4.4 Beat Patterns – mixed meters

In music written before the 20th Century, changing meter within a piece, movement, or extended section (like the slow introduction before the allegro in a classical symphony) was unusual. In the last 100 years, rapidly changing meters have become a common feature of a lot of contemporary music. Stravinsky was one of the first composers to utilise this device and he remains an excellent example.

Many conductors develop a system of markings in their scores to help them deal with constant meter changes. The idea is that glancing at a symbol is quicker to process than reading the figures in the time signatures (which can often be printed in quite an unclear way).

Here is one possible approach:

  • The symbol refers to the number of beats
    • +  means 4 beats 
    • means 3 beats
    •   means 2 beats 

various combinations can give 5, 6, 7 or more

  • The colour refers to the duration of the beat
    • red means quarter note beats
    • blue means eighth note beats

Figure 1 shows ways of marking 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 5/4 & 6/4 using red symbols.

Figure 2 shows ways of marking 3/8, 2/8, 5/8 & 7/8 using blue symbols.

This works for the majority of cases, but sometimes there will be a ‘16’ on the bottom of the time signature (much loved by Stravinsky of course) or a ‘2’.

Figure 3 shows half note time signatures such as 4/2 & 3/2 with “double-red” symbols. For 2/2 you could use a “double-red-two” or just a split common symbol.

Figure 4 shows sixteenth notes time signatures such as 2/16, 3/16, 5/16 & 10/16 with “double-blue” symbols. 

You then have the option to vary the marking according to what you plan to beat. A 2/4 measure could be a “red-two”, but it could also be a “blue-four” if you planned to beat eighth notes instead of quarters.

A system like this, or your own version of it, should work in 99% of situations but composers do have a habit of thinking up new things for us to deal with! Figure 5 shows a few measures in a piece the author recently conducted for which new markings had to be invented.

The 6/16 measure in the middle is no problem: “2 x double-blue-three”. The 20/16 consists of 4 beats of 5 sixteenth notes. Therefore the marking that made sense to me was a “red-four” with quintuplet sixteenths drawn in blue to denote the beat being 5 sixteenths long instead of 4!

Scroll to Top