Unusual Time Signatures in Music
Did anyone catch Radiohead at the grammys a couple years ago? 1 It was your usual stuff — Thom Yorke dancing like a 5-foot praying mantis doing a Prince impression, backed by the UCLA marching band. “Weird!!!” is the first thought that went through my mind, as I’m sure also in yours. “This song has a funny time signature!”
Songs with odd time signatures is a topic that keeps popping up in my life lately, so apparently the muses have deemed it time I write an article on it. If you’ve progressed sufficiently far in understanding music (say, for example, that you made it to the tricky second register on recorder back in elementary school [hint: take yer thumb off the hole on the bottom]), you know by now that most songs you hear on the radio have essentially the same beat to them. Most of the time, you hear a basic 4-beat per measure rhythm, which forms the backbeat of nearly every rock and pop song you hear on the radio. Most artists have about one song per album with (brace for it) three beats per measure instead of four — sometimes these are ballads, usually with a kind of “swing” to them. Your occasional Sousa march, growly thrash metal, or polka-ish alternative song might have two beats per measure. And that’s about it. Except for… there’s that one song made by that progressive (aka pretentious) band that your older brother listened to while playing D&D, where you can’t quite figure out the beat. The song sounds fairly normal, except as you’re tapping your toe to the groove, you find yourself off-beat every few seconds, just about when you think you have the beat figured out. These are the songs that have unusual time signatures — say, *five* beats instead of four in every measure. They’re pretty rare, often done for pretentious show-offiness rather than out of musical necessity, and serve as excellent random trivia that no productive person needs to know. In other words, a perfect topic for TimeBlimp.
One of the most famous examples of a song with an unusual rhythm is Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five“, a jazz song with five beats per measure instead of the usual four. You’ve heard it before, trust me.
It’s an example of the musician making the unusual rhythm blatant, though not quite a gimmick, at least an overt exercise in being different. The melody works well in 5/4 time, very catchy and upbeat, despite it being very difficult to tap your toes along with the beat. It’s the paradigm-setting example of the first of three categories for unusual-time signature songs, which I define as follows: 1) blatant showoffs who make it too obvious, 2) normal-sounding songs with just a hint of oddness in the background, and 3) you never knew it was coming. Let’s walk through some examples in each category…
1) “Look at me, I can count funny!”
These are songs where the unusual rhythm is put at the forefront. One suspects the band decided on the funny time signature before even writing the song. Sometimes the melody is so forced that it becomes blatantly obvious the song didn’t need to be in the funny time signature. Prog-rock and other “intelligent” bands are the most common offenders. If the time signature is somehow included in the name of the song, you know it’s going to be an overforced mess.
Brubeck’s “Take Five” gets a pass in my book, for despite being an overtly funny rhythm, and committing the faux pas of referencing the rhythm in the song title, it was the first in modern music to attempt either of these, and besides it is a catchy tune. I use a more critical eye with Radiohead, who have written songs in 5/4 time (“15 step“, “Morning Bell”, and most despicably, “2+2=5“) as well as 10/4 time (“Go to sleep” and “Everything in its right place“). I know they’re musical geniuses, but I’m now giving fair warning to them: if you guys write a song in 7/4 time and “Seven heaven” or some other shit, I’m officially switching camps over to Coldplay. I’m sorry, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
Other bands whose dabbling in complex rhythms shouldn’t surprise you include Tool, Yes, Genesis (not the “Invisible Touch” crap, but the lamb-lies-down-on-Broadway early crap), and Mr. Bungle. The Grateful Dead apparently have a bunch, which must be part of the appeal to the Dead-Heads following them across country eating McDonald’s ketchup packets for lunch. The Gorillaz did a song in 5/4 called… sigh… “5/4“. Come now! Did I name this website “pretentious nerd who likes to hear himself talk dot com”? No! There’s no need to be that obvious about it!
