Tool #44: Beaming Complex Rhythms

Anyone who has worked with live performers knows that notational accuracy and clarity are incredibly important.  If your notation is unclear, or even not crystal clear (even when indicating indeterminate elements of a composition), valuable rehearsal time is lost and performer morale is lowered.  If you don’t take the time to notate specifically and clearly, why should the performer give you their valuable time in rehearsal?

Notational accuracy and clarity become even more important in rhythmically complex music.  Since I love working with asymmetric time signatures, highly rhythmic passages, anomalous accents, and polytextural passages (yes, I’m also a fan of alliteration), performers cannot perform my music without me putting effort into being clear and precise with my rhythmic notation.

One aspect of precise notation is beaming.  Here are some tips I have for beaming complex rhythms:

  1. Enable extended beaming over rests, extend secondary beams over rests, and display half-stems for beamed restsThis can be accomplished in Finale’s Document Options if you use Finale.Beaming 1
  2. Group your beaming how the music is to be felt, and be consistent if similar passages reoccur in different voices or passages.  For example, if you have a 7/8 figure beamed 2+2+3 that is felt that way for multiple instruments, beam all applicable instruments (including their rests, if they spend part of the measure resting) as 2+2+3.  In addition, if you have a bar of 11/16 and want it felt a certain way, beam it that way.  If you have fermatas that are shared across multiple voices, ensure that their hold time is equivalent across voices.Beaming 9Beaming 3Beaming 8
  3. If you work has singers, beam the music according to the singers to help with clarity and prosody.  The rest of the instruments should follow the singers unless they are doing something completely unrelated rhythmically to them.
  4. Watch out for rests.  Avoid using double dotted rests unless it absolutely makes perfect sense; these are hard to count.  Write your rests as if they would be beamed.
  5. In general, stick with smaller units of beaming if possible; try to stick with groups of 2, 3, or 4 notes or subbeats when writing larger rhythms.
  6. Break secondary beams when tuplets are involved, so that it is clear what notes are part of the tuplet and which aren’t.  Break up secondary beams on tuplets if there are internal rhythms you want pronounced.Beaming 7Beaming 4Beaming 5
  7. Avoid 1/x measures.  Unless your music truly is felt in 1 for 1 measure or more, do not write 1/8, 1/16, 1/4, etc. as time signatures.  These are incredibly disruptive to players and there are much better ways to notate your music and get the same effect (eg. adding or subtracting beats to a bar, adding in phrasing or breaths, adding caesuras, extending notes, cutting notes off, etc.).

There are many more ways to provide clarity with beaming rhythms, but these at least provide a start.  All of these example images are screenshots of my own music.

Questions?  Comments?  Let me know!

Happy composing, and thanks for reading,


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