Proportional Notation (Tool #59)

One trap that is easy to fall into as a composer is the rigidity of rhythm, meter, and barlines.  While these are good tools to use when constructing a piece, sometimes a true sense of line requires that you write music that is free from strict rhythm, meter, and barlines.  This allows your music to move in time in ways that rhythm cannot dictate, and it also gives your performer more flexibility to phrase your music as the music needs to be phrased.

One way to notate free, flowing rhythm is to use proportional notation.  Here is one example from a recent piece of mine:


In this passage, not all quarter notes, eighth notes, grace note eighth notes, nor grace sixteenth notes, are equal.  In fact, they are purposefully spaced differently to prevent rigid singing (this is a piece for tenor and fixed media).

Here is how I most commonly write proportional notation:

  1. Close your notation software program.  Record yourself singing the music, in multiple takes.  Decide which is the best take (the one you want to use)
  2. Transcribe that take onto paper (optional, but you should be comfortable transcribing anything to paper)
  3. Input the transcription into your notation software program.  To do this:
    1. Input it with approximate note values, including a general tempo (if applicable).  screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-3-29-07-pmUse meters and barlines to make the notation appear how you want to.  Don’t worry; your music will appear as it should: unmetered, by the end of this process
    2. screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-3-26-15-pmAdd all markings, beamings, measures per system, note spacing, etc. so it appears how a normal, properly engraved piece should lookscreen-shot-2016-12-09-at-3-26-25-pm
    3. Select this unmetered music, and remove all time signatures, cautionary time signatures, and barlinesscreen-shot-2016-12-09-at-3-26-37-pm
    4. Make a note to the performer that accidentals apply only to the next note and its direct repetitions.  Ensure that this is the case for the piece’s actual notationScreen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.26.53 PM.png
  4. There you go!  You have a proportionally notated section.

Please note that this is just one way to notate proportionally.  You can assign durations to note values (eg. whole note = 5 seconds, half note = 2.5 seconds, etc.), use graphic notation (eg. the larger the square, the longer to hold that pitch collection), feathered beams, etc.  But, all of those are topics for another day.Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.32.44 PM.png

Questions?  Comments?  Feel free to chime in.

Happy composing!



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