Masking meters and creating polymeters with metric modulations in Dorico



The dust of last week’s earthquake (DRRRRRRUMMMMS! CUES!) is settling and I find my dazzled and happy self looking around and noticing a number of less conspicuous improvements in Dorico 1.2. One of them is the Common/Cut common property that was previously only available for 4/4 and 2/2. Now you can activate it for every time signature with a half note denominator. The time signature will then be drawn with the alla breve symbol.

This is how you do this now. Clean and elegant.

This is a welcome addition for editors of early music. Sadly, for me this means mostly farewell to my favorite workaround (yes indeed, I am a long time Finale user). Mind you, with a bit of cheating it’s always been possible to make a 4/2 time signature show up with the alla breve symbol. You can make 4/4 look like 2/2, or indeed 5/8 like 13/16 if you really feel like fooling your players. In fact you can dress up any time signature as any other time signature with a neat little trick. I’m very fond of it and I call it the pick-up trick. Here we go:

  1. Create the time signature you want to see in your score – with an anacrusis that is as long as the bar where it appears.
  2. Create the real time signature in the following bar and hide it via the properties panel.

Although the procedure is now obsolete in this context, allow me to cite Hans Leo Hassler once again to illustrate what I mean:

This is how I used to do this. Yes, I know about the bar rest in the first bar. This can be fixed.

Come to think of it…

In the pop-over, [3+6+4] specifies the beam grouping for the first bar. I could just type 13/16,10 but then I would have to adjust the beaming manually because the internal beaming scheme of a 13/16 bar is obviously different from a 5/8 bar.
Ah well. I suppose most of you are not inclined to fool your players. And I can see your furrowed brows as you’re wondering whether I’ve written up a whole Scoring Notes post about a workaround that’s no longer useful except for bad jokes. Let me show you a real world example, a piece from the core repertoire that would be impossible to notate in Dorico 1.2 without dressing up a time signature.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen

The problem

I first read about the pick-up trick on the Dorico forum, in a thread about complex polymeters in contemporary music. Somebody needed to create polymeters with metric modulations. Dorico does not support this yet. As it happens, the problem discussed on the forum is not exactly a 21st century problem. Take a look at this aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Johannespassion (click for a pdf):

Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen consists of two musical layers:

  1. the solo group, Bass soloist and Continuo, dancing tentatively in 12/8
  2. the chorale, more solemn than expressive, in common time

Both layers are coexisting peacefully on top of each other as the underlying pulse is identical. A compositional decision as profane as dividing beats differently creates an expressive tension that spans a whole inner world.

As of now, Dorico supports polymeters without metric modulations, that is to say: when quarter note equals quarter note. This leads to barlines that don’t coincide. A first try with normal independent time signatures in Dorico proves that this is not the way to go.

To create an individual time signature only for the current staff invoke the meter pop-over as usual and confirm with Alt+Enter.

Nice one, Dorico – but no. We need a solution that allows one quarter note in the choral to equal a dotted quarter note in the solo group. Obviously the current implementation of polymeters in Dorico alone won’t suffice. We need to fake this. And to do so we need a second tool, one that allows us to change the actual duration of a note in relation to the underlying pulse. You guessed it: today we’re going to define and hide a lot of tuplets.

Using tuplets as a substitution for metric modulations

Let’s forget about the time signatures for a moment. Dorico can’t yet deal with metric modulations between different meters, so we are going to write both layers in the same meter. It doesn’t really matter which of the two meters we choose. Maybe the obvious choice would be common time, after all 12/8 feels like 4/4 with lots of eighth note triplets. The choir sings only a few phrases though, whereas the solo group is present all the time. We choose 12/8 so we don’t have to define hundreds of eighth note triplets.

Inputting the solo group in 12/8 is not difficult, except perhaps for the figured bass numbers, but that’s another topic.

Now for the first chorale phrase: In order to make four quarter notes fill an entire 12/8 bar we define a quarter note tuplet with the ratio 4:6 in each bar where the choir is present: We select the bar rest in the Soprano staff in bar 4 and press Return to activate Note Input Mode. The caret appears. We press 6 to select a quarter note as duration, invoke the tuplet pop-over by pressing ; (semicolon), type 4:6 and confirm with Enter.

Now we can either just input the music (Dorico will create new 4:6 tuplets as necessary until we press : (colon) or click the tuplet button in the left hand panel to deactivate tuplet input); or we can leave Note Input, copy the empty tuplet into all the measures in the neighborhood where we need it and enter the notes afterwards. Either way, this is how we enter all the choir phrases.

To make a block selection, select something, hold down Shift, and select something else. Assigning keyboard shortcuts to filtering functions via the Preferences dialog (Ctrl+,) is a huge timesaver.

So far so good. Dorico takes care of the note spacing and aligns everything beautifully. We don’t actually want to see all those tuplet markings though. Making a block selection, doing Edit > Filter > Tuplets and switching on both the Number and the Bracket property in the properties panel takes care of this. The default values Dorico chooses once the properties are activated are exactly what we need to hide the tuplets.

Masking the meter

We’re almost done. Let’s go back to where we started and dress up our time signatures. (I really like this part because tricking Dorico nourishes the somewhat comforting delusion that – dynamic cues and whatnot – I am still smarter than Dorico.)

