Odd Time Signatures and How I Got Started Getting into it – Written by a Non-Drummer (Part 1)

I once had someone asked me what progressive rock was, and one of the things in my response was that it’s a genre in which odd time signatures could quite often be found. He then proceeded to comment, “you mean like 3/4?”

The comment was something I found somewhat amusing, because the widely popular waltz, which has been around for centuries in Western Music, are in 3/4! Watch any Viennese Waltz genre/style of standard ballroom dance and you would see that they’re all 3-beats to the bar. Every musician knows that majority of popular music out there (at least in North America) is either in 4/4 or 6/8. Although one could argue that the feel could be slightly different between 3/4 and 6/8, aren’t the two mathematically related (ok… the same)? (Side note: interestingly enough, at the time of writing this, Wikipedia says the Waltz is a “Progressive Ballroom and folk dance”).

Odd time signature is actually not as rare in music you’re familiar with as one might think. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is in 7s. There are sections of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (at the 3:16 mark) that are also in 7s. The jazz piece “Take Five” is, appropriately named – in 5s. While one may or may not say they’re progressive, we can probably all agree that they’re wildly widely popular. But as a song writer, you may ask: “how I break-free” or freeing your ear/mind into writing in that mode, for purposes of making a song interesting?

How does a working bass professional/legend approach it

I asked one of my favorite bassists Bryan Beller before a gig about a year and a half ago on his approach to writing material in odd time signatures – (BTW: Nicest person in the world who was happy to entertain a fanboy like myself). His response was that he does not consciously think of a specific time signature he would try to write in, but rather come up with a motif/riff first, then come back and figure out what time signature the part is in.

How I first started doing it

Rewind back several years ago, when I was first started messing with this whole song writing thing, I figured I would maybe give it a shot. I had a metronome on my computer and had it play something in 5 (with accent on the downbeat for me to lock in) for minutes until I felt comfortable. Then I started humming an idea/motif that would lock in with it. To me, I found singing to it, rather than playing to it at first, was a little earlier to grasp. On my way out for lunch, when I no longer had the metronome with me, I would tap the idea with my hands and sing (when no one was looking of course…!) – but now with emphasis on additional beats within the 5, to make sure I was really internalize it. I ended up with this little song for my first album. The main motif that you hear at the beginning of the song is in 5, and I think there are a couple of bars later on 14 in the middle at around the 3:00 mark.

The 5 was a lot easier to grasp than the 14, because the number of beats before it repeats is a much shorter. But there’s a catch with the bars of 14 though – or any odd meters that have more than 9 beats per bar.

(Continue to Part 2)

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