# What is the “theory” behind “odd time signatures”?

There are a number of bands, Genesis, The Police, Crack the Sky, Gentle Giant, that have all incorporated unusual time signatures as their core sound - some entire "pop"songs, "Ordinary World - Duran Duran; Money- Pink Floyd; Texas Flood (intro)=- SRV, have even made it an integral component. What is the theory behind not playing in the usual 4/4 time, because I would like to be able to write a song based on a different time signature..

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Ordinary World is in 4/4 throughout. Prove it to yourself by counting the beats. – slim Dec 14 '11 at 11:55
Why do you think there is a particular theory behind them? – reinierpost Jan 9 '12 at 15:39
Another example for us computer geeks: the Free Software Song. – reinierpost Jan 9 '12 at 15:40
I also thought Ordinary World was an odd signature, and found this post trying to find out what it was. Must be the offbeats in the verses throwing me off :) – mortware Mar 29 '13 at 17:56
Minor point: time signature is a notational device which often (but not always) implies the meter. Your question is actually about the meter, not about how that happens to be denoted. – Roland Bouman Mar 28 '14 at 11:53

While I really wouldn't consider Texas Flood as having an odd time signature (12/8 is really just a representation of a triplet swing feel over 4/4), many of the songs/bands you mentioned do use bizarre time signatures for effect.

Let's take Money by Pink Floyd as an example. It is in 7/4 which is nicely outlined by a strong bass line. The rhythm for the bass line is approximated with:

```    | 1   2   3   4   5   6   7  |
| Q   E E Q   Q   Q   Q   Q  |
```

Now, the easiest way (I think), to break this down is into two chunks: one 3/4 and one 4/4. Now, the order isn't as important when composing because 4/4 + 3/4 is effectively the same in the end as 3/4 + 4/4. But for this tune, it works better like so:

```    | 1   2   3  | 1   2   3   4  |
| Q   E E Q  | Q   Q   Q   Q  |
```

So we have a little snappier 3/4 section, with a 4/4 section that walks back up to the tonic which gives it a more stable feel than most strange times signatures. As with most oddly timed tunes, Money is very much riff based. Take a look at Take Five by Dave Brubeck for another good example of riffing during an odd time signature.

Basically, when composing your own tune, try to put together two shorter odd time signatures first to compose an interesting riff that feels stable and sounds interesting. Two odd meters can also combine to create a normalish meter as well (5/4 + 3/4 = 8/4 or 2 4/4).

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Nice comparison, good answer. – Anonymous Jan 26 '11 at 6:44
Good, but grouping Money into 4/4 followed by 3/4 feels more natural to me. – smokris Dec 23 '11 at 18:25
To me Money feels more like 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 (4/1) 2 3 4, 1 2 3 (4/1) 2 3 4, 1 2 3... etc in other words the last beat of each phrase is also the first beat of the next phrase. Don't know if there is any 'official' terminology for that effect. – Noel Walters Aug 20 '15 at 8:01

I recommend listening to Dave Brubeck's Time Out. That whole record is an exploration of odd time signatures and unusual ways of subdividing rhythms, but in a way that still swings. Three of the more famous tracks, for example, are:

• "Blue Rondo a la Turk": This is in 9/8, which is an old time signature dating back to the Baroque period, used when a composer wanted a triplet feel in 3/4 time. What makes this song different is that instead of the usual 3-3-3 break-down, Brubeck subdivides the beat into 2-2-2-3, which gives it a totally different feel.
• "Take Five": This is in 5/4, subdivided into 3-2. You've heard this song a million times, even if you didn't know it. It's in every commercial that's trying for a "sophisticated luxury" feel. It isn't easy to make 5/4 sound mainstream, but this song does it.
• "Three To Get Ready": This has a pattern of changing time signatures throughout the song. It's two bars of 3/4 followed by two bars of 4/4, then back to two bars of 3/4, then 4/4, etc. The drumming is interesting here: Joe Morello basically just brushes a 3/4 pattern on the snare during the whole song, but in the 4/4 bars it starts to syncopate, which then causes it to be "out of phase" in the 3/4 bars, gradually coming back into phase later.

Anyway. It's a great record and a wonderful collection of odd time experiments.

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I'm a big, big fan of odd time signature. The thing is, there is not really any theory that I know of, it's all notation and counting/feeling, and notation is convention. Basically, the idea is you have a X/Y time signature, meaning you have X elements of value Y (generally 1/4 or 1/8 notes). That's about it.

