Okay folks. Let’s talk some shop. We all know beaming over the barline looks way cool. And there are some way cool composers who do it. But the word’s been out for a while that beaming over the barline does nothing but drive performers nuts. And a friend of mine who’s worked at Schirmer says beaming over the barline drives music publishers nuts as well: do what you need to do with phrase marks, or just change meter. But there are beaming believers out there. Let’s hear from both sides. Some of us are facing these issues at the moment . . .

56 Responses to “To Beam or Not to Beam: Over the Barline Edition”
  1. Subdivide and tie has always been the ‘best practice’ which I think is what we’re all trying to determine. Violating the grid to keep integer relationships across the barline only forces irrational ratios to be figured out during the rehearsal. This is a time-consuming process. Sooner or later the grid will reassert itself – it’s how we humans do time. Do the math for the performers, I was taught (by a Ligeti student I studied with).

  2. Mark Winges says:

    Interesting comment, Jeff. My teacher (Arne Mellnas) did the beam across the barline thing. He too studied with Ligeti. I’ve always done the subdivide and tie thing, although as I said, both cause a hiccup when I’m trying to read it while wearing my performing cap. Maybe that just says more about my performance chops (or lack of same).

    Arne and I even once had a discussion about this. No particular conclusion, although I remember asking him what his experience was from performer feedback, and he told me it was divided (some preferred one way, some the other).

    Do you think any of it is a European versus American thing? i.e. what the “new music performance community” (whatever that is) in one place is different than the other?

  3. From comments I’ve read here, many European composers of complex music believe that Americans take these rhythms too strictly anyways! So if there was a bias I’m not even sure what that would mean. Notational integer relationships PLUS a looser interpretive style. That would make sense I guess. Sometimes it’s all about achieving a texture and not merely the perfectly correct minutiae of moments. But maybe a European composer or performer could comment.

  4. Stefan says:

    I think the whole “We do things this way now,” “No, we do it this way, dummy,” thing is silly. Each composer should try to find the most pure way to express the musical thought in his head. Tricking players into accidentally playing what you were really thinking is a disappointing game (of course you could just write for percussion — they will only gripe if it is too easy).

    My point really is that I hate all this “campifying” in the compositional world; but I will add my perspective to the discussion by saying that as a composer and performer, I personally prefer to have the concept relayed clearly rather than getting a pseudo-representation of it for sight-reading ease. Then it is easier for me to reproduce the composer’s true intent. For me, the end result is much stronger this way.

    I can also say, as a percussionist, that (for example) the odd-meter band transcription of El Salon Mexico is easier for me to read than the quarter-grouped orchestral originals with over-the-bar ties (not beams). Barlines aside, I keep a fast undercurrent of mental subdivision (16th, etc.) going while I play and I would much rather see untied, beamed groupings coinciding with the pulse I am supposed to be feeling. I would play a 3/4 bar w/ a quarter tied to 16th followed by a dotted eighth tied to a 16th followed by a dotted eighth differently than I would a 12/16 bar beamed as 5/4/3. One is an even 3 w/ syncopated upbeat-feeling stuff, the other is a bar w/ 3 different sized strong beats.

    As a performer, I would rather be shown how I should feel the rhythm than to be tricked into accidentally playing the right feel. As a composer, however, I realize that violinists and the like have been practicing scales with a metronome and reading quarter-grouped rhythms for hundreds of years and they understandably wig out when you move the cheese. So if you want to do interesting things with the beat you either trick them or just save it for your brake drum concerto.



  5. Elaine Fine says:

    I just played an orchestral piece the other day that had a repeating eighth note figure where the beams went over the barlines. The eighth notes were beamed that way to reinforce a hemiola. The beams over the barlines did help to keep track of the repetitions of the eighth note pattern, and they might have even helped the viola section play with more stability. It certainly caught my attention as a useful and practical application of beaming over barlines.

  6. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Coupla things:
    You can only judge the complexity of notation by the intent. If Feldman wrote e# for a violin, then maybe he meant e# and not f. If he wrote it for a piano, he was just being academic and obscure. I once heard a paper by a Famous Feminist Musicologist at a Big Midwestern University, analyzing a piano piece by Marilyn Shrude. The first chord had F# and Ab, and FFM’s thesis was that the work was a composing out of an augmented 6th-octave resolution. Well, not only could one not hear this, there were no clear signposts suggesting that this was Shrude’s intent. And there were other notes in the chord, a G or F (or both) IIRC. Upon looking at the notes it was instantly apparent to me that the sonority had been notated in the most clear and economical way for the performer, and any analysis based on tendency tones was simply irrelevant.

    As for cross-bar, if it isn’t musically clear that a phrase grouping extends over the barline, perhaps the composer needs to be more musically clear, and the performer needs to think a little, as opposed to notating in order to rely on the performer to shape a gesture that hasn’t been shaped by the composer. I think that Mensurstriche are the same kind of time-wasting overdetermination of phrasing…nobody past high school goes “OOM pah pah pah” with Renaissance music.