An effective method for counting and identifying time signatures.

When I listen to some odd time signature songs I have some serious trouble dissecting the time signatures at times. Songs with 6/8 or 3/4 are easy enough to identify, but some progressive rock/metal songs make it hard on me. I'll usually get caught up with a riff or the singer's timing relative to the actual song time signature. Are there any methods for counting that will help me figure out the actual time signature of the song?

Specific examples:

Tool - The Pot: I think this one is 6/8 with an occasional 2/4 bar. I heard it on the radio earlier and it made me think of this question. Not a huge Tool fan, but they do some interesting things.

Opeth - Coil: I'm specifically interested in this one. I cannot for the life of me figure out the time signature. It could be that I'm being deceived by the riff/musicianship of the song itself.

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For opeth:

The opening starts with 4 bars of 4/4. Then switches to 3/4 for 4 bars then 1 bar of 4/4 and 6/4 then repeats. A few of these bars are not in perfect time and can be considered to have an additional 1/16 note in them. They are the tacet bars and so there is no absolute way to determine the meter(cause there isn't any). It is easier to just assume that the meter does not change in any significant way. The effect is more of a rubato than a change in meter.

After that it goes into a osinato. The last accents on the beats are changed to give syncopation and an extra division is added.

The pattern is which is one bar of 12/8 and 1 bar of 2/4

E a a E a a E a a E a a E a D -

It's pretty simple pattern. Note that when the vocals come in the bar of 2/4 is dropped when the lyrics are song near the 2/4. Most likely to avoid strong lyrical rhythms.

I didn't hear much beyond that.

In any case if your getting "caught up" in the music you need to simply focus more. No one can teach you that.

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Thanks! Great answer regarding the actual meter of the song, but my question was more about methods. +1 nonetheless. – Jduv Feb 1 '11 at 12:54
The method is simply familiarity. Just count. 99% of songs are in 4/4 and most of the time you don't have to count, you just feel it. In some songs those there are strange things that happen. Luckily in this song you don't have any really strong meter going on. So everything falls into place. – Anonymous Feb 1 '11 at 16:18
If you start counting, 1 2 3 4 you'll now very quickly if your down beats get off because you'll hear it. You'll be saying 2 when it feels like a one. If it continues this way then it is a "change of meter" rather than a syncopation. – Anonymous Feb 1 '11 at 16:20
I first started counting in 4 then realized after 4 bars my "4" was the 1 so I switched to counting in 3 for 4 more bars then realized it was just a repeat. Later on I heard a different type of meter. There was that triplet pattern and my counts of 4 beats were not enough so I had to count to 5 or 6 but on 5 it wasn't triplets but was a duple. So I know I have 4 beats and and 2 beats. You could write this all as one bar of 4/4 and the notes go by in 16ths with a shifting pattern or you could break up the bar into 12/8 and 2/4. – Anonymous Feb 1 '11 at 16:24
Just like 5/4 could be 2/4 + 3/4 or 3/4 + 2/4 or 1 beat with 5 quarter notes in it. If you tend to look at things with 4/4 glasses you tend to see what is not 4/4. You could do the same with 3/4 or any other time signature but you have to start with something. There is not necessarily a correct way to notate a meter but there is a standard. You can notate that whole song in 7/8's but it would conceal what is really going on. Someone may prefer to notate those measures in 6/4 rather than 12/8 + 2/4... just whatever makes it easier for you to understand. – Anonymous Feb 1 '11 at 16:25

The Pot is actually in 4/4 in the beginning, and actually all the way up to the 3:40 mark, where it changes to 6/8. It is kind of a two-measure groove, with the accents falling on the & of 2, the "a" of 4, the downbeat of 3 and the "&" of 4. At 3:40, the pattern changes to the downbeat of 1, the & of 2, an eighth-note triplet on 4, downbeat of five & six, then it goes back to the 4/4.

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