Posted by Aaron on April 16, 2010 / Labels: Music
Odd time signatures occur fairly regularly in musical styles geared towards musicians, like jazz and fusion. They give artists in those genres complex and unusual rhythmic canvasas to create music over. Oh, I know what you're thinking. You're saying to yourself "that's all fine and good for jazz, but odd time signatures ain't gonna fly in pop music, pal! Pop is an art form where simplicity is king, and odd rhythms ask way too much of an untrained listener." I contend, however, that every now and then it is possible to use odd time signatures to create a killer pop song. Let’s figure out how. (For an explanation of time-signatures and how they work, go here.)
3/4, or “waltz time”, is the least odd of all the odd time signatures; it’s the nicest looking kid in the ugly family photo. It pops up quite commonly in country and folk songs. "Alcohol" (Brad Paisley), "I’d Love You All Over Again" (Alan Jackson), "Heroes and Friends" ( Randy Travis), "Scarborough Fair" (Simon and Garfunkle), and "Annie’s Song" (John Denver).
It also gets used in many rock and pop ballads, such as "I’m With You" (Avril Levign), and "Open Arms" (Journey). In such tunes the time signature is often disguised as 4/4 by drums that play in a half-time feel. In a two-measure cycle, the kick drum plays on beat one of the first measure, and the snare plays on beat one of the following measure.
Other 3/4 pop songs include "Kiss From a Rose" (Seal), "Manic Depression" (Jimi Hendrix), "Come Away With Me" (Norah Jones), "Daughters" (John Mayer), and "She’s Always a Woman" ( Billy Joel).
Once we move beyond 3/4 things start to get really freaky. Time signatures like 5/4, 7/4, or 9/8 each impart their own sonic stamp on a song. Time signatures with short lengths (5/4, for example) have the strongest flavor. There is no way to get a listener around it – something weird is going on. Those with longer lengths (9/8, 11/8, etc) can sometimes be disguised as 4/4 until the end of each measure, at which time there is a little stutter-step as the beat comes back to the “one”. This can go a long way towards helping listeners feel the groove a little better.
Regardless of the time signature, creativity is the key. Using one just for the sake of being clever is often a mistake. At best it sounds too obvious or contrived, at worst it becomes a distraction. The trick is choosing a time signature that sets up a groove that supports the song’s lyrics and mood. Sting is a master at this. Listen to songs like "Seven Days" (5/4), "I Hung My Head" (9/8), and "I Was Brought to My Senses" (7/8), among many others. Other songs in the super-freak club include "Dreaming in Metaphors" (Seal , 7/8), "The Dreaming Tree" (Dave Mathews, 7/8), and "Nothing Yet" (Tracie Chapman 5/4).
Sometimes one time signature just isn’t enough. Using multiple time signatures within one song raises a whole truckload of interesting possibilities. One thing which can work well is using an odd time signature for a song’s verses, and blasting into 4/4 for the choruses. It sets up a feeling of tension-and-release that can really propel a chorus. Examples of this include "Love is Stronger than Justice" (Sting, 7/4 to 4/4), "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" (The Beatles, 3/4 to 4/4), and "Spoonman" (Soundgarden, 7/4 to 4/4).
A song’s bridge is normally the place for some unexpected plot twist or musical change. As long as you are springing a trap on an unsuspecting listener, why not insert a few bars in a different time signature? "Black Hole Sun" (Soundgarden) is a great example of this. The song is in 4/4, but shifts to 9/8 during the bridge. Another one is "Best I Can" (Queensryche, 4/4 to 7/4).
"I Love Rock and Roll" (Joan Jett) is a great example of a tune that seems very basic, but uses a sneaky shifting time signature to create a monstrous hook. It is a butt-simple 4/4 tune, but at the end of every chorus there is one bar of 3/4 that throws in kind of a stagger-step. Along with the scream that follows it, it is the catchiest hook of the song. Just to make sure you didn't miss it she repeats it several times at the very end of the tune.
Digging the freaky side? Here is more suggested listening:
"All You Need is Love", "Good Morning, Good Morning" – The Beatles
"Black Dog", "The Ocean" - Led Zeppelin
"Freewill" , "Limelight" – Rush
"Money" – Pink Floydd
Still want more? Here you go, you superfreak!
* Photo by kReEsTaL