The practice of using large time signatures often sparks heated debates and controversy among composers, orchestrators, and music preparation specialists. Everyone has their own opinion, some are based on professional experience, some are based in fantasy. I have friends who work almost exclusively in film music and in that world, large time signatures are not only acceptable, but are expected. However, I often see composers who insist on using them in their concert music, regardless of whether they are needed or are being used effectively. Or they might use them at the right time, but now know precisely how they should use them.
I have friends who use them in every single score, which is fine because in their line of work, they are always appropriate. I have other friends who NEVER use them and think that they are the devil. But in fairness, in their line of work, large time signatures are rarely (if ever) appropriate. As with most things, it comes down to context.
So, in the spirit of giving, I am going to share with you my take on large time signatures, when they should be used, and how to use them effectively. If what I am about to write contradicts a previously held belief of yours, I would urge you to keep reading the article and keep an open mind. Hear me out. You may be right. I may be crazy. But spoiler alert...I'm not.
1. Where/When To Use Them
In my own humble opinion, I think that large time signatures are often overused. There's a certain modern look to them that appeals to some contemporary composers who are looking for ways to give the appearance of being modern and sometimes they succumb to the temptation of using them just for the sake of using them.
I think that large time signatures are useful/beneficial in full scores for large ensembles in which there are frequent meter changes. All three of these criteria must be met in order to justify using large time signatures. Let's address each of these criteria one at a time.
Full Scores - Yes, I have actually seen composers use large time signatures in individual parts. It is not helpful in anyway and creates all kinds of spacing issues. Seriously....I hope this one isn't the one you are going to argue with me about.
Large Ensembles - Scores for chamber music don't need them because no conductor will be reading off of it anyway. These scores are just for study and large time signatures will create spacing issues in the score with no benefit in return. Then again, if no one is going to be reading it, then it doesn't really matter. Do whatever you want. I don't care that much about this one.
Frequent Meter Changes - If your piece is in 4/4 the entire time, then there's no benefit to using large time signatures at all. In fact, this is a case where using them actually makes you look like you are trying too hard, making it obvious that you are using them just for the sake of using them. Even if if changes meter, but only a few times and the meter changes are 60 measures apart, it's not really that useful. It doesn't hurt, but it doesn't really help either.
2. What They Should Look Like (if you DO choose to use them)
Now that you've got your large ensemble piece with multiple meter changes and are determined to apply large time signatures, there are a few extra steps involved in order to make them look great.
1. Use your Finale UserGuide to learn how to make them. Their guide is very good, so read it instead of making me type out each individual instruction for you straight from the manual. I will give you the LINK, though (because I am extra nice). Remember: EngraverTime font.
2. The settings for Vertical Adjustments in the UserGuide are off, though, and will need to be adjusted. To be fair, they do say that you will need to experiment and find the best settings for your score. These settings will be different for each score because of the differences in number of staves per system as well as page size and multiple other factors.
3. The first setting to adjust is the font size. Finale suggests 48, which I think is too large. I change mine to 36.
4. The next setting to alter is the Vertical Adjustment of the top symbol. Finale suggests 1" as a starting place. I change it to O" This way it will align perfectly with the top line of the staff it is assigned to.
4. Next, adjust the Vertical Adjustment of the bottom symbol so that the total height of the time signatures takes up about 2 1/2 staves. If you go larger than this, it will also become too wide and will waste horizontal space. For this particular score I am working on, the bottom symbol adjustment is -1 inches.
Next, you need to decide which staves to make the time signature visible upon. Ideally, you'd want them placed on the top woodwind, brass, percussion, and string staves. In a perfect world, this would divide up the score vertically into four equally spaced sections and it would be quite appealing to the eye. But it doesn't always work out to do it that way, so you might have to make adjustments here and there. With practice and experience, you will develop an eye for what looks "good" and what doesn't.
Here's a sample page of a project I'm currently working on...
My friend, Tim Davies, has written extensively about this topic, too, on his blog. You should check out what he has to say, too. You can find it HERE.
There is also a 3rd camp, the Clinton Roemer-style time signature. Darcy James Argue is a firm believer in this style and I can't argue with him. Well, I could...but I would be foolish to. I really like this 3rd style, too, in theory, but have just not yet been able to make it look good in Finale yet. Not because of anything to do with Finale, itself just because I haven't invested the time into trying yet. Maybe someday.
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