I was looking at this hand-written short score (to be completed by other arrangers):

Sample of sheet music without time signature

The only thing that strikes me about it (maybe there should be others) is there is no written time signature. Why?

Then I had the following thoughts. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

The beaming notation already implies where the beats are. And the bar-lines separate and indicate how many beats per measure. So in essence, you could infer exactly what the time signature was? It also seems like the time signature changed several times, based on this premise.

In other words, most (perhaps all) time signatures are redundant; because they are directly implied through the other notation (especially if ties and beams are used rigorously).

This would also mean a performer wouldn't even need to see a time-signature, as long as he/she is reading ahead and taking note where the beams and ties are- he/she will know when the beats occur.

  • I just thought of a situation where a triplet occurs across 2 beats, and I guess it would be annoying to divide. But that still doesn't feel strong enough to debunk what I'm saying – minusatwelfth Apr 25 '17 at 1:02
  • It is common practice to put the time signature in a piece. In this case it is probably not needed due to it being an incomplete handwritten version. – Ansel Chang Apr 25 '17 at 1:13
  • But you could say that it's never needed then? – minusatwelfth Apr 25 '17 at 1:19
  • 1
    And then you play Satie: no time signature, no bars. – user18490 Apr 25 '17 at 5:35
  • There are lots of things about a score that could be inferred but are written down anyway. Clefs, for example (at least in tonal music). I have come across many spots (in piano music) where either the composer or the editor forgot a clef change, but it is very clear that and where it should happen. But you probably also see how one could argue that it still is helpful to write out the clefs even if it is obvious. A similar case can be made for time signatures. Although those are even more obvious I think convenience is an important factor, whereas brevity is rather insignificant. – 11684 Apr 25 '17 at 12:58

Here's a pathological example:

enter image description here

Is this in 3/4, or 6/8? They have different emphases, so it's not an arbitrary distinction. And the tune might even use both. I'm looking at you, West Side Story.

I could also bring up 4/4 and 2/2, or Common and Cut Time.

Now, you may say that in most normal pieces, the beaming and/or tempo would give that away. I might observe that beaming is not a particularly standardised art, but it's a reasonable point. So, why do we notate the time signature?

Let's ask the same question about key signatures. Here's a nice little tune:

enter image description here

Bit of a pain to read, though. My brain has to individually process each note, and deal with all those flats. I like this version better:

enter image description here

It's easier to read. My brain does less work, because I can immediately assume that all of the non-stupid flats1 are in use.

Time signatures perform a similar function. I don't want to have to precount all the bars to figure out what time signature I'm dealing with. That's inefficient. And rather difficult if the time signature changes even occasionally.

So, to answer your question, yes, you can possibly omit the time signature, and still have 'readable' music. However, you shouldn't, for the same reason that you shouldn't write everything in C Major with loads of accidentals.

[Note 1] Apologies to any friends and/or relatives of C♭ and F♭. You have my sincerest condolences.

  • 1
    youtu.be/CwzjlmBLfrQ?t=52s – Richard Apr 25 '17 at 3:50
  • Frankly, 5 ♭s are a bit of a pain even if properly grouped as the key signature. – leftaroundabout Apr 25 '17 at 14:15
  • Yes, but if instead of thinking "5 flats", you think "everything has flats (except the stupid flats)", it will be a bit easier to remember, and less confusion. By the way, +1 for the intruduction of the "stupid flats" - I am not friend or relative of thoes, so it was great.. ! ;) – awe May 29 '17 at 11:44

This free-thinking question has already provoked at least one thoughtful answer.

The sample score happens to have time signatures, however, beginning with 4 bars of 44 and going into a bar of 24 before returning to 44 . They're just stretched beyond recognition.

Squashed (unstretched):

Close-in to unstretched 24 and 44 :

Not that it changes the question . . .

  • 3
    LOL. Good catch – minusatwelfth Apr 25 '17 at 11:13
  • 6
    These "large time signatures" are standard notation for film industry scores, because they are easier for the conductor to read. It's quite common for the conductor to have never seen the score at all before actual recording session, and knowing "what to beat" is the most essential piece of information he/she needs. You can rely on the professional musicians to play their parts correctly first time, even though they are also sight-reading. Of course printed large time signatures look at bit nicer than these hand written ones - see musescore.org/en/node/121336 for example. – user19146 Apr 25 '17 at 14:57
  • 4
    ... and the reason the conductor may not have seen the score before recording it is because if there are last minute changes, it may literally have only been written and printed minutes before it is actually recorded. The music cues recorded at the end of a three hour session might not even have been completed when that recording session started! – user19146 Apr 25 '17 at 15:03
  • @alephzero, your comments and link about tall signatures in video scoring seem completely on target for this mystery score, which even includes what must be exquisitely precise timing marks of :10'8, :19'5, :21'5, ..., along the top for synchronization. Care to add a new answer? Or add your insight to this answer? Or mind if I do? – lauir Apr 25 '17 at 16:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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