So I have been listening to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and I notice something that is unusual to me in his promenades. It has a 4/4 feel but it isn't written in 4/4 at all, instead it is interchanging between 5/4 and 6/4. Usually when I see a time signature change in the middle of a piece, it is either clearly related(such as going from 3/4 to 9/8, clear triplet relationship or going from 2/2 to 4/4, clearly the same amount of notes per bar, just with a different accent pattern) or gives a sense of a complete loss of the original pulse at the time signature change(such as going from 3/4 to 4/4).

Mussorgsky is able to give an overall 4/4 feel to his promenades by changing between 5/4 and 6/4. How does he do that? How does the fifth simple beat of the first bar feel accented?

This is what I see in the sheet music

enter image description here

Here is what I feel in that music:

enter image description here

Each of those black boxes around the notes is an apparent 4/4 bar. It sounds and feels like it is 4/4 but isn't actually in 4/4. How is Mussorgsky able to pull off this 4/4 feel?

I mean here are the accent patterns in 5/4 and 6/4:

5/4 time

S w S w w or S w w S w

6/4 time

S w w S w w or S w S w S w

Neither of these are close to the 4/4 accent pattern of

S w M w

not to mention the fact that it feels like typically weak beats in their respective time signatures become strong beats and vice versa.

So how does Mussorgsky make the piece feel like it is in 4/4 when it is in 2 time signatures both unrelated to the apparent 4/4 and unrelated to each other?

  • 6
    I don't hear it the way you hear it at all. Not sure I would notate it as written if I heard it without seeing it first but I don't think I would hear it in 4/4 either.
    – b3ko
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 16:51
  • Can you listen to multiple interpretations of this piece and hear if you still get the same results throughout?
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 17:17
  • 1
    @Dekkadeci I listened to multiple interpretations of the piece, both on piano and with an orchestra and I still get the 4/4 feel out of 5/4 and 6/4 time signatures.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 17:28
  • 1
    @Michael: probably by someone who meant this were an oppinion based question. But not by me. It is an excellent example illustrating the individual process of perception, especially of adaption and assimilation. simplypsychology.org/piaget.html Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 5:49
  • 2
    I suspect you're inserting a nonexistent quarter-rest at the end of the phrase, thus allowing the first three quarters to "complete" a 4/4 measure. Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 14:00

4 Answers 4


If you have a strong enough 4/4 mindset you can impose it on this piece I suppose! But I really think you ARE imposing it. Maybe MY knowledge of how it's notated is affecting my perception. But I think the slurs, to mention just one element, work against your hypothesis.

I think the music is intended to depict a relaxed stroll around the exhibition, pausing as a picture catches the eye, not a purposeful march to the next fixed point.


What we hear and how we're interpreting a theme is not only depending of the measure and the rhythm, also from the slurs and the intervals of a motive. That is: the motive is a combination of rhythm and melody and the whole is more then the sum of it's elements. In yours example our brain or our mind is misguiding us.

It is quite obvious that the motive with the slurs is one entity. To point this out Mussorgsky might have divided the measures as 3/4 + 2/4 and 2/4 and 4/4. But even then the musicians shouldn't perform those phrases this way. If Mussorgsky had wanted this solution he should have written some accents.

That we can hear weights where there are none is a function of our brain that helps us to structure our environment - even there is no structure, this is a surviving function.

And so we go to the glue by our brain sometimes. (In this case of a piece of music it is quite harmless, but it can be horrifying when we e.g. identify a innocent person as a murderer because of an irritated perception.)

There are surely many pieces that our brain is interpreting differently as it has been written. Imagine the opening bars of Beethovens 5th. As long as you don't know the development of the first motive you might identify it as triplets!

Or the rhythm of Bernsteins "Jump" in Westside story:

If you don't know that the double bass is playing off-beat you will fail the to play back the correct rhythm.

I can't tell you what rhythm and measure I would have notated if this had been a rhythmic dictate but it wouldn't be fair to use this passage for a such and I wouldn't say that what you've heard is wrong.

  • 2
    The four 'shots' that introduce 'Jump' make it quite clear where 'one' is. Bernstein wasn't looking to be ambiguous here.
    – Laurence
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 0:03
  • Yes, clear to you! But obviously not to everyone ... It seems that it was easier to my brain to interpret the four shots as off beat than the following section. That‘s what I say: The ambiguity is not in what we can hear played. it lays in our perception and interpretation. But as OP doesn’ tell which recording he’s using - probably a pianist - it could actually be the performer too. Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 6:14
  • 1
    @AlbrechtHügli - As mentioned in a comment I prompted on top, the OP says s/he's used multiple recordings, piano and orchestral, and it still applies. (There goes my theory that it was triggered by computer-generated MIDI-like recordings.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 12:16
  • Once an idea gets fixed, all evidence supports it!
    – Laurence
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 13:59
  • what I didn't consider was that the promenade is appearing in different settings, and that the idea of Mussorgsky was that the promenade was to illustrate his wandering from one picture to the other. So it could be that the ambiguity of the rhythm is in purpose to demonstrate this stop and go? Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 15:14

The rhythm of this melody does not strongly indicate a time signature, so if the rhythm was played robotically on a snare drum, it might be hard to find the downbeat.

On the other hand, the melodic contour is very strong - it starts low, goes up, and comes back down, and this exact melody is repeated.

When you combine the melodic contour with the strong/weak beats indicated by the alternating time signatures, you will produce the phrase as the composer intended. Conversely, if you attempt to imply a 4/4 pulse on this melody, you break up the 4 related melodic phrases into 5 unrelated phrases.

The composer chose this time signature because he wants the performer to interpret the melody a certain way. It is our job as performers to take the clues the composer gives us to and convey those to the audience.

So, overall, I disagree with your interpretation, but I think the reason you are able to feel these phrases differently comes from the ambiguous nature of the rhythm.


When I imagine the tune in my head I always mistakenly drop the third beat of the first bar. That results in 10 beats rather than 11. 10 is divisible by 2 and the tune without that third note fits into nice two note groups.

Of course that is a mistake on my part, but it gives me the impression that the music is in 2/4. My memory is that I was surprised when I first saw the actual meters in the score.

If you turn it around, you might describe the meter as basically 2/4, but the added beat displaces the strong down beat feel and creates mixed meters.

You may be experiencing something similar to me in how you re-barred the piece with your box diagrams.

Either way it's like @Larry said it's a kind of imposition and the actual rhythm helps express the theme of strolling.

Most likely because of the familiarity and simplicity of duple meter our perception drifts that way and we mis-identify the meter.

  • So, you're saying that because I am not familiar at all with 5/4 time because I have never played anything with that time signature and have rarely ever heard that time signature and that the fact that my familiarity with 6/4 mostly comes from me having seen 6/8 used as basically a triplet version of 2/4 all the time is why when I listen to it, I hear it as being in 4/4, even though that is not closely related to the time signatures used at all.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 15:26
  • @Caters,no, I don't mean unfamiliar as in you don't know about 5/4, I assumed you know about odd meters. I meant more generally that odd/mixed meters are comparatively uncommon and so unfamiliar to many of us. Unless you spend some significant time working on them, they will be unfamiliar. More importantly if you aren't carefully listening to meter, you might easily not hear an odd meter. Example, I never noticed Sing's I Hung My Head was is seven, until I deliberately counted it while figuring out a part. Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 15:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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