It seems my musical journey's always pushing me into left field territory when it comes to notation ... So this time I'd like to know what would be a good way to notate a consistent switching of time signature every measure.

The piece I'm writing constantly alternates between 5/4 and 3/4, however I think it would be very tiring to read - I assume - if it's written like this:

enter image description here

Should I just mention it at the beginning (If so, how?) and leave out the time signatures? E.g. giving me a score like this:

enter image description here

As you can see that's quite confusing too, since even though the time signature's hidden, there's some space left open. But that's maybe just a limitation of Musescore...

Or maybe I should just go with 8/4 and explain the counting, something like "5+3"?

  • 4
    ...or write it in either 8/4 or even just 4/4 & accent the appropriate beat, with some kind of similie instruction at the top. I know i'd be far more comfortable thinking in terms of "every 2nd bar accent the 2"
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 12:07
  • Could you give an example of how you would write that down @Tetsujin?
    – Creynders
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 12:16
  • I don't have a scoring app here so I can't do it graphically, sorry - but I'd start out just with something like "Treat as though 5/4+3/4, then over the first couple of bars, I'd add > over the relevant '6th note' for the first few bars & write similie in the next bar. [I have to admit I'm treating it more like a rock band forming a groove/feel than an orchestra reading the dots.]
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 12:35
  • Just for the record, it's certainly not unknown to write a new time signature at the start of every bar - e.g. sheetmusicnow.com/products/… Having said that, I've also seen this song notated in 5/4.
    – Ian Goldby
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 14:43
  • 8/4 is a good way to go. you don't really have to explain the beat. it would be implied from the music itself.
    – Ringo
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 17:39

4 Answers 4


Yes, one possible way is to clarify a "5+3" meter throughout. Depending on the music, this could be preferable to just writing 8/4 if the meter is clearly a 5+3 layout.

As one example of how this could be done, consider something like:

enter image description here

Notice that, in the second full measure, a dotted barline shows the distinction between the 5/4 and 3/4 portions of the meter. This is optional; I've seen music like this notated with and without that dotted barline (or something equivalent to it).

As a very similar alternative, you can also notate it without repeating the bottom portion of the time signature:

enter image description here

  • 7
    Especially the dotted bar line will make sense in some places, where one of the instruments goes against the ebb and flow feeling
    – Creynders
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 12:10

One way which is possible is to show two time signatures, as here from Tchaikovsky's second String Quartet via Popflock:

Multiple time signatures

This warns the user that bars of each length are to be expected.

You haven't tagged the question MuseScore, but MuseScore does allow bars of varying length without having to put a time signature in every time. Right-click the bar, select "Bar properties..." and set the number of beats that bar should have. I think it's intended to allow the last bar to be balanced with an anacrusis at the beginning of a piece, but it works elsewhere.


Unfortunately while this makes it possible to have bars of different lengths, MuseScore can't show more than one time signature at the start.

  • You can do it, if you cheat a bit. You'd need to put the second time signature in a second measure, and then set the "leading space" to be negative enough to position the second one beside the first, and then manually re-position anything that is in the wrong place. You'd want to do it after you're finished with that line (and use a system break) so it doesn't move on you again. - - That said, it would be nice to have proper support.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 0:57

As a possible alterative to Richard's answer, you can write the total in the time signature and the division above the staff like this:

Serenade for Organ by Derek Bourgeois

This may be easier, depending on the capabilities of your notation software. However, it does imply that the divisions are the fundamental beats. In this case that is four beats to the bar, with beats 1, 2, and 4 being longer than beat 3. But in the original question the beats are implied to be all equal quarter notes.

However, that might prompt you to ask whether this is actually true? Or are the intended groupings really 3+2+3 (or even 2+3+3)? After all, 5/4 is almost always 3+2 or 2+3.

  • Nice point about 5 breaking down to 3's & 2's. Perhaps there will be cases where 3+2 or 2+3 isn't one constant pattern throughout, but when it is, it seems friendly to show the full additive breakdown. Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 14:44
  • 1
    I was going to add that the Derek Bourgeois piece "Serenade" used 11/8 and 13/8 used this (there’s a wind band version plus score on YouTube). I found it quite intuitive to read. But I think that’s your example!
    – Pam
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 16:01

Most of the mixed-meter scores I've seen use non-dotted measure lines as well (and no "+" sign between the paired meter notations.) . It's just treated as "we will always be switching meter every bar" . See for example West Side Story "America" where it goes into 6/8-3/4 swap time.

enter image description here

  • 9
    In this case what changes is the subdivision of the bar, not the total bar duration, so I don't think it really answers the question.
    – Ian Goldby
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 14:27
  • 1
    Also, even as notated it shows a single meter change not the additive meter Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 14:40
  • 1
    @MichaelCurtis: Starting at bar 32, the meter changes every measure, though the piece would still work if a director opted to conduct as a straight 6/8 throughout. Even if the director conducts as straight 6/8, however, the violin 2 player should still regard second eighth note in bars like 33, 35, etc. as being off the beat and should thus not accent them more strongly than the first.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 16:22
  • 3
    This example is more general than OP's question. A generalized solution should be acceptable. Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 19:43
  • 1
    @ContextSwitch I think it would be a little misleading to put the second time signature in parentheses in the general case where the total bar duration changes from bar to bar. I definitely prefer Richard's answer for clarity.
    – Ian Goldby
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 9:09

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