Time 101, Part 3 - Odd Time Signatures
Andrew Cockburn
Mar 18 2007, 08:00 PM
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Odd Time Signatures


In an earlier lesson (here) we discussed timing and time signatures (here) and how to understand them. The vast majority of songs are written in even simple and complex times such as the ever popular 4/4. 6/8 and 12/8 are used a lot for slower ballad types of songs, and 3/4 is the time signature used for grandiose Strausian waltzes.

But there is a darker side to time signatures – odd time. An odd time signature is simply a time signature in which the top number (number of beats in the bar) is odd. Examples of this would be 5/4 – made famous by Dave Brubeck in “Take 5”, or Pink Floyds “Money” which is mostly in 7/4 (although Dave Gilmour cheats in his solo as the song switches to an easier to play over 4/4 timing). 3/4 timing, although technically odd, is so common and easy to play that it doesn’t really qualify as odd in the same sense that 5/4 or 7/4 would.

In general, odd time signatures are harder to play than even; you always seem to be brought up short by the sudden transition to a new bar, but it is this oddness that make riffs based on odd time signatures really jump out at you and provide a sense of drive and urgency to the song. I think it’s fair to say that it takes a reasonably accomplished band to play a track in an odd time well, and most bands probably never attempt it, but there are many excellent exponents of this technique, particularly in Jazz, and also in the upper echelons of guitar players. Composing a song in an odd time signature is a great way to create something different.

How does it work?

Okay, so how does this stuff actually work? To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how time signatures give a sense of rhythm. It is good practice to start to think of beats grouped in 2s, or in 3s. They are grouped by emphasizing one of the beats, so you get a strong beat followed by a weak beat. So the beats in:

4/4 time are - 1 Strongest, 2 weak, 3 strong, 4 weak.

3/4 time are - 1 Strong, 2 weak, 3 weak.

2/4 time are - 1 Strong, 2 weak.

It's important in music to get a feeling of how rhythmical accents like this sound, and what you can do with them. Then you can begin to understand how rhythms with irregular numbers of beats, like 5, 7, and 11 work.

Here's how

Let's look at 5 beats per bar – probably the most common odd time signature. Remember that beats are generally grouped by 2s and 3s. So 5 beats per bar works in either of two ways. 2 beats, followed by 3, or 3 beats followed by 2.

Here is a score in 5/8 time:

Attached Image

A couple of things to note here: Firstly, since we are in 5/8 we are expecting to see five 8th notes in each bar, and that is indeed what we see. Also notice that every other bar has five 8th notes worth of rests to make that bar completely silent (made up of a half note rest and an additional 8th note rest. The half note rest is equivalent to four 8th notes of course).

If you concentrate on the higher C note, you start to get a feeling of the "off beat" feeling, of short long, short long. You should be able to feel that rhythmically in this piece we are building our 5/8 timing out of a group of 2 beats, followed by a group of 3 beats.

Seven Beats

If the time signature is 7 beats, we would have two groups of 2, and one of 3. So 7 beats per bar can work in 3 ways:

2 beats, 2 beats, 3 beats

2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats

3 beats, 2 beats, 2 beats.

Let’s look at an example of 7/8 timing:

Attached Image

We are showing all 3 variations in order here. As you can see, music like this needs a strong sense of melody to clearly show which variation it is. In this case we are clearly marking the divisions with repeating notes. In a more complex melody it becomes harder to figure out. The good news is that with practice you will just feel the groove of the beat and you won’t be forever counting to 3 and 4.

So what about 11 beats? Well if you have gotten this far, I'll leave for you to figure out how many simple variations there are on that.

Final Word

For a more concrete example of Odd time signatures, check out Gabriel’s amazing John Petrucci Style Lesson here.

The riff is in 7/4 time, meaning that there are seven quarter beats to the bar. I count this as 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 as this seems to fit in best with the accenting of the main bass riff, but the goal here is when you have understood the timing just to feel the music and flow with it – practice is essential here to get used to the qualities of the odd timing.

Ok, well that’s it for now – as always, feedback and questions are welcome!

Significant parts of this lesson were taken and edited with permission from Tank’s Time Signature lesson here – Thanks Tank!

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radarlove1984
Mar 18 2007, 10:15 PM
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Wow... you've been busy! The last time I checked in here, there were no new updates. 5 days later, you've got your own section in the forum and 4 new lessons.

Damn! Keep up the good work!


This is going to take me close to a week to sort through and learn all this stuff!


As always, thanks for doing these lessons.

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Kristofer Dahl
Mar 18 2007, 10:33 PM
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Yes this awesome!
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Andrew Cockburn
Mar 18 2007, 10:51 PM
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QUOTE (Kristofer Dahl @ Mar 18 2007, 05:33 PM) *
Yes this awesome!
----------------------------------------
NEWS TO EVERYBODY:

The posts of this board can be rated (upper right corner). Make sure to give it a shot and let us know what you thought about the lesson! biggrin.gif

Kris


Thanks guys :-) I'd also like to draw your attention to the small print at the bottom of the lesson - Tank generously allowed me to take content from his earlier lesson which allowed me to get this series up a lot quicker to match in with Gabriels lesson which was the aim all along. So thanks to Tank are due as well!

