Odd Time Signatures Made Easy!

Keeping Time

A piece of music cannot be appreciated without the passage of time. In fact, music as a sonic entity does not exist in any spatial dimension (the physical aspects that go into the creation of music have dimensions; i.e. instruments, vibrating air, recording equipment, CDs, speakers, sound waves, etc.); Melodies take time to move from note to note; chords progressions take time to move from chord to chord; timbres take time to evolve from attack to decay. Music and time go together hand in hand which is why keeping time in a musical piece is so important.

Technically speaking, there are three different musical characteristics that define how to keep time in a musical piece: rhythm, meter, and tempo. Tempo defines how fast or slow a song is played, the common unit of measurement being beats per minute. Rhythm is not so easily defined and shall be discussed later. Meter, however, is the topic that I wish to talk about because it is easily understood yet most non-musicians haven't a clue how valuable a concept it is to fully appreciate music.

For all intents and purposes, the concepts of meter and time signature represent the same thing. Roughly speaking, about 98% of musical pieces ever composed have a 4/4 time signature. The top number of the time signature represents how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number represents the note duration value of each beat (4/4 means that each measure has four quarter notes per measure). This is the most common time signature perhaps because it is a very natural, square way of counting. Most rock beats, and nearly every single rap, disco, funk, and dance beat ever created is in 4/4 time because it is the most conducive time signature for dancing, grooving, and shaking your money maker.

Another popular time signature is 3/4 time meaning there are only three quarter notes in each measure. Most commonly known as the defining characteristic of a waltz, 3/4 time is also used in country western ballads, rock songs, and various other genres usually for artistic variety and effect.

Just as squares and triangles are the most basic shapes of geometry or 0 and 1 are the basic characters of binary code, counts of 2 and 3 are the most basic counting units for keeping time in music. (Important: I say 2 instead of 4 because 4 beats can be reduced to two counts of 2 beats each.) All possible time signatures can be expressed as a certain combination of these basic units and this is how understanding complex time signatures can be easier than you think.

Placement of time signature in Western musical notation.
Placement of time signature in Western musical notation.

Odd Time Signatures

As you can imagine, using one or two different time signatures all the time might get boring or limit creativity. Combining and adding to conventional time signatures forming compound or odd time signatures is another way of expanding the limits of musical expression. Avant-garde genres such as jazz and progressive rock utilize odd time signatures frequently. These genres often fly above and beyond the normal confines of popular or folk music as opposed to conforming to what is generally accepted in popular culture.

Understanding Odd Time Signatures: Step by Step

1. Begin by selecting some of your favorite songs, preferably ones with a simple but prominent drum beat, ie: Back in Black by AC/DC, Walk This Way by Aerosmith, Running With The Devil by Van Halen (Sorry, I just really like hard rockin' classics; choose something simple from your personal collection if these songs aint your cup of chowder).

2. Start listening to a favorite song of yours and focus on the drums. In most songs, the bass drum accents the first beat or downbeat of each measure. This is when you would begin counting, hence it is also commonly referred to as the "one" as in "ONE... TWO... THREE... FOUR". Each of these is a quarter note and there are 4 of them, thus 4/4. The snare drum hit usually falls on the third beat or the "three". All the while, the high hat is hit every beat in the measure to keep steady time and tempo: "ONE... TWO... THREE... FOUR". This is an example of the most basic beat in music: the rock beat.

A drummer can be musically expressive by changing and mutating a simple drum beat. I mean that if you add another bass drum hit here and a snare drum hit there or make the existing snare drum hit come an eighth note sooner, the beat changes dramatically and the listener can feel the change even if they do not recognize exactly what is going on. Throughout a piece, a drummer can even mutate the beat to be more complex or heavy, pushing the piece to the climactic ending. All potential variants of the beat are called rhythms because they change the feel of the piece and do not necessarily change the tempo or the time signature. All popular genres of music including reggae, rock, disco, punk, hip-hop, soul, folk, etc. have songs in the 4/4 time signature but the rhythm is different for each. You could go as far as saying that rhythm is the primary musical characteristic that defines a genre.

3. Count each beat out loud and the numbers "ONE... TWO... THREE... FOUR" will begin to associate with the respective beats in the song. NOTE: For some people, time signatures are easier to recognize and follow when using fingers to count as well as saying the numbers out loud. This way of counting may seem like second grade math but after you get accostomed to counting beats, you will begin to do this almost automatically in your head. This is the goal because eventually, you want to be able to feel when a song has an odd time signature.

