across your barline 13 times. While I'm not saying it is bad to have ties across your barlines doing it so much make it seems to me that the time signature and your rhythmic figures don't line up very well .
    – Dom
    Oct 29, 2014 at 14:58
  • 2
    To add to Dom's comment, why have you written this in 4/4? I'm not particularly familiar with total serialism but I don't think it tends to lend itself to regular time signatures, except for readability.
    – Natalie S
    Oct 29, 2014 at 21:05
  • 1
    @NatalieK When reading music like this, I actually find it easier to keep a constant quarter-note pulse in my head and play in relation to it ("G# on 2-and, then F# a sixteenth before 4", etc.), rather than having to keep counting out a constantly changing time signature.
    – dfan
    Oct 30, 2014 at 14:30

3 Answers 3


This will just be an embellishment of @user15077’s answer.

This is the beginning of your piece as you’ve notated it:

The first three measures of the composition.

Here is what it would look like with a more standard approach:

The same composition written in a different way.

As you can see, many of the notes are expressed as tied notes now. For example, the quarter-note D-sharp in the first measure is written as a sixteenth tied to a dotted eighth, even though there’s “room in the measure” for you just to write a quarter note. The reason for writing it with a tie is so that the performer can more easily see where the beat boundary is—in this case, partway through the D-sharp.

In 4/4 time, in general, each of the four beats of the measure should be marked by a new note head, unless a note longer than a quarter note has already started.

(If by any chance you’re familiar with the concept of data alignment from computer science, this is very much analogous.)

Edit: By popular demand, here is a version with the dotted eighths written as dotted eighths:

A slightly different version of the same piece again.

I’m not used to seeing this rhythm—a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth is so much more familiar than the reverse—but after seeing it written this way I agree it’s a lot more clear what’s going on.

  • 1
    This is almost exactly what I would suggest (a couple of sixteenths tied to eighths in the third measure could be dotted eighths, but it's not important). I could sight-read this with ease. If I were given the original music I'd probably rewrite it like this before performing it.
    – dfan
    Oct 29, 2014 at 20:55
  • 1
    Yeah, +1, this is much more readable. But I would suggest even more strongly than @dfan that you use dotted-eighths in the third bar instead of sixteenth tied to eighth. I definitely get where you're coming from by writing it this way, but I found myself doing a double take there. The rest is super-clear. By the way, what notation program is this? I don't like the way some of the ties look, but the characters in the font are quite nice. Oct 30, 2014 at 13:45
  • 3
    OK, I’ve added a version with dotted eighths. I agree that that’s even better. @PatMuchmore these clips were generated by LilyPond… the text-based input might be a little off-putting but the output is beautiful.
    – bdesham
    Oct 30, 2014 at 14:12
  • Ah, of course. I've toyed around with LilyPond and generally agree. In this particular excerpt I find the ties to be really ugly though. Especially the switch from outside notehead ties on the first G#—G# tie to inside notehead ties in the second G#—G# connection. Oh, and the switch from a downward tie to an upward tie for the B—B—B connection. I assume such things are customizable though... Oct 30, 2014 at 14:57
  • LilyPond’s output usually looks pretty good without any tweaking, but yeah, you can customize it heavily to get exactly the look you want.
    – bdesham
    Oct 30, 2014 at 15:08

Let's just pick the first bar apart which is pretty much a mess.

I'll write down the note durations as fractions:

3/8 1/16 1/4 9/16 (bar line after 5/16 of that, the 5/16 written as 1/4~1/16).

This does not look as much like "composing" as it looks like "let the notation program break the mess across bars and fix this up in the next measure". If this rhythm was intentional, it needs to be written out better matching the intentions. The bare minimum would be to split the 5/16 into 1/16~1/4 in order to have the location of the tie correspond to a beat. For music written in this style, it would also be expected to write the first 1/4 as 1/16~3/16 in order to stress the point better that this note falls 1/16 before the beat just like the following does.

However, I consider it much more likely that you intended the first and second note to add up to 1/2, and you either are missing another dot on the first note to make it 7/16 or have written the second note too short, with it being intended to be 1/8 rather than 1/16.

In short: your first measure looks like an accident, and if it is intentional, you need to write it differently. This impression draws itself throughout the piece. At the very least, whenever you have to split a note into tied parts due to notational reasons, the durations of the pieces have to arranged such that such a notationally forced tie ends up on a beat. That's totally essential. It would also be expected that some currently unsplit notes are split up with a tie on a proper beat, but that's a bit more to the discretion of the composer.

  • Sorry, for some reason this has my head spinning quite a bit. So I want to make sure all ties end up on a strong beat? I think my problem is that I'm trying to figure out how to make something that looks unnecessarily complex into something that is somewhat less complex, but still difficult to read. There doesn't seem to be a simple solution, and I don't know I'm having such a difficult time understanding it. Oct 29, 2014 at 10:13
  • @Sketchyfish If you don’t mind my saying, I think the reason you’re having a tough time with this is that your rhythms look like they were generated randomly. That certainly doesn’t mean your piece is bad, but it does mean that it’s probably going to look weird in notation no matter what you do to the time signature.
    – bdesham
    Oct 29, 2014 at 18:45

A simple basic rule, not always followed, is that 4/4 bars can be split in the middle. It does make life easier for the people who have to read the dots, although good sight readers don't have a problem.We're not all GOOD sight readers, though... Shev's point about 4/4 is one that you need to address. In the early stages of writing, it's probably a good idea to restrict yourself to one time sig. all through. Better to write, certainly easier to sing ! I don't use computer stuff for writing, but guess they have bar checkers that tell if there is not the correct number of beats per bar. If you don't use that, then it's down to simple sums !

If you actually want to differ the number of beats in a particular part, then you do need to tell everyone, and also tell them when it's back in the original time, as Shev rightly mentions.

  • Sorry, I didn't realize that I changed the time signature without indicating to the composer. I'm using Sibelius 7, so I just assumed everything was automatic! I just worked out my durations on a second sheet of paper and punched them into Sibelius just like that.... Is it possible that I got one wrong? Do I just go through and check that each bar adds up to four beats? As far as I can see, they all do! Oct 29, 2014 at 10:00
  • Cunningly, I didn't say the bars weren't 4/4 ! Just that you need to be certain they are ! The timing for some of the notes don't, I feel, need to be quite as exact - down to semiquavers. As a beginner, maybe work to 1/8 notes (quavers), so you can reproduce what you write for yourself, vocally, as it's a vocal, but certainly on some sort of instrument - put yourself in the performer's shoes !
    – Tim
    Oct 29, 2014 at 11:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.