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Kristofer Dahl
Mar 18 2007, 11:34 PM
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I am glad to see you are collaborating with forum and theory veteran Tank! biggrin.gif

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mattacuk
May 5 2007, 06:20 PM
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Andrew! biggrin.gif I am not sure what you mean when you say beats are grouped in two's or three's? smile.gif

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mysql> SELECT * FROM master_name WHERE ((firstname = 'Paul') AND (lastname = 'Gilbert'));


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Andrew Cockburn
May 5 2007, 08:42 PM
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QUOTE (mattacuk @ May 5 2007, 01:20 PM) *
Andrew! biggrin.gif I am not sure what you mean when you say beats are grouped in two's or three's? smile.gif


Its a way of simplifying the counting for longer bars.

So, for 7 beats to a bar you could count it as 1234567 - that can be hard, so sometimes it is easier to break it down into a couple of smaller numbers - 2's and 3's and 4's generally work best, so to get those same 7 beats you could count 123,1234, or you could count 12,12,123 - it kind of depends on how the beat of the song works, and one of the many combinations will seem the most natural.

For 6 beats, it is often easiest to count in 2 groups of 3 - 123,123.

For 5 beats, a 3 and a 2 works - 12,123, or 123,12.

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mattacuk
May 5 2007, 09:35 PM
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QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ May 5 2007, 08:42 PM) *
Its a way of simplifying the counting for longer bars.

So, for 7 beats to a bar you could count it as 1234567 - that can be hard, so sometimes it is easier to break it down into a couple of smaller numbers - 2's and 3's and 4's generally work best, so to get those same 7 beats you could count 123,1234, or you could count 12,12,123 - it kind of depends on how the beat of the song works, and one of the many combinations will seem the most natural.

For 6 beats, it is often easiest to count in 2 groups of 3 - 123,123.

For 5 beats, a 3 and a 2 works - 12,123, or 123,12.


I understand, thankyou. BTW, the Theory Section has inspired me to take a Grade 1 theory exam! biggrin.gif My Live teacher is going to arrange it for a few months time.

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Andrew Cockburn
May 5 2007, 11:24 PM
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QUOTE (mattacuk @ May 5 2007, 04:35 PM) *
I understand, thankyou. BTW, the Theory Section has inspired me to take a Grade 1 theory exam! biggrin.gif My Live teacher is going to arrange it for a few months time.


Woohoo! I'm impressed! Good luck cool.gif

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GroovinMastiff
May 30 2007, 11:14 PM
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Hey Andrew!
Thanks for writing a section on odd times. I have a bunch of music theory books, and although they have helped me in many aspects, none of them talked about odd time signatures. I have always wondered why bother to compose in these weird times, but now it makes a lot more sense.
The tricky part now is to try and apply what you talked about. tongue.gif

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Andrew Cockburn
May 31 2007, 02:26 AM
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QUOTE (GroovinMastiff @ May 30 2007, 06:14 PM) *
Hey Andrew!
Thanks for writing a section on odd times. I have a bunch of music theory books, and although they have helped me in many aspects, none of them talked about odd time signatures. I have always wondered why bother to compose in these weird times, but now it makes a lot more sense.
The tricky part now is to try and apply what you talked about. tongue.gif


Glad you enjoyed it, and good luck! Start with 5/4 - that's probably the easiest odd time to get a feel for ...

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ThatGuy
Dec 15 2007, 01:58 PM
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Well. Thanks to you Andrew.
I started writing my first song using odd time signatures. And you have helped a lot.

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Muris Varajic
Dec 15 2007, 02:17 PM
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Great post Andrew!! smile.gif

Not sure how I missed it before,5 stars from me wink.gif
Love odd times and you explained it beautifully here!!

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Vinod Saranga
Dec 15 2007, 02:33 PM
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Great post Andrew,
When I was learning oriental music,I came up with variouse rythems that cannot be described by western notation.But you have done it.Great Job
5 Stars smile.gif

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Andrew Cockburn
Dec 16 2007, 01:20 AM
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Thanks guys smile.gif

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RIP Dime
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4/4 time are - 1 Strongest, 2 weak, 3 strong, 4 weak.

3/4 time are - 1 Strong, 2 weak, 3 weak.

2/4 time are - 1 Strong, 2 weak.

I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you mean here. I would think that if you were in 4/4 time playing strait 16th notes you would accent 4 times, one strong note followed by 3 weak notes x4. unsure.gif

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Andrew Cockburn
Mar 9 2008, 12:01 PM
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Its all about the grouping, which is a slightly artificial way to underrstand the timing. When you are trying to make sense of 4/4 vs 3/4, it helps to vizualize it in the way I described. When you are working in 16ths, you are past that basic problem, and again, grouping the 16ths in 4s helps you with that. The emphasis in both cases doesn;t really mean anything musically, it is a mechanism to help you understand the timing, and you can apply it in different ways depending on what exactly you are working on.

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777-HAIRMETAL4HI...
May 28 2008, 07:08 PM
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This lesson is great, i am at my school in the library taking notes on paper about this lesson!!!!! laugh.gif
GREAT LESSON

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Andrew Cockburn
May 29 2008, 12:32 AM
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Glad it helped smile.gif

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