I remember some time ago learning about traditional Irish music and how a lot of the music wasn't written with our modern time signature structure, but was instead written as a series of 2 beat / 3 beat combinations.

I've been searching google for this and haven't been able to find anything on this practice that I'm pretty certain I learned about some time ago.

For example Michael McGlynn's arrangement of Dulaman would have had a rhythm notated as:

(1) 2 2 3 3 3 2 2 3 3 3 (Total: 26 + 1) V1
    3 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 (Total: 25) C
    3 3 2 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 (Total: 25) C
    2 2 3 3 3 2 2 3 3 2 (Total: 25) V2
    and so on

Strangely the piece appears to be composed in this way and then the modern time signature conventions were sorta forced onto the sheet music afterward.

It seems like a strange mix between Free Time and Additive Meter, but the descriptions of either of those don't seem to fit what I'm looking for.

Free Additive Meter? Something like that, where it's in Free Time but the rhythm is notated as beats of 2 and 3?

What I want to know is the name of this practice of writing rhythms as series of 2's and 3's instead of using a normal time signature notation. Some term that I can use to look into it more, especially in the context of traditional Irish music.

Any help would be appreciated.

1 Answer 1


McGlynn's piece is indeed a fine specimen of additive rhythm, that is, rhythmic organization where the basic beat is fixed but the groupings are or variable length, as is traditional in some African and Eastern European music.

Irregularly alternating groups of 2 and 3 form the most common type of additive rhythm, for subtle perceptual reasons (a group of 1 wants to merge with an adjoining group, while a group of 4 is heard as 2+2). The usual (Solesmes) reconstruction of Gregorian chant has an additive rhythm, and the standard rules of chironomy (conducting) for chant specify either 2 or 3 morae (beats) for each stroke of the hand.

McGlynn's setting is not an arrangement of the traditional Irish tune for Dúlamán, which is a typical jig (6/8 time) and has been sung by many bands (Celtic Woman, etc.)

  • I have already searched additive meter / additive rhythm may times, but I can't find anything that really demonstrates the concept well under that term. Is it perhaps that this is simply an incredibly niche topic in music theory? Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 17:31
  • Just to be clear when you say Additive Rhythm, do you mean that the measure length can change arbitrarily throughout the piece? All of the examples of Additive Meter I can find are only used to define a standard measure length which is NOT what I'm asking about. Commented Apr 4, 2019 at 20:41
  • Yes, so it includes the incessant mixed meters in many sections of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, for instance, as well as Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium (written without a time signature, mostly in quarter and dotted quarter notes).
    – Mirlan
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 2:41

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