When listening to most contemporary music, in my experience, time signatures tend to be in "common time", or 4/4. But sometimes it feels like the phrase or measure extends beyond the four quarter notes that comprise the time signature. Is it considered bad form, in terms of music theory (as opposed to "artistic style"), to extend a time signature to twice its normal length?


4 Answers 4


There is nothing wrong if a phrase goes beyond one bar. You would not change the time signature for that. Time signature is about the pulsation (and marginally the pace) of the music.

But if you feel that a natural unit of what you hear is regularly out of bounds or with wrong accentuation according to its place in the bar, it could mean that the composer has not taken care about that (these days, it might be the most common) or that he precisely meant to have some phrases appear off-balance.

I have seen, albeit not frequently, 4/2 but not 8/4 and I think this is what would fit the situation you allude to (but you don't give much information).

A complete answer would take compound time signatures into account (with periodic modification of bar length) but I prefer that someone more knowledgeable treat this subject.

  • Time signature has nothing to do with the pace (or tempo) of the music. Perhaps you used the wrong word here. May 5, 2011 at 18:22
  • @neilfein: time signature has a relation to tempo but this relation has been fading since medieval times and was lost in recent use and rationalisation of meter. C and C slashed were meant as allowing a tempo doubling for instance. So his sentence is not wrong in itself. Note also that in classical times you would use a particular time signature because you were writing a particular kind of dance with an implicit speed.
    – ogerard
    May 5, 2011 at 18:49
  • Your sentence is, I'm sorry to say, somewhat misleading, since many people new to notation confuse tempo and time signature. (You've got three upvotes at least, so others may disagree) Might you consider simply removing "pace" from your answer? It's a good answer otherwise. May 5, 2011 at 19:52
  • 3
    Generally, time signatures should make music easy to read - that is: provide accurate information as to what the pulse (or accentuation) of the music is, while at the same time keeping the bars short enough to facilitate easy reading. In the situation described, a two-bar phrase is best written as a two-bar phrase; an 8/4 time signature is theoretically possible, but would actually make the music more difficult to read (especially if shorter note values were used).
    – user321
    May 6, 2011 at 2:11
  • @neilfein: I believe that ogerard has already answered for me, but I have tried to edit my answer in order to downplay :-) the 'pace' aspect which I agree might be confusing in a first approach.
    – Eric
    May 7, 2011 at 12:10

I remember the moment when the lightbulb went off for me: phrases and bar lines are frequently not aligned.

Consider Haydn Hob XVII:2, variation 1, just to grab what I'm currently learning. The first phrase starts with a pickup (hint), and ends at the second quarter of the 3/4 measure. The last quarter starts the next phrase. Certainly most of the phrases in this piece are aligned with measure boundaries, but most are at least two measures. Other Haydn I can think of is made up of smaller phrases than the measures.

One question to ask is where the accents are. If there is really only one strong pulse every 8 eight notes, then, as I understand it, you might notate 8/8.


When you "listen" to music, how do you know the time signature? After all, time signature is just a means of writing down music in the most intuitive and readable way. As @Faza wrote in his comment, you choose it short enough to be readable and long enough to reflect the rhythmic basis.

Many latin rhythms are actually two-bar patterns and most phrases in music are even longer. It would be difficult to read if the bar had to match the length of the phrase (even neglecting that there are shorter and longer phrases in one piece). The shorter the measures are, the easier it is to read.

However, the measure should reflect the rhyhthmc basis of the piece. Therefore there's a difference between a 6/8 bar and two 3/8 bars, as the felt accent on the "4" of the 6/8 is somewhat less than the accent on the "1".


As others have said, division into measures should reflect the beat you intend, not the phrase boundaries. There is nothing wrong with tying notes across measure boundaries, and sometimes harmonic rules even call for it (suspensions).

Bar lines were not always used historically; medieval and reansissance musicians understood the concept but didn't write it out like we do now. Unless you're writing in a style that specifically calls for self-contained measures all the time (I can't think of one but I'm not up on modern styles), you shouldn't worry about phrases that don't line up with your bar lines if the rhythm does.

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