Dorico cannot show 12/8 as common time, so we need to do this with a real common time signature. We’re going to (ab)use something that I was surprised to find out at first: in Dorico, pick-up bars can be longer than a regular bar. If your imagination tells you to jump into your waltz with an anacrusis of 20, 30, 40 quarter notes: go for it! – no limits here. What’s more, a pick-up bar does not necessarily have to be followed by a regular bar of the same meter. These two slightly unexpected facts provide us with all the flexibility we need to notate our Bach aria.

Hold down Alt while you click to copy a selection to another place.

We select the bar rest in the first measure of the Soprano, press Shift-M to invoke the meter pop-over and enter c,6 to overwrite 12/8 with a common time signature with a pick-up of six quarter notes. We don’t want this for all staves, so we confirm with Alt+Enter instead of Enter. The common time signature appears only on the Soprano staff and the first Soprano bar is still six quarter notes long. It’s not really an anacrusis, but who cares? Six quarter notes equal 12 eighth notes, and that’s what we want. Dorico obediently messes up the bar layout on this staff for the rest of the piece. Don’t panic, we’re going to fix this in a minute. First we select the newly created common time signature and Alt+click it into the other choir staves. Now the first bar looks good.

Of course now from bar two on the bars on the choir staves are real common time bars and therefore too short. This is easily remedied. We just select any note or rest at the start of the second bar and create a new (global) 12/8 time signature. This doesn’t cause any conflicts at all with the anacrusis we defined before. After selecting and hiding the new time signature via the properties panel it only shows up as a signpost and won’t be printed.

Take a second to admire the elegance in how Dorico approaches note values and barlines! Dorico thinks of our music as of a continuous stream of events. We don’t need to care about moving notes from one bar to the next because Dorico just doesn’t think that way. Change a meter and let Dorico do the rest.

That’s it

We’re done. I have no doubts that we will do all of this smoothly with a few key presses in the future. In the meantime I hope that this workaround will be valuable to some of you until Daniel Spreadbury and his fabulous team implement metric modulations between independent time signatures.


  1. Claude Lapalme

    A quick note that this trick also requires a bar number change in the parts with the “upbeat” since bar 1 will now be where bar 2 is on the score. Easy to do, but important!

    1. Philip Rothman

      Claude: Thank you!

    2. Florian Kretlow

      Claude, thank you for this important note! I completely forgot about this.
      Interestingly, both ‘Duo seraphim’ and ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ don’t require a bar number change because Dorico counts a pick-up bar as the first bar when it is longer than a regular bar. Quite smart! My make-do 5/8 example would need a bar number change because the first bar is shorter than a regular 13/16 bar.

  2. Rinaldo

    Thanks for this fun and educational post!

    I have one question: I’m not familiar with this usage of the term “metric modulation.” I know the term only as it has been applied in the music of Elliott Carter and others: as a transition between two passages in different meters, using a common duration to link them. (half note in 3/4 = dotted quarter in the following 4/4, that sort of thing) — a precisely proportional tempo change. I’ve not seen it applied to this sort of simultaneous situation; can you point me toward a source that will educate me about this usage?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Rinaldo: Thanks for your comment! It’s true, the term “metric modulation” typically applies to a change in tempo in a passage and its relationship to the prior passage of music. I suppose we can consider the example in this post a simultaneous metrical relationship? I’m not certain myself if there is a consensus on a universally accepted term here. So, in absence of one, I think Florian’s use of metric modulation is clear, in context of the article.

      1. Rinaldo

        Thanks for the response! I agree that the usage is clear (or became so, once I started reading). It was just that, as a musicologist, I want to be well informed about any new vocabulary that comes into use, and this was new to me.

  3. Manuele

    Hello! Love your blog.

    Can I ask how could you put the figured bass in the Continuo Line? Are those normal text items or you managed to insert something with the fingering feature?
    I’m preparing some harmony courses and it would be awesome if I could do this in Dorico

    1. Florian Kretlow

      Hi Manuele! I input most of the figured bass numbers as lyrics. Figured bass numbers usually appear quite close above the notes and we can’t yet adjust the vertical position of lyrics individually. That’s why I ended up using two different lyric lines and even a few text objects.
      The font is one of my own. I built OpenType position features into it so multiple numbers and accidentals are automatically stacked. This way I don’t need to fiddle with multiple lyric lines when there’s more than one figure above a note. I’m still working on more sophisticated features to avoid collisions between accidentals and I plan to implement braces and brackets and perhaps italic numbers, and a way to stack the numbers ‘downwards’ for figured bass numbers below the staves – it’s very much a work in progress. If you’d like to use it for your harmony courses, feel free to drop me a line!

      1. Manuele

        … now that’s an idea! To use lyrics.

        Well… I’m interested in having a look at it… yeah the Roman numbers are still missing but I guess I can insert something in Illustrator later on…


  4. Waldbaer

    Some really interesting ideas here. I’m still learning in Dorico and many of the well-known faking techniques of other apps don’t work there, so these ideas like infinite anacrusises and the unusual use of tuplets are really helpful to still remain “smarter than Dorico”!

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