I love odd time signatures. They’re a great way to take a conventional music form and shake it up a bit, shift the audience out of their comfortable listening. I’ve used them on several of my own tracks, usually tucked into parts of songs to break up the groome. See if you can spot the time changes in these pieces:
And, for the sake of heading a few objections off at the pass: yes, I’ve heard Dream Theater. No, I don’t think they’re awesome. It’s not enough to chart out a series of random time changes and play them back like a computer chomping down on a punch card (if you’re under the age of 40 and don’t know what a punch card is, look it up, you’ll laugh). Music needs to swing, regardless of the meter.
With that said, here are my top five songs in weird time signatures:
7/4 – “Money” – Pink Floyd
Probably the top-charting song of all time that no one even noticed was in a non-standard meter. Legend has it that Roger Waters recorded the initial sound recordings in his garden shed and cut them up into 7 equal lengths of audio tape, then taped them into a continuous loop which was fed through a tape machine and around a mic stand; pretty ingenious. The effects were played back to the band during initial tracking, making “Money” one of the first songs recorded to a “click” track.
I love that the song goes back to 4/4 for the guitar solo. It’s a decision that speaks to the use of time as a tool to achieve a particular end, rather than being a shtick around which to build pieces. It balances out the oddness of the main body of the piece with pure rock-n-roll, enhanced by cutting all the effects when they return to the main riff in the bridge, and then bringing all the lush reverbs and delays back in with the 4/4 beat to round out the bridge.
5/4 – “My Wave” – Sound Garden
A quintessentially Sound Garden piece. The band claims that they did not intentionally write in different meters and, given how their odd-time pieces feel, I totally believe it. I didn’t realize this song wasn’t in 4/4 until I tried to play it and kept getting tripped up.
Matt Cameron is, of course, legendary for his mind-bending ability to move in and out of different meters without “winking at the camera” as it were. The time sense that he rocked out in Soundgarden followed him to his new gig with Pearl Jam.
Honorable mention to “The Day I Tried to Live” in 15/4, usually counted as a bar of 7/4 followed by two bars of 4/4.
7/4 – “Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel
Another song in 7/4. Each chorus is punctuated at the end with two bars of 4/4 which enhances the lyrics greatly as Gabriel intones “they’ve come to take me home!”
9/8 – “Blue Rondo à la Turk” – Dave Brubek Quartet
Most people would probably put “Take Five” in this slot, and I get why. It’s the piece on Time Out that really drove home the concept of the album, namely that jazz could be played in meters other than four with a swing. But, I’ve always thought that “Take Five” sounded a little forced, like Brubek was trying to prove it could be done.
“Blue Rondo,” on the other hand, sounds utterly playful. Where “Five” can be grinding, “Blue Rondo” shows Brubek and saxophonist Paul Desmond playing with the odd 2-2-2-3 break down of 9/8 and work in traditional 4/4 solos, giving the piece the feeling of having classical movements.
10/4 – “Everything in its Right Place” – Radiohead
Radiohead are certainly no strangers to weird time signatures, but “Everything in its Right Place” stands alone by combining a strange meter with an EDM groove, and making it work. EDM is notorious for its use of standard preferences in DAW software, meaning much of it is produced in the key of C, most of it is at 120 beats per minute, and damn near all of it is in 4/4. Kid A broke the mold in many ways, and from the first beat in “Everything in its Right Place” you knew you were hearing something totally new, no small feat in the already fragmented music scene of 2000.
A discussion of Radiohead weird time signatures would be incomplete without mentioning “Pyramid Song.” This is basically an exercise in polyrhythm. It’s a repeating pattern of 16 beats and there are many theories as to how those 16 beats should be broken up ranging from a repeating 8-note patterns of 3-3-2 to a repeating 16-note pattern of 5-4-4-3. I find that the easiest way to count it is two bars of 5/4 followed by two bars of 3/4. However it’s actually metered out, it is a singular display of virtuosity that Tom Yorke can sing and keep that time straight in his head at the same time.