For songs in 4/4 time, naturally, you would count "ONE... TWO... THREE... FOUR..." but in order to properly analyze many of these songs, it is helpful to double the amount of percieved beats in a measure to 8 instead of 4. Now we will count "ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and". This is how we count eighth notes. In fact, you can further subdivide the beat into sixteenth notes (ONE-e-and-a-TWO-e-and-a-THREE-e-and-a-FOUR-e-and-a) and 32nd notes and so on. As you do this counting the song becomes exhausting and difficult to do out loud but this concept demonstrates that a 4/4 beat can have infinite rhythmic possibilities.

Works In Odd Time Signatures Disected

Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel

Adding 3/4 time to 4/4 time, you would get 7/4 which happens to be the time signature of (the majority of) the Peter Gabriel song, Solsbury Hill. There is a bass drum pulse occurring on each of the seven beats per measure for accentuation while the acoustic guitar provides a beautiful, slightly syncopated accompaniment. In the introduction, it is easier to count the 7 as a grouping of 3 then 4 but when the vocals come in, it is the opposite and it makes more sense to count 4 and then 3. More specifically, the verse begins with three chords and a count of 4 quarter notes then the words "climbing up on Solsbury Hill" begin on the 5th beat. Interestingly, the word "Hill" is on the 1st beat of the following measure. Ignoring the bottom number of time signatures for a moment, adding one more beat to each measure of Solsbury Hill would have made complete musical sense because it would then be 8/4 (reduced to two measures of 4/4) and the word "Hill" would have landed on the 8th (or 4th) beat; perfectly acceptable but not nearly as cool as how Mr. Gabriel did it.

Interestingly, at the end of each chorus with the lyrics "'Son,' he said 'Grab your things, I've come to take you home,'" there are two measures of 4/4 as opposed to one measure of 7/4. Coupled with the beautiful finality of the corresponding lyrics, this temporary time signature change gives the song a sense of release by filling in the missing beat as discussed above.

Money by Pink Floyd

This song is in 7/4 time as well and is was the hit single off of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd's most influential work and one of the most influential musical pieces in the 20th century. The song begins with a sample of a cash register "cha-ching" and then a loop of 7 different money related sound samples, each occurring at one of the 7 beats in the measure. Then the bass comes in with the main riff of the song (arguably the best riff in all of odd-time-signature-dom). Counting each beat in this song is fairly simple because the beat is slow, deliberate, and made painfully obvious that it is abnormal. Knowing a bit of Pink Floyd history and their ideology, I believe that the odd timing is supposed to represent the crooked, ugly side of people that is greed. Whatever the interpretation, the odd time signature in this song gives it a most peculiar and interesting sound.

To count this song, you can count each beat ONE through SEVEN or split it up into groups of 3 and 4 like I did in Solsbury Hill. Money is best split into a group of 3 beats then 4, sounding like this: ONE TWO THREE ONE TWO THREE FOUR. Because this beat is swung, each quarter note is subdivided into three eighth notes as opposed to just two eighth notes. These three eighth notes are called triplets and you would count them in this song like this: ONE 2 3 TWO 2 3 THREE 2 3 ONE 2 3 TWO 2 3 THREE 2 3 FOUR 2 3. Notice, in that first bass riff of Money, that there is one note hit on each beat except for the first "TWO" which has two notes.The two bass notes within the second beat fall on the 1st and 3rd triplet subdivision (the 1st triplet being a stronger beat and the 3rd triplet a weaker beat) which is common in swing rhythms.

Just like Solsbury Hill, Money changes time signature from 7/4 to 4/4 during the saxophone solo section. The drums do not change tempo but each triplet eighth note is accentuated by the ride cymbal meaning thicker drum texture and the illusion of a faster paced drum beat. This is the most "hectic" part of the song even though the time signature is an even 4/4 as opposed to a crooked 7/4. This interpretation is the opposite of Solsbury Hill in which the beat evens out conveying closure, peace, and going "home"; this further demonstrates the importance of rhythmic variations in music.

ASIDE: Not to rub it in too hard, but Peter Gabriel was originally in the band Genesis which happens to be one of the top most influential Progressive Rock bands of all time, alongside Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, and the Moody Blues. It is within this small group of bands that many of the most interesting musical ideas from the Classical and Romantic era were able to survive and be utilized in future genres like fusion, metal, electronica, and even some popular music.

