An Oddball Speaks of Odd Meters

All musicians should be familiar with unconventional time signatures, and bands like Radiohead, The Frames, the Gorillaz, and so forth have shown that this is not just for practice, but these are truly relevant time signatures in today’s desperate music scene. The more you listen, the more you’ll internalize, and the more your audience will appreciate the variety. I had a great time listening around to songs in quintuple and septuple times today, and will share a few shortly, but a quick thing about the really fun ones first.

There are plenty of songs in far crazier meters than seven and five. Some of them are cheating, though, i.e., if your song is in 10/4, it’s almost certainly just 4/4 to 4/4 to 2/4. Which is totally awesome, I’m just saying, it’s not really the same thing (yes, I’m looking at you, Thom).

There are also the crazy something/8 bars, which will always remain close to my heart even if they’re never really convincing as a groove or jam. Even the Grateful Dead’s The Eleven is only slightly more brilliant than it is obnoxious. Bela Bartok has some pretty great folk rhythms he uses, including super heady (to our Western ears) gypsy groupings in 8/8 like 3-2-3, 3-3-2, etc. These will blow your mind and probably also annoy it. My pianist friends would be the first to admit his Six Bulgarian Dances are more fun to play than listen to.

Moving on: This song’s got a wicked little jump, which convinces the odd meter by nothing short of brilliant, ingenius, leading-humanity-on-to-the-promised-land conga playing. It is actually in seven, not in some repeated rotation of 4+3, but manages to maintain accessibility despite all the jazziness.

My next pick is a very palatable five, which sounds like 6/8 to 2/4 (another example of the same grouping would be the Mission: Impossible theme, as opposed to the 3+2 in a little track called Take Five). This song is beautiful, and I chose it in part because the lyrics actually back up the choice for 5/4, which has a perpetual unfinished feel. It always makes me think of a blob lurching forward, plopping down, then lurching forward again. Howard Shore apparently has the same issue with trolls marching.

You can also look up this medley of Jim Hession/Unsquare Dance Pussy Wiggle Stomp, which does the more conventional 4+3, and just for laughs here’s Dream Theater’s ridiculously proggy Erotomania, which according to Wikipedia starts out “5/4 + 5/4 + 5/4 + 9/8, then 5/4 + 5/4 + 5/4 + 3/4 + 3/4 + 2/4, then 11/8 + 10/8 etc.”

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