Odd Time Signatures

Watch an edited video that was originally stream live on this same topic.

Odd time signatures

What’s the deal with odd time signatures?

Most western (aka occidental) music is metrically even or square with two or four beats per measure (2/4 or 4/4 meters). Odd time signatures have an uneven number of beats per measure.

Odd time signatures have actually been around a long time and are particularly common to the Balkan folk dancing and music in the Austria-Hungary region.



 

What is an odd time signature you probably already play?

Waltz time (3/4 meter) is an odd time signature!

Let's compare the ways in which this three-to-the measure meter is felt in different styles and time periods.

Baroque - The beats in 18th century pieces such as a Bach Minuet or Invention are more or less all equally stressed.

Bach Minuet

Bach Minuet

Bach Invention

Bach Invention

Classical waltzes - The first beat is typically weighted (BOOM chick chick) such as in Johann Strauss's famous Blue Danube Waltz,

 
On the Beautiful Danube - Johann Strauss

On the Beautiful Danube - Johann Strauss

 

 Jazz waltzes - The measures are freely divided in groups of two beats (hemiola) or three beats (typical waltz) creating an effect of mixing duple and triple meters.

Jazzed up Skater’s Waltz

Jazzed up Skater’s Waltz

Hemiola with 3 beats on top and 2 beats on the bottom.

Hemiola with 3 beats on top and 2 beats on the bottom.

Fives

The 5/4 meter became a part of the jazz sound in the 1960's with such tunes such as Take Five written by saxophonist Paul Desmond for the Dave Brubeck Quartet or the Mission Impossible Theme by Lalo Schifrin.

Take Five bass line

Take Five bass line

 
Mission Impossible bass line

Mission Impossible bass line

My best tip for playing odd time signatures

Divide the measure into parts. For example, the most common way to divide 5/4 is to feel it as 123 12 as in Take Five or Mission Impossible with the first half of the measure longer than the second half.  

 

Sevens

Quarter note sevens

A 7/4 time signature is actually rather rare. One of the best-known examples is the Pink Floyd's Money which is laid out clearly in the bassline.

 
Money bass line

Money bass line

Eighth note sevens, nines, elevens..

Odd time signatures with an 8 in the denominator are more common than those with a 4 on the bottom. Eighth-note-based odd time signatures can be divided in all kinds of ways.

Examples:

Bela Bartok's 7/8 Mikrokosmos Vol. 6 #149 is subdivided 2 2 3.

Dave Brubeck's 9/8 Blue Rondo à la Turk is subdivided 2 2 2 3.

The band Rush's 7/8 Tom Sawyer written by Geddy Lee alternates 16th note subdivisions 2 2 3 - 3 2 2 in each measure.

Bela Bartok -  Mikrokosmos Vol. 6 #149

Bela Bartok - Mikrokosmos Vol. 6 #149

Dave Brubeck -  Blue Rondo à la Turk

Dave Brubeck - Blue Rondo à la Turk

 
Geddy Lee -  Tom Sawyer .

Geddy Lee - Tom Sawyer.

To ponder

Do meters reflect our own bodies?

It's been said that we humans relate tempos to our breathing and heartbeat. So, a slow tempo seems calm because it reflects our slow breathing and heart rate when we are calm. On the other hand, when we are excited or exerting ourselves, our breath and heart rate are faster which may explain why quicker tempos feel more exhilarating.

If this is true it raises questions:
Is our perception of time signatures similarly influenced by our bodily experience of the world?
Do we respond to square meters because we walk in even time and are symmetrically built?
Is it significant that our heartbeats seem to be in a 3/4 meter? 

Until next time, enjoy your creative music making journey!

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