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What time signatures are best for choir music?

4/4 or 2/4 or 2/2? The choice of 4 or 2 beats to the bar is governed by issues I raise in my other question. If 2/2 is better than 2/4, is 3/2 better than 3/4? And what about compound time? 6/4 or 6/8?

I'm not even sure what is the most important guiding principle here. Is it what note-value the beat should be? or what note-value the shortest values should be?

If you want a more specific question: Singers, which would you rather have, beats as minims divided into quavers, or beats as crotchets divided into semis? (Beats as halves divided into eighths, or beats as quarters divided into 16ths?)

I'm thinking of choral carols (not hymns!) for church in Britain. I know that the C of E tradition is to use minim/half beats, and 4 rather than 2 beats to the bar (cf Hymns Ancient and Modern), but the practice of more than a century ago is not as relevant here as modern practice.

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    The question itself doesn't have a lot of bearing. A far greater influence would be the speed of conducting - which is possibly what you meant? And, obviously, the bpm of the piece in question. The actual time sig. gets translated by good conductors into 'how easy is it for performers to follow my flailing arms?' – Tim Oct 11 at 10:14
  • @Tim No, in this question I don't mean the speed of conducting. My concern here is with the performers and what they prefer reading, when they get the score of a piece they'll need to learn. – Rosie F Oct 11 at 10:24
  • Don't think it matters - not to me, as I will translate something written that looks too quick into something half the speed automatically. crotchets suddenly become minims, etc.If it's something that needs sight-singing on the spot, maybe that's what you ask? – Tim Oct 11 at 10:28
  • What a silly question. Obviously the best signature for all choir music is actually 37/√π! – leftaroundabout Oct 11 at 21:36
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Nowadays, choristers and other musicians, from almost any background, will be more comfortable with the beat, pulse, or tactus notated as a quarter note, than as a shorter or longer note. An example of this cultural norm is in the MIDI standard.

Even someone familiar with the 19th century British "half note beat" tradition would be nonplussed by music outside that tradition (older, newer, or from other countries) being renotated in that way.

  • So that includes quarters divided into 8ths and 16ths, supposing we have a relaxed quarter pulse around 60 or 72 or so, so that you could have 2 or 3 syllables to one beat? – Rosie F Oct 11 at 19:10
  • Yes. A brief patter-song torrent of sixteenths shouldn't scare anyone. If anything, the extra beaming makes the larger rhythmic structure clearer (as long as you don't use the archaic flags-on-each-note convention for singers, instead of beams). – Camille Goudeseune Oct 11 at 20:28
  • Oh yes, I know that archaic practice, discussed here & here, and yes, it does make G & S patter songs' vocal lines hard to parse. And recitativo secco, where over one basso continuo chord the singer sings a lot of quick syllables. – Rosie F Oct 12 at 5:27
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No need to follow the old hymnal practice of minim beats, though church singers are going to be accustomed to and happy with it for some time yet, I suspect!

Whether you choose minim or crotchet beats, the NUMBER of beats in a bar is determined by the music, not by notation practice.

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