While Bryan's answer is perfectly valid, my approach is slightly different : I tend to think of them as patterns in themselves, or relating to other patterns, but not thinking of them as a composition of patterns. Let me explain.

If you have a 7/8 pattern, chances are the accentuations, the general groove, is related to either a 4/4 pattern minus a 1/8, creating a syncopation. Or it could be a 6/8 beat with an added 1/8.

Sometimes the pulse is at odds with the basic element : the notation introduces the denominator as a basic element, which may or may not relate to the pulse of the music. In the case of a 4/4 "mangled" into 7/8, you probably will have a strong feeling of a 1/4 pulse with an abrupt ending at the end of the bar. This would in fact have to be written 3,5/4 except 1) there is no such notation, 2) if we were to invent it, it would only be confusing.

Sometimes, the pulse will depend on the instrument : you frequently have a drum beat in, say, 7/4, over two bars of 7/8 on the guitar, and I would not call that a polyrhythm.

Also, you can have a 4/4 measure which is in fact two odd beats put together (off the top of my head, I'd say the end of Holy Water rom Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger : 3/4 + 5/4 = two bars of 4/4), as Bryan pointed out. Once again, it's far easier to write and read this way.

As cliché as it sounds, it's all about the music. Try playing written patterns, try to find the pulse on a strange riff and write it down, play with others and I guarantee you'll have fun. I know I did and still do.

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Boy do I sound clumsy. Writing about rhythm really is like fishing about architecture. – Pif Jan 26 '11 at 10:55
I think it's a good answer. Tool's schism would be a great song to learn to see some of this in action. – yossarian Jan 26 '11 at 13:32
There's a good chance that just about any Tool song would be a good example. Intolerance, Third Eye, The Pot, Forty Six & 2... Also Them Bones by AiC, 2/3 of everything Soundgarden and possibly 98% of all King Crimson and Mahavishnu. – Pif Jan 7 '15 at 10:32

Things are getting way off-topic here (although it's a fascinating discussion). The initial question was: "What is the theory behind not playing in the usual 4/4 time"?

Who says 4/4 time is "usual"? Most musical phrases and thus time signatures are ultimately based on dance rhythms. Surely you've heard of the waltz? it's in 3/4 time. The minuet is in 6/8 time. There are many folk dances of many cultures that are not in 4/4 time. Folk dance rhythms and drumming rhythms in African cultures are in multiple different time signatures simultaneously; these are called "polyrhythms".

On the other hand, the most widely recognized ancestor of all the melodies in Western culture are the Gregorian chants. These have no rhythm and no time signature at all.

The use of odd-time signatures, and frequently changing time signatures from measure to measure, came into popular Western music in the late 1800s and early 1900s through classical music pieces written by composers including Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and others.

I've looked into it, and it's my conclusion that complex changing time signatures got into rock when rock musicians in bands like The Nice, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes were influenced by composers like Stravinsky, Bartok and all those that followed them. Rock musicians listened to serious classical music and they took some of those ideas and applied them to different forms. It did not necessarily require that the rock musicians involved actually read sheet music or study it in a classroom; they heard classical music on recordings and on radio broadcasts and they decided to use these ideas when writing their own original music.

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"[Gregorian chants] have no rhythm and no time signature at all." - It most certainly does have rhythm. I'm actually not sure whether it can be truly called music if it doesn't have rhythm. What Gregorian chant does not have, is a meter. And because it doesn't have a meter, it does not have or need a time signature nor barlines. – Roland Bouman Mar 28 '14 at 11:50
@RolandBouman Well, yes, anything has a rhythm if it's happening in time, but I think Wheat meant that it has no specified rhythm and (we're fairly certain) would have been fairly different from performance to performance. The prevailing expert opinion seems to be that they more or less followed the natural rhythms of the text, but it's difficult to say. – Pat Muchmore Oct 30 '14 at 15:03
@PatMuchmore perhaps it sounds like I'm nitpicking but I think the correct way to say it is that in this kind of music there is no meter: there's is rhythm but it is not a regularly recurring pattern. – Roland Bouman Oct 31 '14 at 11:27
@RolandBouman Right, it definitely has no meter. But the neumatic notation of Gregorian Chant also does not indicate rhythm beyond the occasional sign that we think meant to slow down. Until later innovations in the late Medieval period, there was no way to notate duration either absolutely or relatively beyond order of pitches. As such, modern scholars are fairly certain that any two performances of a particular chant would have been rhythmically quite different. Again, you're right that there would have to be a rhythm in any given performance, but there was no explicit, specific rhythm. – Pat Muchmore Oct 31 '14 at 12:10

Time signatures are all about counting beats between accents. We count to a number, with the ONE having the strongest accent (this is oversimplifying a bit -- for example some reggae feels emphasise the third beat of a 4/4 rhythm more than the first).

