Free time is a musical meter with no time signature, many pieces like the Concord Sonata and the Gnossienne No. 1 has no time signatures. But still they have note duration. I don't understand, because when there's no time signature, shouldn't there also be no note duration? If so, how do I notate note duration in free time music?

4 Answers 4


"Meter" and "note duration" are mostly orthogonal concepts. You can still have the latter entirely without the former. You do need note durations to properly represent a meter, but the meter doesn't actively dictate much about how long your notes actually last.

It's better to think of free time as more about style and emotion. Borrow some time here, slow down there, speed up again here with the crescendo. But you're still working within a musical framework. The song isn't just a series of pitches with no temporal information at all. You could, of course, write some music that way if you wanted (and there are certainly such existing pieces), but that's not what is typically done.

While the tempo/timing/feel might vary wildly throughout the piece, and even measure to measure sometimes, it should not vary to an extreme between individual notes. The timing relation from one note to the next is a large part of what makes a piece of music recognizable across what may otherwise be very different performances.

  • So does that mean I can write the note duration however I want? Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 5:12
  • @IsaacYangHaoTung When composing, you can always compose however you want! Note durations should reflect your intent and nothing more -- and time signatures are a tool that is available to you, not an absolute requirement. Same with playing -- your interpretation is your own. However, if you want to play something the way the author intended, you should heed any directives (tempo, time signature, note durations, phrase markings, etc.) to a reasonable degree.
    – user28
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 16:10

Nonstandard notation almost always is trying to communicate something beyond "play this note for this long at this time"; the Concord uses barlines as phrasing indications; the Gnossienne uses none at all to indicate that the performance should be one flowing stream of continuous sound.

For performance, consider the durations as relative rather than specific. Assuming that the piece is also meant to be played rubato as Matthew suggests, a notated half-note is about twice the length of a notated quarter-note, and half the length of a notated whole note.


It's somewhat like when you read a text out loud. There's nothing to tell you which words you have to read quickly, or slowly. You feel your way through, well or badly. But here, the relative speed of the notes is suggetested. It doesn't have to be rigidly adhered to, but it's a guide.

  • Exactly. I'd just like to add that even giving a rough guide isn't compulsory; though. Here's a 1600s example of that youtube.com/watch?v=lqvm0k2VUtU
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 17:20

Short answer: the notes still need durations, otherwise the performer won't know how long to play them for.

  • 1
    Or the duration can be left up to the player, which happens in a lot of shakuhachi music, for instance. Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 9:14
  • not true, this can be left entirely up to the performer based on what fits the melody. youtube.com/watch?v=lqvm0k2VUtU is an examples. Also a lot of cadenzas are nominally in quavers but essentially just "whatever you want, man"
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 17:21

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