So, I'm an intuitive composer. I start noting the music down as it comes to my mind. I'm very, very exact in this, it has to be exactly as in my head. So I just have a score in 4/4 and set a tempo and start noting the notes, but I don't look at the bars, at all.

Now I'm in the process of nailing down the time signature and in the past it always came down to pretty standard stuff e.g. 6/4, with some minor adjustments here and there. But this time, I'm realising that it's - errr... - quite jumpy to say the least.

So, it looks like this (I left out the notes, but I think you catch the drift):

time signatures everywhere

Now, to be clear: the music is "correct". I mean: it all fits together harmonically and rhythmically and sounds great. But I'm really wondering if this is something I can get away with. I could definitely merge some of them to 6/4 for instance, but when I put on the synced metronome this just sounds right.

I've tried shoehorning everything into less time signature changes, but it just doesn't look right and the adjustments I need to make don't sound right either.

Anyway, my question is two-fold:

  1. is this even playable by a string quartet without a conductor?
  2. will I get shot? No, should I try to "fix" this, otherwise the musicians will declare me crazy?
  • 1
    According to Wikipedia, the term is mixed meters.
    – Andrew T.
    Oct 2, 2017 at 14:54
  • 1
    This is fine, if you're sure. But just looking at this excerpt, it could also be, 6/4, 5/4, 6/4, 2/4, 5/4. But, I doubt you would be shot. Take a look at "Sevens", by Samuel Hazo. Oct 2, 2017 at 15:01
  • 29
    Well, since you've only written rests so far, I think it's playable by anyone. Oct 2, 2017 at 16:03
  • 6
    It's impossible to comment on whether your notation makes sense with the music you've written without an example of that music: Could you provide either a short recording, or some more detail on the written score (other than the time signatures). Thanks
    – Some_Guy
    Oct 2, 2017 at 16:29
  • What I do is write the piece without time signatures at first, then add them later so that it's easier to play (I think this is what most people do?)
    – MCMastery
    Oct 2, 2017 at 17:13

5 Answers 5


The most important element is the sound. The score should be the most organized and straightforward way of producing that sound. You can re-bar / notate the exact same music any number of ways, but if it doesn't sound right, then it's not.

The reason for my preamble here is that your time signatures should complement the music – either through pacing or phrasing. There is significant historical precedent for your question: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Feldman's Crippled Symmetry, Bands like Tool, Between the Buried and Me, Snarky Puppy, King Crimson, Frank Zappa; long gone are days when you establish a single metrical idea and maintain it throughout a composition (unless that's what the piece needs!).

In my own music, I freely move between time signatures like 2/4+3/16, 7/8, 5/16, 5/4+3/8, 4/6*, 7/10*, etc if that's what the piece needs.

As an exercise for the future, you could try a couple things:

1.) Write your ideas on blank staff paper with no pre-determined bar lines (if they're written down, then you'll think that way!). Then go back after and put barlines down where it makes sense. After all, their purpose is to organize the music; you don't organize your music to fit the barlines.

2.) As others have suggested, if you find you have a lot of meter changes (especially if you're writing for large ensemble,) see if you can put it into a single, larger, repeating meter with accents in appropriate places, or even just specifying the metric subdivision (saying: 3+2+3+4+2 above the staff for 14/8 and beaming it that way, for example) really helps – in both large ensemble and chamber music. With chamber music, you can get away with more meter changes, so a small addendum to my earlier point in that you also need to consider ensemble / rehearsal logistics (as any prudent composer should).

Hope this helps.

*No, I'm not being cheeky, these are real, correct meters.

  • 2
    What constitutes 4/6 and 7/10, please?
    – Tim
    Oct 2, 2017 at 12:56
  • @Tim It's not absolutely clear what they mean without more context (including the actual notes!) but the general idea is that 7/10 is 7 out of the 10 notes in a "10 over something" tuplet. Sure, you could write that bar as say 7/4 or 7/8 with a MM mark change, but for people who can count complicated tuplets (which are common enough in contemporary art music) that would be harder to read without using a pocket calculator, not easier! For example Boulez used time signatures like 5/3 - i.e. each bar is a quarter note (usually subdivided into shorter notes of course) plus 2/3 of a triplet.
    – user19146
    Oct 2, 2017 at 14:22
  • 1
    @Tim - great question. You can divide a whole note by any number, not just 2, 4, 8, or 16. If I want to keep my current tempo but use durations equal to quarter-note triplets ("sixth notes") I run into problems if, let's say I only want 4-5 of them. Even the name "quarter note triplet" is clunky. Same is true if I only want 6-7 "quintuplet" notes in a measure, I can divide a whole note by 10 and put 7 of those beats in a measure; it's not different; just unfamiliar. Oct 2, 2017 at 16:01
  • 1
    Glad to see a band like BTBAM brought up in a discussion like this. Modern progressive metal music does all kinds of things with meter. One of my first encounters with this was a 27/16 measure in "Bone Marrow" by Protest the Hero, but the true champions of this are Meshuggah. This academic analysis of their rhythms is certainly of interest. Oct 3, 2017 at 12:39

It should be playable by anyone who can count. At least it's all counting with the same crotchet beat in time, only the number in each bar changes.

There could be another way of looking at how it's written - keep it all in the same, say 3/4 or 4/4, but accent the appropriate beats. So, in the beginning, the emphasis is on 1st beat, 1st bar. Second bar (4/4) accent 1st and 3rd beats, next bar, accent 4th beat. Probably easier to see written out side by side!

Are you certain that the original has to have the accents where they are to make time sigs change? Would there be a case for something like a regular 13/4, if a pattern follows?

  • Well, that's how I came to this... I started knocking the accents. Also, it is much more legible now. But I'll definitely try a 13/4 for instance. Thanks for the answer!
    – Creynders
    Oct 2, 2017 at 12:48
  • @Creynders hey. Can you post the version with the accents that improve legibility? I don't really understand what you mean. Also I personally would like to actually see the solution to improve my understanding. Oct 2, 2017 at 16:17

When I saw these bars, I initially thought it was a transcription of the song Mother by Pink Floyd.

That's a song that consists of 5/4, 4/4 and 3/4, with constant changes. Especially 5/4 is never used more than a single bar at a time.

The result is (subjectively of course) an amazing song, and many Pink Floyd fans cite this as one of their top favorite songs. It sure isn't easy to play, but it is easy to listen to and it all fits together well.

The reason why I'm saying is: Mother is an example of how this is perfectly acceptable and can work very well. It's not easy to pull off, and I'm pretty sure many musicians won't be particularly happy to play this, but it can definitely work.


I'd just add that if there are changes of time signature in every bar, you may just consider leaving it out altogether, writing just barlines. I'm not sure how common that would be, but I definitely met it quite a lot in religious music. An example would be this piece from Rachmaninov's Vespers.


Constantly changing time signatures are fine, and are quite common in today's music.

Just check that the crotchet beat IS constant. And that you aren't notating something simple in an unnecessarily complicated way. It happens! Want to show us the piece?

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