Humans like rhythms based on an even number of beats, because we have two legs and two arms. If you listen to a piece in 2/2 or 4/4, while walking or running, you'll find yourself easily falling into step with the music, and when a bar finishes, you're back on the leg you started with.

12/8 shouldn't be considered "odd". It is almost always played such that you can count a 4/4 beat over the top of it, with the 12/8 beats being triplets.

It sounds as if 3/4 would be "peculiar" by my "two legs" logic above, and to a small extent it is. But even in 3/4, conventional composers tend to create phrases using 2, 4, 8, 16 bars. People tend to play/perceive 3/4 bars in pairs ("ONE two three TWO two three"), and again, if you walk to to this rhythm, you find yourself back on the original foot at the end of that pattern.

Now to the question, "what is the theory behind not playing in 4/4 time?"

It is simply a matter of counting to 5, 7, 9, 11, or whatever your chosen number of beats is, then starting again from 1, ensuring that you keep the beats even as you would with 4/4.

At first, try just tapping with your fingers. Thumb for the down beat, a finger for the others. At first you are likely to find it difficult. Most people, I believe, attempting to tap out a 5/4 rhythm for the first time, will feel a strong urge to pause for a beat after the 5, bringing it to a more conventional 6 beats.

It will help, of course, to count along to a recording of an existing piece, such as Take 5 (5/4), Money (7/8, 4/4 for the middle section), Radiohead's 15 step.

Watch out, also, for compositions which throw in the occasional bar in a different signature to the rest (15 Step might be an example).

Once you've got the hang of that, it's "simply" a matter of creating your own riffs and melodies that fit with one of those time signatures. The songs you've mentioned pull off the clever trick of sounding natural; people tend to be able to move their shoulders to Money without being thrown off by the time signature.

As with many things, the best way to get good at it is to try it, do a crappy job, then try it again, and keep going until you get a result you're pleased with.

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+1 For actually answering the question. :-) – Lennart Regebro Jan 14 '12 at 15:16

I would argue that 4/4 time is not the "usual" time for music, it's just that your musical influence tends that way. The music and composer dictate the time and the feel. Listen to a seminal rock band like Rush. They didn't sit down and say "let's make a complex time piece of music to really stimulate theorists." They chose a melody and a feel and built from there.

If your compositions are pop-focused and you are specifically looking to write "hits" then there are formulae and workshops to learn that.

If your compositions are about getting music from your head into the world then go for it. Create the music that feels right. The right melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Then you may or may not have complex time.

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Do you know for a fact Rush didn't try to write pieces that were complicated for the sake of complexity alone? – Speldosa Dec 6 '11 at 21:45
A quick sample of western music would suggest that 4/4 is very much the "usual" time for music, with 12/8 and 3/4 some way behind. – slim Dec 14 '11 at 11:57

I read comments in here talking about 5/8 7/8 and 9/8 (with 9, I mean 4+5 and not 3+3+3) as metric structures "developed" and used by some progressive musicians. For somebody trained as a classical Western musician, it may seem so; but actually here in Turkey and throughout the whole Balkan area, including Asia minor (Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia; Kosova, etc.) we have all of these meters as part of our traditional folk musics and ordinary people dance to these meters in weddings! These meters are termed as "aksak" meters (means "irregular" in Turkish) and they are easy to internalise if you perceive them as combinations of 2/8 and 3/8. The music also reinforces this grouping idea with accentuation. Then you have all these different combinations: (all of them exist whereas the most frequently used are the ones where 3 is at the end): 5/8 (2+3 or 3+2); 7/8 (2+2+3 or 2+3+2 or 3+2+2) and 9/8 (2+2+2+3 or 2+2+3+2 or 2+3+2+2 or 3+2+2+2).

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Music can be expressed anyway you like. Written notation and music theory are convention and language that attempt to represent the music.

That being said I will attempt to address your question, based on Western music notation and terminology.

The confusion and variety of answers to your question, "What is the 'theory' behind 'odd time signatures'?", seems to stem from various interpretations of the term "odd".

