I see this all the time: In the piece I'm currently analysing (Sei Quartetti Brevi by Sciarrino), the composer uses 7/16 + 4/8 in the first measure, followed by 5/8 + 3/8 in the second, followed by 5/8 + 4/8, etc. etc.

The only reason I can see doing this sort of thing is to create a feeling of timelessness. Can anyone help me understand why contemporary (and not-so-contemporary) composers use such complex time signatures?

Why not instead of using 7/16 + 4/8, you just use 7/8 + 4/4? It would be significantly easier to read for the performers, and easier to notate imo. So why bother?

  • Unless it is a copying error on the publicists part, I don't believe I'm mistaken. I'd be happy to send you the score if you want to see for yourself. It's available for free @ en.scorser.com/S/Sheet+music/sciarrino/-1/1.html Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 12:19
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    The rock group Rush is known for complex time changes, and most certainly there is not a sense of "timelessness" in their music. To the contrary, their songs drive forward with a strong and definite rhythm. Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 18:44

6 Answers 6


If we use 'em, it's because they seem necessary to us. It might be that we need an irregular effect for expressive purposes; it might be that if we don't group the notes just so, the lines won't line up properly together rhythmically; it might be that we need them to avoid arriving at a definite downbeat until exactly the right time, and that irregular "sprung" rhythms are the right way to do this.

Without the score, I can only speculate about Sciarrino's reasons, but I'm listening to the Arditti Quartet playing the Sei Quartetti as I type this, and I don't think timelessness is what he was aiming for: this isn't Messiaen-like stasis, nor is it pointillistic "moment form". (It's actually pretty continuous for '70s New Music, as compared to what I recall from the concerts I took in back then.) In Sciarrino's case, I think the 2nd reason I gave above predominates, although the other two certainly have a place as well.

I suspect that the 7/16 measure you are talking about was probably in there to add a long beat to what would otherwise be 3/8. That's speculation on my part, but it would fit what he seems to be doing. Messiaen used to do that all the time in his livelier pieces.

Changing metres of this sort aren't limited to use by the avant-garde. I did something very similar near the end of my own chorale prelude on Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir: Example 1

(BW refers to "Brustwerk", i.e., a change of manual.)

The full score is at the Orgelbüchlein Project, and a demo on SoundCloud here - the passage starts at about 3:05. I think that, by most people's standards, this would be considered a somewhat conservative work (the kind of material is certainly very different from Sciarrino), but the reasons for the changing metres are very similar.

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    Just wanted to add that I also use time signatures for the above reasons, as well as to elongate or truncate specific beats à la Messiaen. We also use them to rhythmically modulate the beat center (to create various rhythmic and agogic effects). Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention that some composers do it because they think it makes them look cool / smart. Other composers think it makes their music look fancy. Other composers do it because they like to make people feel uncomfortable. Still others reject the idea of the 4/4 box where everything is filled in like ravioli. Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 13:11
  • Yeah, I was a little remiss - one can advance the structural downbeat (as well as delay it). It even comes about for other reasons as well. That repeated note line in the tenor, which imposed the metric modulation and irregular metres, is actually the antiphon "De profundis clamavi ad te" from the Office of the Dead in the Liber usualis (it's a very ecumenical chorale prelude), so sometimes it even comes about through the accommodation of existing materials. As for the rest, well, I try to ignore the pseuds...
    – user16935
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 17:07
  • yes, don't we all? I believe the tendency is for them to get lost in the noise of contemporary pablum. Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 23:36

There are a couple things I consider when choosing time signatures. I don't write music quite like this but I can see a few reasons why something like this might take place.

Generally speaking, it is easier to maintain a tempo than to switch. So when a composer is going from one time signature to another, it is easiest to maintain the tempo and use different subdivisions to spell out your new time signature, rather than changing the tempo to keep the time signature easier to read within. This tends to make more sense when the piece frequently changes time signatures and less sense when the piece changes from one time signature to another that will last for an extended time.

