Odd Time Signatures (lesson)

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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:


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:


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!