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I'm writing a piece that has a 13/16 ostinato in it. However, the melodies aren't going to make any effort to have their downbeats line up with the ostinato. What are the best practices regarding how I should notate my bar lines?

My solution is to use partial bar lines for the polyrhythmic sections for where your part's downbeats line up and tick marks for the "official" bar lines. The main thing I want to avoid is obscuring how the parts are supposed to line up (both in terms of their internal patterns and each other) because everything is forced into one set of bar lines.

  • What sort of rhythmic pattern for the ostinato? Primarily beamed notes? – user16935 Jan 6 '16 at 6:33
  • Primarily beamed into 3+3+2+2+3 (or maybe 3+3+4+3). Think "America" from West Side Story but faster and with an extra note on the end. – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 6:36
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    In other words, one set of bar lines may suffice because there is another clear cue as to how the rhythms interrelate. – user16935 Jan 6 '16 at 6:52
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    You'll note that Bartók's bar lines have nothing to do with the meters actually being used by any of the parts - they are strictly for the instrumentalists to coordinate with each other. Given what you're doing, I don't think you need to go that far. – user16935 Jan 6 '16 at 7:22
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    That's exactly what I was looking for. Hurray: precedent found! I'd need need nothing that's "completely arbitrary" for my coordination lines, as you pointed out. Probably will use the main non-ostinato lines for my "real" time signature. Thanks. – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 7:32
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The best practices for notating polymeters are highly contingent on the specifics of what you are doing, so...

After discussion, we've established the following constraints:

  • there is an ostinato part of 3 + 3 + 4 + 3 semiquavers (sixteenths);
  • the main parts will be working polymetrically against this ostinato;
  • there will be parts that sporadically reinforce (but don't fully double) the ostinato.

Because it is a multi-instrumental score, you will need bar lines that coordinate all the parts, so, yes, everything will be forced into one set of bar lines. You will thus need to use other cues to establish the rhythmic relationships between the parts. Using What do Four Vertical Dots mean? as a guide, and adapting Bartók's methods to suit what you are doing, I'd suggest:

  • beaming the ostinato by the groups of 3 and 4 semiquavers, beaming across the bar lines as necessary - this should make the ostinato's rhythm very obvious;
  • adding tick or dotted bar lines to all the accompaniment parts that follow the ostinato's rhythm.

You don't need to be as abstract in your coordinating meter as Bartók was. I'd use the main parts to establish the overall meter.

I suggested perhaps adding colla parte referencing the part that states the complete ostinato to the parts that need to follow it. Colla parte ("glue the part") is usually used for the accompaniment of a main part that is playing molto rubato (i.e., follow the main part's timing), but is perhaps applicable here. However, on reflection, I would just suggest adding the complete ostinato as a cue line to the parts that rely on it when you come to extracting the parts.

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