This next part is not exactly a standard convention within the tradition but seems to be generally followed in many settings and makes intuitive sense to most I speak with about it. I like to make the distinction between different denominators within a meter. A simple example: 4/4 and 8/8; 4/4 is best used to describe a standard rhythm with 4 beats, while 8/8 is the same amount of eight or quarter notes, it is best used to describe groupings within that time that amount to uneven beats.

4/4: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

8/8: 1 + a 2 + a 3 +

Let's translate this concept to another meter: 5/4 vs 5/8. I think of 5/4 as having 5 equal beats (1/4 notes), while 5/8 would have 2 uneven beats with 3 and 2 eighth notes.

5/4: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 +

5/8: 1 + a 2 +

So when starting from scratch and trying to choose a meter, I would base my choice on the beats. Once a piece is established, your choices become a little different but the same concept can apply. It may be best to write something in one meter to maintain tempo, or it may be best to change your tempo to accommodate the new feel of your change in meter. For instance, going from 4/4 to a sort of double time, it may be best to write 4/8. This allows the measure to maintain 4 beats without needing to specify the double time and by not maintaining the length of a bar (4 1/4 notes) we do not introduce the confusion of an 8/8 time signature, which would imply the uneven beats as described above. This would also apply to double time in 3/4, where switching to 6/8 (maintaining the length of the measure) would imply a change in the length of the beat (6/8 is nearly always 2 beats of 3 eighth notes, which would subvert the intention of double time). Again, this will largely depend on how long this new meter will be utilized. It will ultimately be easier to read something in 4/4 than 4/8, especially if there are a lot of subdivisions, so changing the tempo to write 4/4 would be preferred if the double time would appear for an extended time.

As others have suggested, it sometimes seems that composers have taken this approach to be more complicated or just because they can. However, when listening to some composers, it just makes sense. Think of Stravinsky. In The Rite of Spring the meters change all the time but when I listen to the piece it just sounds right. I also tend to think that a lot of people don't fully understand a piece of music when they make some sort of judgement about whether or not the use of certain time signatures is justified. There is always some sort of intent. I have conceptualized writing a piece that would include what would normally be considered poor choices for meters with the intention of making it harder for the players to read, which could add the effect of chaos or confusion, allowing it to convey an intended feeling when performed without directing the players as such. I have seen a performance of a piece that has a similar approach with a little more depth of concept, Failing. The idea being that the piece is intended to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, with the additional depth being that the intention of the composer is to have the performer fail and by successfully performing the piece, you are also failing.

In the piece that you are analyzing, it seems that nearly all of the measures with less than conventional meters start with a rest (not all though). So it appears that the Sciarrino wanted a specific space to appear between phrases that would not be properly accommodated by a rest at the end of the previous measure. This also allows the piece to maintain a feeling of being off of the beat, though nothing at the beginning seems to provide a pulse to be off of, the off beat feel will be translated by the performers. I would argue that the use of the time signatures in this case would be somewhat to space out the phrases. Similar circumstances could be an instance where another composer may employ a fermata but by adjusting the time signature and adding a rest would specify the length, though in this case nothing is being sustained.

There are lots of reasons one might choose to have complex and changing time signatures but it is generally safe to say that it is not arbitrary. Specifically to the point of x/4 vs x/8, there can be larger implications than readability, including beat allocation within a measure/subdivisions of beats as well as preserving tempo, which can ultimately be more readable. As a final note, I wrote a lot of music that was essentially free of meter, as in it would constantly change meter if analyzed by phrases. My composition teacher, the late Dr. Packales, advised me once that leaving the pieces in 4/4 as I did may ultimately be easier and more readable for the performers. I liked the idea at the time because it made me feel unique or something but in the end, a lack of time signature changes would more likely leave the performer needing to analyze the piece to determine not only phrasing but beats, making it harder to get a proper feeling for whether something takes place on a downbeat or an upbeat etc.