Some of the answers are interpreting the word "odd" to mean unfamiliar or simply different than mainstream 4/4. Other answers being offered are focusing on the number of beats in the time signature and are using the word "odd" to describe what could also be termed as "irregular", which may be less ambiguous.

First let's look at the denotative meaning of "odd" as it pertains to music theory and time signatures.

By definition (music theory definition in terms of Western music notation) there are a finite number of ways (or combinations) to count the number of beats and to subdivide those beats.

If you are using the term "odd" as the opposite of "even" (and not odd as in strange or unfamiliar, or odd as in irregular), then this applies to the subdivisions of a single beat, or the pulse grouping.

In subdividing a beat into pulses there is only odd or even. Even means dividing the beat into two equal parts (or groupings of two) and the term for this is called "simple". Odd means dividing the beat into three equal parts (or groupings of three) and the term for this is "compound".

The terms for the number of beats (which is denoted by the denominator in a time signature) are: duple = two beats triple = three beats quadruple = four beats

Taking all combinations of {simple, compound} with {duple, triple, quadruple} yields all the "regular" time signatures:

• simple duple
• simple triple
• compound duple
• compound triple

Examples time signatures (all of these are "regular"):

• simple duple = 2/2 (cut time), 2/4, 2/8
• simple triple = 3/2, 3/4, 3/8
• simple quadruple = 4/2, 4/4, 4/8
• compound duple = 6/8
• compound triple = 9/8

Anything else that does not fit into the above categories has many names such as

• complex, asymmetric, irregular, unusual, and yes "odd".

Examples of irregular:

5/8, 7/4, 7/8, etc...

For these types, all of these meters must at some point be broken down. A decision must be made as to how they should be counted and grouped, which determines what beats are stressed or accented.

Proof of this is the varying opinions on how to count Pink Floyd Money. Some say, it is 3/4 + 4/4. Others say it is 4/4 + 3/4. Another seems to say it is a crippled 8/4. That is, the last beat is the next down beat... it just keeps losing one beat each measure. They are all valid perceptions. But if you want to be 100% sure, go ask Roger Waters.

If a composer is concerned and particular about how their irregular time signature is counted and stressed they can use an "additive" notation, which is yet another term to add to the list of terms for irregular. For example, they will literally write 4/4 + 3/4 on the staff instead of writing 7/4. The composer can also ensure a complex time signature is counted they way they intend by grouping the note heads.

And since we are talking terminology, there is also "irrational" time signatures such as 3/10 or 5/24. But I do not want to go there.

As for Rush, I agree with someone's statement that Rush does not say "let's make a complex time piece of music to really stimulate theorists." I think Getty and Neil look at their poetry (lyrics), the rhythm and metrics of the words, and put it to music. And they have natural feel and economy of meter. If their poetry only needs 7 beats in one stanza, but then needs 4 or 8 beats in the refrain, then so be it... they write it that way, instead of filling out the musical measure with extra notes. Of course their drummer has a clear command of meter and rhythm. They all do, they think that way, it is natural and not forced. Although I also think they are very "white", and for them maybe it is a way of being "funky". (Please do not take that as being racial. It is just a way of describing feeling in music. The Bee Gees are funky too, but that is some British, white, funk. I am merely suggesting that Rush's use of meter may be in their mind funky, but it is some white Canadian funk.) But I digress.

As I said, my reply to your question is coming from Western music notation.

Other countries and cultures are not quite as "brain washed" as we are in the U.S.

In the U.S. since the age of recording, record producers, radio stations, and the music industry have influence the listener as to what is considered "good music". This industry only exposes the public to a very narrow spectrum of music in order to monetize and make profit. The average American listener cannot hear beyond an 8 beat pattern and if it is not symmetrical we consider it "off beat". That is not necessarily the listener's fault, but is a result of the brain washing.

Other cultures do naturally think in patterns that are much longer and have complex syncopation, all which Western music would classify as irregular.

Indian Jhaptal 10-beat pattern, counted 2-3-2-3.

African rhythms built on 25-beat patterns.

For the under exposed, unaccustomed listener it is hard for our brains to allow for this. We are always trying to find a cyclic half point in the phrase that is not there.

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Depends on the genre IMO. Swing, for example, is mostly 12/8, and I can't think of a boogie woogie title that isn't. Rock music became increasingly 4/4 after the 50's, but there were lots of 50's titles that are in 12/8 (Blueberry Hill and That'll be the Day are a couple of well-known examples.) Most blues music is in 12/8 as well, especially earlier blues.

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