Wait, did I give Dave Brubeck a pass, a couple paragraphs ago? Not so fast, Brubeck. What’s this I see in your musical catalog? “Eleven Four”, a song in 11/4 time? SHAAAAME…
This being music, there’s no chance of anyone taking this to preposterous levels in the name of musical virtuosity, is there? You bet your sweet ass there is. Consider more obscure bands like Dream Theater, who have written multiple songs in funny time signatures, including some compound signatures where the rhythm changes from measure to measure. As you could imagine, bands with lots of near-mensa IQ’s and a disdain for the pop charts can concoct time signatures so complex not even light can escape. The musical genre “math rock” is known for intentionally pushing the boundaries of rhythm and melody, and odd time signatures are de rigeur among the proponents. And no one gets laid more than a math rocker…
Check out Math Rock standouts Hella and their song “Better Get A Broom!”
2) “Is this song a little funny, or did I have a stroke?”
These include songs where you can tell something’s up, but it’s subtle enough that you figure it must be you. You can’t quite “get” the song, but it sounds normal enough that you don’t catch on to the extra beats right away. Often these are in some abomination like 13/4, with several measures of normal 4/4 time interspersed with an occasional extra beat, so it’s actually a mix of time signatures.
The Beatles have a few of these, which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise. “Here comes the sun” has an absolute train wreck of a time signature, 11/8 + 4/4 + 7/8, but fortunately it’s confined to the bridge — the verses are in your standard everyday 4/4.
“All you need is love” uses 7/4 time in the verses, which sounds like two normal 4/4 measures with one extra beat tacked on — that was my first “what the hell?” song, heard as a kid at the end of the Yellow Submarine animated movie, where I couldn’t quite get a hang of the beat and wondered if I had broken my brain. A more obscure one is Joan Osborne’s “Right Hand Man“, which sounds like a rip roarin bluesy barn burner, except for the extra beat every few measures. I was too distracted to hear the “If God Was One of Us” singer actually belt out a non-annoying song to catch on that the song is in 7/4 time, though I could tell the beat was a little weird.
3) “That was in 9/4 time? Nawww, yer joshin me!”
The folks who get it right, in my opinion, are the ones whose unusual-rhythm songs you don’t even notice. For these songs, the melody naturally required a funky number of beats per measure, and playing the song in standard 4/4 time would have sounded forced. Discovering that a song you know and love is not in 4/4 time is like realizing that not *every* toupee looks like hell — when done right, good toupees and good unusual rhythms aren’t even noticed. (not that I wear one…)
How about Pink Floyd’s “Money“? The one that starts with the cash register noises? It’s not exactly a dance song, but it has a pretty solid groove, so it was a complete surprise to me to hear that it’s in fact in 7/4 time. Try it — next time it pops up on the radio (“94.1 FM, the lunatic fringe of radio! We only play old Aerosmith and Molly Hatchet!”), try counting along to the groove — you’ll find you need to count up to 7 to get yourself aligned right.
And what about Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill“? That little ditty is also in 7/4 time. The melody sounded so natural that I never had any idea — big unusual hat’s off, Mr. Gabriel. Try this: start counting the beat right when the flutes play, and count how many beats it takes for the flute melody to repeat — seven beats!
Other songs that I never suspected, yet hear all the time, include the Allman Bros’ “Whipping Post” (partly in 11/4) and Soundgarden’s “Outshined” and “Spoonman“. Even the Mission Impossible theme, which sounds straightforward but is actually in 5/4 time. It may rival Brubeck’s “Take Five” for the most natural melody for this odd time signature.
Finally, here’s one a bit more contemporary for you kiddies — Outkast’s “Hey Ya“, which was legally required to be played on every radio station 24/7 from 2003 to 2005, is actually in some odd time signature that everyone apparently abbreviates to 11/4 but is actually complex enough to be called “headache-inducing”, which is pretty cool from a hip-hop group who up to that point didn’t play instruments.
1. The year is 2009, in case I get really lazy and leave this article up for seven more years with no updates.