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Odd Time Signatures Made Easy!
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.
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
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)
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
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
Pathetique Symphony, Movement 2 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - 5/4
Mars, the Bringer of War from The Planets by Gustav Holst - 5/4
Mission: Impossible Theme by Boris Claudio "Lalo" Schifrin - 5/4