All You Need Is Love by the Beatles

After the "La Marseillaise" introduction (French national anthem) the song begins with the famed Beatles mantra: "Love . . . love . . . love." The first two measures of the song are in 7/4 and can be counted as 4/4 then 3/4 in alternating succession. On the third repete of the "love" phrase, there is a switch from 7/4 to 8/4 (or 2 measures of 4/4). Remember, music can be conceptualized in different ways depending on preference or ease of understanding. If it is easier to subdivide measures of 7/4 into two measures of different beat values (4/4 and 3/4 or vice versa) that is just as "correct" as seeing it as just one big measure of 7 beats. The last big measure in this opening sequence immediately following the 8/4 measure returns to 7/4. In a nutshell this section, which is identical to the verse structure, is counted as follows: 7/4 - 7/4 - 8/4 - 7/4.

In the chorus, the time signature "evens out" and is counted as follows: 8/4 - 8/4 - 8/4 - and here comes the kicker . . . 6/4! People often cite the Beatles as Pop revolutionaries but it should be duly noted that they were also very progressive at times, frequently breaking musical norms and rejecting conventional musical thought.

Mike Portnoy and Odd Time Signatures

List of Works with Odd Time Signatures

DISCUSSED ABOVE:

Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel - 7/4 (4/4)

Money by Pink Floyd - 7/4 (4/4)

All You Need Is Love by The Beatles - 7/4 (4/4)

ROCK:

Apocalypse in 9/8 by Genesis - 9/8

15 Step by Radiohead - 5/4

2+2=5 by Radiohead - 7/8 (4/4)

Outshined by Soundgarden - 7/4

Them Bones by Alice in Chains - 7/8 (4/4)

Living in the Past by Jethro Tull - 5/4

JAZZ:

Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet - 5/4

Eleven Four by The Dave Brubeck Quartet - 11/4

Unsquare Dance by The Dave Brubeck Quartet - 7/4

Blue Rondo a la Turk by The Dave Brubeck Quartet - 9/8 or (2+2+2+3)/8

CLASSICAL:

Pathetique Symphony, Movement 2 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - 5/4

Mars, the Bringer of War from The Planets by Gustav Holst - 5/4

OTHER:

Mission: Impossible Theme by Boris Claudio "Lalo" Schifrin - 5/4

Comments 31 comments

raymar 8 years ago

i cant find here a musical piece with 34 time signature


Sorry 7 years ago

It's 'Intents, and purposes'.


Alyson 7 years ago

is there a song that has 4/4 time signature by archuleta, david?


Febs 6 years ago

Wow this page is very informative and beautifully made. Congratulations.


Blake 6 years ago

What about Rush? They use weird time signatures for almost all of their songs.


lol 6 years ago

august burns red!


mitzi 6 years ago

what song can i defined into the 4/4 time signature?


how??? 6 years ago

how could you not mention tool? schism is so complicated, this from wikipedia:

Schism is renowned for its use of uncommon time signatures and the frequency of its meter changes. In one analysis of the song, the song alters meter 47 times.[4] The song begins with one measure of 5/4, followed by 21 measures of alternating 5/8 and 7/8, until the first interlude, which consists of one bar of 13/8, three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 10/8 (This can be also interpreted as four 13/8 bars, but played with a 3/8 upbeat).

The following verse is eight bars of 6/4, which is then followed by an interlude that repeats the pattern of the first. The next section is four bars of 6/4 followed by one bar of 11/8. Another eight-bar verse in 6/4 follows, followed by another interlude, except the final 10/8 bar is replaced with an 11/8 bar.

This introduces the middle section, which consists of four bars of 7/4, before moving into a pattern of alternating one bar each of 12/8 and 15/8, repeated twelve times. Following this, there are three bars of 4/4, one bar of 2/4, and four bars of 4/4 setting up another section, which is two bars of 9/8 followed by a bar of 10/8, that pattern again, a single bar of 9/8 followed by a 13/8 bar. This leads to an alternating set of 9/8 and 5/8, appearing four times before a bar of 9/8 and a bar of 6/8. This leads to the 'outro' section, which has a 6/4 meter for eight bars, followed by eight bars of 4/4 to end the song. The band has comically said that the song is in "6.5/8".


george foreman (not!) 6 years ago

schism? awesome song, but if ur gonna mention anything crazy, hit up "the dance of eternity" by dream theater. the time signature in that thing changes over a hundred times in 7 minutes.


