enter image description here

The source is c.1770...

...first book.

I can see that the beaming matches the words of the vocal part. But it obscures the beat.

In the second full bar, at the word 'wave' it's a grouping of 3 + 1 eighths. That looks like a triplet on beat 1 and the eighth for "the" on beat 2, but of course it really is 4 eighths in two beats.

Is this beaming normal for vocal parts?

I was trying to sight read from the book, but the rhythm was hard to read. At least for me. If it's normal vocal practice, I should learn to read it. If not, I could try to mark over the score in some way.

I really like these folk song settings so I want to figure out how to handle sight reading the score.

  • 1
    As a vocalist who sees both "traditional" and modern styles, I'll note that the "obscuring the beat" is quite limited; beams won't cross strong beat groupings, and though you didn't show anything with syncopation, you'd see two standalone eighths instead of a beamed pair on "te three" (and probably also on "te two" for only two notes). Aug 9, 2019 at 7:03
  • 3
    I'm also a singer, and find the style demonstrated in this question very frustrating, especially when there are many short one-note syllables — trying to read a long line of separate quavers and semiquavers at speed is a nightmare! (I often resort to drawing in beams myself; even joining tail-up to tail-down notes can be clearer.) Unfortunately, its going out of fashion seems to be happening quite slowly; I still see a lot of music in this style…
    – gidds
    Aug 9, 2019 at 8:32
  • If the time signature had been 2/2 the notation would not hide the beats.
    – ghellquist
    Aug 9, 2019 at 13:38
  • @gheliquist, if it were 2/2 then the beaming of "wave the" and "pleafe the" would still not be on the beat for beat 2 of both bars. Aug 9, 2019 at 13:42

4 Answers 4


It's normal practice for vocal music that went out of fashion in 20th century practice: syllable distribution is now pretty universally indicated by slurs. Among other things, this makes it more straightforward for instruments to double a singing voice. Another is that when syllable distributions differ between stanzas, you can indicate this with a broken slur but changing beaming in a similar manner is much more complicated.

And of course, like you observed, the relation to the beat is easier to see when the beaming follows the meter. All that being said: yes, you'd likely want to get used to this since older editions tended to follow that standard, and older editions often have the advantage of being out of copyright and thus much easier accessible. And urtexts (which some people prefer in new editions as well) follow the manuscript closely and thus would also reflect this practice in case it was in use at that time.

  • Your comments about older editions, and especially new urtexts, is helpful. I should get used to this. Although I may still mark up the score in someway. Thanks Aug 9, 2019 at 13:12

Your example was the standard notation for vocal parts up to about 1950. The beams indicate the notes sung to one syllable of the lyrics. You will find almost all "pre-computer-engraving" vocal scores written that way.

The slurs in your example show exactly the same thing as the beaming, and were sometimes omitted, except over quarter notes or longer which don't have beams.

For long passages (i.e. more than one bar) sung to a single syllable, the beaming followed the normal non-vocal convention, and a slur indicated the extent of the syllable.

In modern notation the beaming follows the same rules as for non-vocal music, and slurs are used to show groups of notes sung to one syllable.

When all music was printed from metal plates engraved by hand, it was no more time-consuming to produce this style of beams. Computer notation software has more or less killed it in favour of beaming all parts the same way, since the old style vocal beaming can't easily be automated.

Singers seem to be divided about which convention is "best" - some find the modern beaming convention hard to read because it hides the rhythmic connection between the words and the music, others (like you) find the old-style rhythms hard to decipher.

Incidentally your example shows another common feature of editions from that period, namely that long notes tend to appear in the middle of their sounding duration, not at the start as in modern music engraving. See the half notes in the first and last bars of the bass line, for example.

  • 4
    Your timeframe doesn't quite add up, though. You say this style went out-of-favor around 1950, and you also attribute the style change to computer notation software, which wasn't commonplace until the 1980s. Might there be another explanation for the style change?
    – Peter
    Aug 8, 2019 at 22:15

Yes, and yes. The beaming follows the old practice, and it merely obscures the beat. Already discussed in Beams in classical vocal music

But there's something else going on here too. Look at 'gently' and 'boatman'. Does using an appoggiatura for an accented passing note add useful information? I think it does, both for the singer and for the musician accompanying from figured bass notation. It would be just as useful in clarifing the harmony if we used chord symbols instead. I'd be happy to see that tradition revived in vocal lead sheets.

  • Yes, I see the point about appoggiatura make the harmony of root position chords clear. Execution wise my understanding is the two should be played as two eighths and two quarters, both starting on the beat. Aug 9, 2019 at 13:34

This is completely right beaming in vocal music. I teach it in school. Pity, that nowadays people do not understand beaming rules for vocal and instrumental music...

  • 1
    As much as I agree with you about which style is better, it's not quite fair to say that those who prefer the other style "do not understand the rules."
    – phoog
    Jun 14, 2021 at 19:21

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.