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    Yeah, I got the impression he was using irregular measures to coordinate things, although I didn't catch the use of rests at the beginning of the bars (hard to do without a score). I noticed a few voices making staggered entries that appeared to come in at somewhat irregular intervals, although they fit together quite well.
    – user16935
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 20:35
  • Cripes, I missed the link for the score. I see what you mean about the rests. I suspect that's because he's trying to give an impression that the notes are starting from niente and ending there.
    – user16935
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 13:51
  • Yeah, for this piece it offers some insight but there are/have been plenty of composers that use complex time signatures, so that bit of analysis wouldn't necessarily translate to other pieces, hence my extended babbling. I'm rather long winded. Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 14:14

Note that much of the real problem is that our notation is simultaneously too rigid and not expressive enough. It often does not reflect real performance accurately both because it can't convey that level of detail and because getting even close to real accuracy would make impossible to read and practice from. There are things in traditional musics which are almost impossible to express in our notation, yet easy to demonstrate and learn by ear... even a stretched measure (fairly common in folk dances) is awkward. That forces some workarounds. This is one.

(And our time signatures are trivial compared to, eg, Indian classical music. They approach rhythm very differently. But that's another topic.)

  • Indeed, I think one problem is that time signatures are generally expected to go at the start of a measure where the time changes. In "The twelve days of Christmas", the time should change from three to four right at the pickup "and a | par-tri-idge in a pear | tree", but notation can't accommodate that; thus "two-oo tur-tle doves, and a" is notated as a 4/4 measure rather than a measure that starts out in 3/4 measure and changes to 4/4.
    – supercat
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 23:47

(7/16 + 4/8) is exactly the half of (7/8 + 4/4), then it's completely different.

Why do contemporary composers love complex time signatures? I think that often their use is not justified as it could be in the music from the first half of 20th century. For me a good contemporary composer always writes music taking into account performers needs, and never makes music difficult only for the fun of it.


Many contemporary composers prefer to divide time unevenly, and some don't divide time into anything at all (the timelessness feeling that is mentioned in the question). This is contrary to the approach in most music genres that divide time into equal grids. But consider that there is a big cultural reservoir of styles and notation built around this equal grid idea.

Contemporary composers make use of this cultural reservoir to translate the music in their mind with unorthodox time use to the performers accustomed with the wide spread music culture. So it is still practical to use a wide known standard notation that every musician and composer is accustomed to read and play.

There are also stylistic preferences. Defining measures like that may be the only way to translate what's in composer's mind. If there are frequent changes in measure, it is possibly because the composer wants to tell something with that notation. It can be a non-repeating rhythm structure, accenting...etc that a composer aims that the players would intuitively give that output when that notation is used.

Also that kind of measure notation is actually easier for players to understand what's going on in the music, count the bars, play the accents and dynamics correctly...etc. And again, it is generally used if the composer has some intention to make use of something related with that use (like accenting). If you rewrite the same music for example in 8/8, the interpretation of that would usually be a different music and that would be harder for musicians to understand what is going on in the piece.

There are also some contemporary composers write in 4/4 for ease but the music is totally independent from anything related with the measure. Here the intention of the composer is totally different than the above. This is more close to the timelessness feeling mentioned in the question.

So in short, it is all about communication. Notations are only translations of what's going on in our mind.

I suppose the question is about the notation, not composer's preferences. I think why don't contemporary composers divide time into equal grids is another question to be discussed.


I think in modern music, especially when you start reaching into the grounds of progressive metal, they simply do it because they can, whether it's to show technical prowess or just because they "happened" to come up with a cool riff that's in 13/16 time.

It also entirely depends on the situation. If it's anything like what I described above, the answer is most likely because they can, simple as. In other contexts, it could very well be used to show timelessness, helplessness, etc.

  • Maybe partially a response, but still looks like an answer to me.
    – user28
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 5:10

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