Phil Taylor 6 years ago

Don't forget Jeff Wayne's "Thunder Child" on WOTW - time signature is 7/4 to get that rolling at sea feel.


john 6 years ago

dont forgrt the mars voltas vismund cygnus with its 29/16 break


dan 5 years ago

or Project 100 by Infected Mushroom


christopher 5 years ago

I've also heard the Mission Impossible theme described as 10/8 (3+3+2+2).


Andrew 5 years ago

Yeah, August Burns Red. Seriously.


Andrew 5 years ago

I'd freakin' LOVE someone to do a break down of some August Burns Red music. Does that exist out there? I'd love for someone to break it down. Almost all their songs have a sprinkling of asymmetrical meter. They way they use it so interesting. Sometimes, they'll sprinkle it in for a minute to confuse you, and then pull back to 4/4

Really interesting. I'd love to read an analysis from someone who really gets meter better than I do.


splitnag 4 years ago

Meshuggah is a great bang with some very odd and alternating time signatures.Highly recommended.


Bob Scott 4 years ago

How about "Just Walk Away Renee". I come up with 18 bar verses and an intro, but it feels like an extra bar is added after the first verse.

I also believe the instrumental intro, repeated as an interlude, on Cream's "White Room" is a slow 5/4 with a standard 4/4 for the rest of the son.

Is "Good Morning, Good Morning" actually an example of hemiola in rock? I count count the changing meters, but I feel I can also count them over 4 in places. I guess hemiola is 3:2 but there seems to be some kind of field.


Bob Scott 4 years ago

I should add "Just Walk Away Renee" is not a weird meter. It's a weird son form. Definitely not a a 32-bar or a 12-bar form although it is counted in 4


meh 4 years ago

I just found this site, very cool


Dipak 4 years ago

Craziest time signature yet, "Coily" by the Ozric Tentacles. Youtube it.

17/16 baby.


Mark 4 years ago

Animals as Leaders, Gru, and TRAM. I'm trying to learn a few of their songs on the drums.


Carl 4 years ago

Please can anyone help with Herbie Hancock and "Actual Proof"...

I can't quite work that one out..!


thomas 4 years ago

"Actual Proof" is almost entirely in 4/4 (although the drum pattern seems to play every note but the beat!)

For the theme the real book gives twelve bars of 4/4 followed by a 5/4 + 4/4 + 3/4 turnaround.


joshua bakla 4 years ago

what is the dance inb 4/4


Kal 4 years ago

What about "Pyramid Song" by radiohead? It's a swung 3/4 +3/4+3/4+3/4+4/4. And morning bell from Kid A which is in 5/4.


Lú 4 years ago

"First Circle" by Pat Metheny Group is in 22/8


ferfortSomo 3 years ago

I helpful to obtain high on lifestyle yet as of late We've established any resistance.


Mylindaminka 3 years ago

Резкое падение несущей способности сжатого стержня было отмечено еще Карманом, которым получены диаграммы. Для идеального упруго-пластического материала кривая зависимости между критическим напряжением и гибкостью представляет гиперболу Эйлера до предела текучести и горизонтальную прямую на пределе текучести. Эта кривая дает сильно завышенные значения для средних гибкостей по сравнению с кривой Энгессера — Ясинского. Такая кривая может быть получена для сталей, имеющих весьма высокий предел пропорциональности и хорошо выраженную площадку текучести (например, для сталей, имеющих «зуб» текучести).


stimoceiver 2 years ago

grateful dead - the eleven (11/8)


Jordan 2 years ago

"Rabbit" - this town needs guns

It alternates a few times between 10/4 and 13/4, but most of it is in 10/4

"Chinchilla" - this town needs guns

Switches between 5/4, 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, and 6/4

"Crocodile" - this town needs guns

Also largely in 10/4

"26 is dancier than 4" - this town needs guns

Is in 26/8 time

"Baboon" - this town needs guns

Mostly in 23/4, with some meters of 4/4

"Panda" - this town needs guns

17/4 with some 3/4

Yeah, this town needs guns love their weird time signatures.

Now to get really wacky:

"No. 41b" by Conlon Nancarrow is in

1/³√π/³√13/16 time, and I'm not even joking, look it up.


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