Hello, I write contemporary classical music (a bit experimental) mostly with Sibelius and often struggle with time signatures, i.e. I'll put the notes down and it plays back rhythmically the way I'd like, but it doesn't often fit into a standard 4/4 time signature/meter for instance. 

I tend to think that the music has its own internal rhythm, but tempos and rhythms often change, so wonder if I should just leave it in 4/4 time, or put in time signature changes every few bars.  A goal is to create a score that is relatively easy to read and could be played by real musicians. 

Any "new music" classical music composers out there care to comment? 

I've looked at scores by Wuorinen and Boulez as a reference point.  Sometimes it baffles me how musicians count/read it when there aren't obvious downbeats sometimes, or when the score has time signature changes every few bars.  Not sure what defines a readable score in this genre hehe.

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  • Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the info.  On an unrelated subject, I'm wondering how to handle ties and rests in 6/4, i.e. how to notate them as simple as possible considering the inner subdivision of the beat.  Attached are some examples for piano - do you have any suggestions for making it clearer.  For example, I'm not sure how to handle the ties/duration in measures 5 and 6 especially.

    Also, I'm using the "beam over rests" feature in Sibelius to try to make it clearer where the beats are.  Is that pretty common to see where there's a lot of syncopation?



  • Measure 5 is insanity. It almost looks as if you deliberately made it as confusing as possible :P

    Here is a trick that might help when you don't have the "feel" for dividing and tying in a smart and clean way - just write out quarter notes in the upper staff. Then when making the complex tie, try to line up notes that match the positioning of those quarters. Generally when syncopation is present, your positioning will be off where the note starts (that's the point of syncopation), and near the end if you really really need to end the note at a very specific moment (btw this is the case much less often than you'd think). Everything else should line up with beats. The quarter notes in the staff above show you where the beats are.

    Of course, if you can simplify it further (using half notes), you do that. Just make sure you have a fresh note on beat 4, tied to whatever comes before it. A big note crossing the halfway threshold in a complex meter can trip people up except for very specific circumstances.

  • Thanks, I'm attaching another attempt.  Do measures 5 and 6 look better, or any suggestion to tidy it up?  Am making sure I have a fresh note on the 4th beat. 

    Also, would you use a double dot (as in measure 6) or tie a 16th note to the end (as in measure 5)?   While it may be overly specific for real players, I'm also using the score to get the Midi playback I want, so am tweaking for the right playback feel.


  • You can safely replace the tied 16th to 8th with a dotted 8th. Adds up to a full quarter with the preceding rest, so it's clean.

    As for the endings... personally I would just extend both notes by a 16th and have only a quarter rest on the last beat. This of course changes the music - theoritically. However note ends are a finnicky thing and it's basically a given that nobody is going to play the exact length of the note, to the milimeter, when you're so very precise about where the ending is. Nobody except your MIDI playback. Real players will just end the note "somewhere there". So... unless you have a VERY good reason to have perfectly specified release times, I would simplify this.

  • Thanks for the feedback!  Do bars 1-4 look ok as far as the ties/rests?  And how common are the "beams over rests" like at the end of bar 1?  Seems like it might make it easier for a reader to find the beats, but not sure how often this kind of thing is used.

  • If it doesn't fit naturally into 4/4 bars, don't write in 4/4 (obvious exceptions for hemiolas/syncopations within established 4/4 pattern), as the players will try to feel pulses where there aren't any, and the music will fall apart.  A lot of contemporary music frequently changes meters; I recently played piano in a chamber piece where the first movement changed meter on average 6 or 7 times per page, freely moving between meters 7/16, 5/8, 3/8, 9/4,  etc. It was hard to learn, but once I got accustomed to the feel of the piece, it was fairly easy to play, and ensemble was not nearly as big a problem as I expected it to be when I first looked at the score; all the 7/16 bars had a certain feel to them, as did all the 5/8 bars, etc., and when I saw a 5/8 bar, my instinct was "ok, one of those," rather than "crap, now I have to count to 5 instead of 7."  If it had all been written in 4/4 it would have been hell.

  • This really depends. If there's an actual chanfe in rhythm or meter, put in a time signature change. If not, just leave it as is.
  • (I know I'm responding to a two year old question, but as I've just joined the forum as a new user, I'm simply wandering around and getting to know you all)

    Sometimes a time signature simply stares you in the face and you find that a common time fits the bill, without interference. Where it gets difficult is when, as you say, your pulse or theme doesn't sit comfortably anywhere.

    When I first started writing, if spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to plan my piece, time and key, without getting as far as putting a note on the page. I have one particular piece (I'll add a link once I'm away from work!) which took weeks to get right. The notes were there, the key was right and the instruments were all ready. The delay was finding the time signature. I finally wrote a chunk out using nothing longer than crotchets and tying them together to find the common note lengths. After a bit of experimentation, I discovered that it was 7/8 with occasional 5/8 bars. No wonder I was confused.

    As a minor addition to the above, I wrote a piece that was in a horrific 10/4 pulse which, after an epiphany, turned overnight into 5/2 and improved dramatically. Don't be afraid to experiment.

    The key to your question is that if the music has it's own natural rhythm and pulse then the time signature(s) and subsequent changes will also feel natural, regardless of how often they appear. In the early days I would avoid compound signatures and time changes as they seemed too radical and far too much of a nuisance. Now I accept them as a normal part of composition and playing.

    For example, look at the last movement of the Rite of Spring. It has a radical time change every other bar, yet flows as comfortably as Stravinsky can be seen to flow. Another great example. for me, is Walton's score of Balthazar's feast. Time changes a'plenty (albeit simpler than Stravinsky) but includes a large chorus. If a chorus can sing it without argument, it must work!

  • Hi Graeme, I posted on this thread when it came around originally, see above if you want to see what I said, which I think is pretty similar to your own thoughts. You might check out a piece of music I posted here recently, “Toy Boat,” which shows a good example of how I use it when an unusual signature is needed. Eager to see any piece you’d like to post showing your approach!



  • I'll post a couple of things soon Gav. I need to move works to SoundCloud or YouTube to fairly share. A bottle of Merlot and a couple of hours to myself will do the job...
    You have some talented people sharing work here...
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