Composer's Dilemma: rhythm, bar lines and readability

I love rhythm, numbers and odd pairings of the two. They don't always make for obvious bar line choices.

A recent piece I've written is for solo violin, The Jig is Up, suggesting this is a jig and yet not.

The music starts with the right concept --a nice little jig in compound time. In the opening example the music could almost be divided into a nice 6/8 pattern, except for the 3rd and 4th measure. Perhaps I could have the G cross the bar line. The tempo is also set to an eighth note equals 252. If I divide that by 3 I could make it a dotted quarter note equals 84 --a much nicer number for most metronomes.

When we get to line 5 the compound time is shot all to hell. Is the first measure in 7 or should it be nice with the final eighth note of the previous line added to the bar? But then that breaks up the almost dividable pattern in line 4. Measure 2 in in 8 and measure 3 is in 9, with measure 4 is in 6. Wait, the piece gets better!

At rehearsal marker 'A', which is line 9 and a return to the original theme, the line can almost be divided evenly into the 6/8 patterns again. We have that nasty pair of quarter notes that "cross" the bar line --or do they? If we leave them together all the other measures have 6 beats. Measure 3 is the odd one out with 7 beats for a total of 31 in the line. Yes folks, 31 is a prime number. I've been found out or "the jig is up." The piece spends the rest of it's time with 31 beats to a line.

Line 13 puts the 7 beat measure at the opening of the line. As the "variation" progresses the bar line continues to shift as to where the 7 beats end up.

My dilemma as a composer was where to put bar lines. Should I keep changing the time signature so I could write the music into nice organized measures? Was is better to do what I ended up doing and just not put bar lines in at all. For me the line of music is a whole --a thread that runs from the opening of a line to the end. There are sections where the final note of a line is definitely a pickup note to the next line.

I'd be curious as to what musicians think of the music. How would you divide the music to make it more readable. If you'd like to see the complete score, drop me an email or write to me on twitter (chipmichael). I'd be happen to send a pdf your way.


Caitlin Rowley said…
Very interesting! To a certain extent, it reminds me of the problems I faced with working out time signatures in my own unaccompanied violin piece, Diabolus. In the end I mapped out where the strong accents were and just fitted in appropriate time signatures to fit the accents. You can hear Diabolus & read about the composition process on my blog at

Before that I'd tried to corset the music into a single time signature, but it felt too constrained and not fluid enough, so I went with almost continually changing time sigs.

Another option could be to ditch visible time signatures and just use barlines to separate sections, indicate strong accents and show where pickup notes should act as such. Visually this may be easier for a performer to interpret, and give a certain amount of fluidity?
Patrick Dawkins said…
Caitlin Rowley: "Another option could be to ditch visible time signatures and just use barlines to separate sections, indicate strong accents and show..."

I think that if you do want to indicate strong beats and pickups (Chip might not), the simplest notation is to use time signatures and bar lines.

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