Everyone knows a good beat when you hear it. Your foot starts tapping. Your head starts bobbing. You can feel the groove.
Most pop music is written to get people dancing and moving to the music. It’s written to be catchy, easy to listen to, easy to fall in love with, memorable. It’s accessible.
A lot of this accessibility is due to what’s called the time signature. Most pop music is written in one of 4 time signatures (4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 6/8). I won’t delve too much into the difference between them because it’s hard to describe them without going into a lot of stuff about music and how it’s written. My goal with this is to get you to understand the difference between these common time signatures and some of the more uncommon ones in the playlist above.
Odd time signatures are beats made with odd numbers. If you tap to the beat of any of your favorite pop songs you’ll likely notice that it follows a pattern. If you can count to 4 over and over again to the beat you just discovered that the song is in 4/4. But with odd time signatures it can be difficult to predict when a new measure begins. That’s because odd time signatures come in flavors like 5/4, 7/4, 11/8, 13/8 etc. It would seem easy to count to 7 seven over and over again to get the time signature, but musicians are often tricky when they write songs in odd time signatures. Take for instance You by Radiohead. The song is in 6 . . . for the most part. The song follows a pattern of six except for one exception. If you were to count out the measures the song goes 6 | 6 | 6 | 5. So the last measure of that phrase sounds like it got cut short. If you’re trying to dance along to the music it’ll feel like you got the rug pulled out from under you. What was once predictable and groovy is now still groovy but a little bit wonky and lopsided.
Even when artists write in 7/4, it’s pretty easy to count to seven, but they often make it feel like it’s switching back and forth between to different time signatures. With 7/4 you can play it like it’s two measures, one with 4 beats and one with 3, or 3 and 4, or 2 and 3 and 2, or any other variation you can think of. So when you’re trying to tap along to the beat it can throw you for a loop depending on how they’ve organized the beats.
A good example of this lopsidedness is The Mad Hatter Rides Again. When you listen to it, it will seem a little bit off kilter, and you might have a hard time finding the down beat (the first beat in a measure). That’s because it’s written in 17/8. It follows a beat pattern of 4 | 4 | 4 | 5. When you’re listening you might not even like it, and that’s OK, no offense taken. But hopefully you can recognize the skill it takes to write and play.
What’s fun with these tunes is finding what time signature it’s in just by listening. Some of the songs are hard just to count along to, for instance try to figure out what time signature Seven Minute Mind is. Good luck.
Time signatures like these are really difficult to play. You really have to be paying attention because it feels like there are one too many or not enough beats, it feels odd, like trying to walking with a limp.
But not all of them are weird like this. Sting has written a number of songs in odd time signatures that you might not even notice are odd. Take Love Is Stronger Than Justice. The song is in 7/4, but the way it’s written and played it makes it seem almost normal. Unless you’re paying attention to the time signature you might not even notice that something is off about the music. The same goes with Espera, Four Sticks, and Seven Days. They are all in odd time signatures, but are not difficult to listen to.
Part of my goal with this playlist was just to, hopefully, help people realize that there are quite a few popular songs with odd time signatures. My other goal was to show you some of my favorite tunes with odd time signatures. They are hard to write and play, but they can be really fun.
As you’re listening to the playlist above consider it a listening challenge. I’ve written out some of the time signatures below (along with how they separate the beats, although there’s a lot of room for different interpretations on some of them), as you’re listening try to count along and recognize where the beats change.
Feel free to chime in with comments below. What do you like/not like? What songs do you like that have odd time signatures?
The Mad Hatter Rides Again – 4 | 4 | 4 | 5 (or 17/4)
You – Radiohead – 6 | 6 | 6 | 5 (these are entire measures, not beats, so this is an example of multiple time signatures)
Winsome – The Moth and the Flame – 4 | 5 | (can also think of it as 4 | 3 | 2 or just 9)
Four Sticks – Verse in 5/4 (with an occasional 6/4) | Chorus 6/4
Times Like These – Intro 7/4 (this theme comes back as a segue into other sections)
Heavy Resin | 11 (counted as 6 | 5 )
Take 5, Mars, Seven Days | 5/4
Espera, Love Is Stronger Than Justice, Saint Augustine in Hell | 7/4
solo section in Paranoid Android goes back and forth between 7/4 and 4/4.