The following snippet has 26 eighth notes (not counting lead-in) grouped as 6-6-6-8: snippet with bars

What is the time signature? 13/8 as shown? It's "crooked" in the bluegrass sense, i.e. not all bars have the same number of notes. It does have the advantage of showing the phrasing.

Is the following format more technically correct? With so many notes in a bar I would find it harder to read: snippet without bars

Is there another, accepted, way to do this? I want to avoid making the first three bars in 6/8 then switching to 4/4 for the last bar, then back to 6/8... etc.


After reviewing the comments and answers for this question (thanks everyone), I propose the following: updated 13/4

This incorporates the broken (dashed) barline suggestion, phrasing, and the correction to the math (13/4 not 13/8). The only problem I still have is that I can't (in my program) make the barline broken at the multiple endings. I don't know if this is a only limitation of my notation program.

  • 2
    It's hard to judge from just this snippet, but if it's only the occasional bar with 8 eight notes, I'd set the time signature to 6/8 and change it for the occasional bar to 8/8, and then back again. If this is the regular pattern, then of course not.
    – user18490
    May 2, 2017 at 23:55
  • 3
    Strictly speaking, the top example isn't 13/8. Nor is the other, which needs a barline halfway through the long bar. Slurs would help phrasing.
    – Tim
    May 3, 2017 at 7:38
  • 1
    I have never seen a multiple ending mark in the middle of a bar in a professionally published piece of music; it's pretty non-standard notation and is probably a recipe for disaster in rehearsal/performance. If you need to do this with multiple endings, I would use a shifting time signature instead: 3 bars of 3/4 and one of 4/4. Also, take a look at the section on "Beaming" in that style guide I posted, and then re-consider how you've written the last eight eighth notes of those bars. May 3, 2017 at 18:24
  • @MichaelSeifert - Sigh, just when things were looking up too. One way around this is to duplicate the entire 13/4 bar with a different ending; or I could do as you suggest and make multiple bars, with differing time sigs. BTW, I actually have seen multiple endings in the middle of the bar, and was surprised by it. It's quite possible that it was non-standard, and I am not endorsing that.
    – Eric O
    May 3, 2017 at 18:48
  • 1
    @EricO - It seems like part of what you're trying to do is prevent yourself from having to do additional work by not having to change the time signature frequently. While I can relate, as I've written some pretty out there music, the decision needs to be based on how to best read and interpret the piece. I would say that your best option is to have separate bars for each grouping. It should be the easiest to read and more illustrative for the reader. As much as players dislike having to change meter frequently, I think that they have much more disdain for odd meters, especially longer ones. May 4, 2017 at 15:29

5 Answers 5


13/8 is definitely wrong. It doesn't repeat at the 13-note mark.

I'd have to hear the piece, but I suspect that writing 3 bars of 6/8 or 3/4 (depending on how it's subdivided) plus one bar of 4/4 is probably the right thing to do. Basically, your first example but with time signature changes.

  • How about 13/4 then?
    – Eric O
    May 2, 2017 at 18:48
  • Why not 6+6+6+8/8, or 3+3+3+4/4, whichever is more appropriate? It's not obvious from your example whether the 6 notes are three groups or 2, or two groups of 3.
    – user19146
    May 2, 2017 at 18:51
  • 1
    It's three groups of two. My notation program does accept your suggestion, but it sure looks weird! I suppose 6+6+6+8/8 is correct.
    – Eric O
    May 2, 2017 at 19:03
  • I'm going for 13/4 - please see update
    – Eric O
    May 3, 2017 at 17:25

The Indiana Jacobs School Style Guide, has some great advice about how to notate complex meters, in their section on "Meter":

Dividing Complex Meters. Since the beat value of complex meters is not consistent, the division of all measures must be immediately evident to the conductor and all players. If not, rehearsal time will undoubtedly be wasted as this information is communicated verbally to the ensemble. There are several ways to clearly delineate this information:

  1. Performance Note. If the complex meter is always divided in the same way, make some kind of note about this (e.g., all 5/8 measure are divided 2+3).
  2. Rhythmic Notation. The rhythmic notation should always reinforce the metric divisions. Some correctly notated rhythms are inherently ambiguous, and must be combined with numeric delineation.


Meters With Too Many or Too Few Beats. Use meters of 2, 3, 4 beats for the most part. Sometimes 5 or 6. Avoid large meters of 7, 8, 9, or more beats in a bar. These are usually broken down into twos and threes anyway, and the downbeat is easily confused. Players sometimes get lost when following a conductor through measures with seven or more beats. Consider dividing the measure with a dotted barline or splitting these into two separate bars. This technique may be helpful for five-beat bars as well.

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Note the dotted barline in the measure at the end of the first staff. If you're gung-ho on having that whole line be a single bar, then the dotted barline technique is the way to go.

  • Like the dotted barline. With 7/4 it's sometimes not easy to determine whether it's split 4 - 3 or 3 - 4, so that helps. 5/4 is fairly straightforward.
    – Tim
    May 3, 2017 at 7:34
  • This is very helpful Michael (and Tim). Please check the updated question.
    – Eric O
    May 3, 2017 at 17:26

The most well-known piece with a 13/8 time signature that I could think of is Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat (from Cats).

This has both a 123-123-123-1234 feel and is grouped as such, with bar lines where you'd expect them, i.e. after thirteen 8th-notes:

Skimbleshanks the Railway cat 13/8


I used to play with a Greek band, and their 13 was split 123, 123, 123, 1234, if that's any help.


Without hearing it, it's a little hard to say for sure but based on what I'm seeing, I'd say that the first example is completely wrong. In no way does the written time signature reflect the groupings of notes. The groupings of notes suggest three bars of 3/4 or 6/8 plus one bar of 4/4 or 8/8. If all of the notes, minus the pickup, were in one bar, we could call that 13/4 or 26/8, not 13/8.

The basic way to think of this is the top number represents how many of the bottom number type of notes are within a measure. So 13/8 would have 13 1/8 notes. In your example, there are 26 1/8 notes, so you could call it 26/8, or break that down into 13/4. 26/8 is very uncommon and could make for difficult reading if you were to pass this music on to someone else to play. With a measure so long, it's much easier to get lost within the notes.

Depending on how everything is phrased, which I can't really tell from the way it's written, it might make a lot more sense to write this out as separate meters, as much as I know you don't want to do that. Part of notating music is making sure that it conveys all that it needs to for the player to produce it without having to ask the composer questions. If the first three bars have a feeling of 6/8, then I think you basically have to write them in 6/8 because if you write it in #/4, it won't imply the phrasing. You could choose to write it in 13/4 and add a note that breaks it down, such as "6/8+6/8+6/8+4/4", which you would probably put above the designation of 13/4. Either way, you will want to make sure that your 1/8 notes are grouped to spell out the meter as well. Typically in 6/8, we would have two groups of three 1/8 notes, which would be illustrated by how they are connected. You have all six 1/8 notes connected, so it makes it very hard to determine if it would make the most sense to think of this as being in 3/4 or 6/8.

Again, when writing out music, especially for others to play, you want to make sure that you are making it as easy as possible to read all of the notes, as well as making sure that the way it is written illustrates the actual phrasing of the line. If you take the same notes and group them different, you'll find that players would interpret this differently by emphasizing different beats.


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