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In pop music, there are some songs that pretend to have the beat accent at a certain time in the intro but with percussion coming in, the beat (apparently) shifts the meter such that you have the feeling to stumble on some extra beat until your inner meter got adjusted to the new accent of the beat. I am looking for a term for that kind of apparent meter shift. Let me give two examples:

I only know one song by name with probably the songwriter’s intention to have the impression of a shifted meter during the intro. It is Ghost Story by Sting:

In the way you here it, when you here it the first time, the song introduces with a lullaby-like theme. When percussion comes in (only at 2:10, maybe before for someone) your inner meter will probably stumble and it seems as if the theme changes, but actually only meter has shifted half a beat. If you have a confident meter feeling and practice hearing the right beat, you can adjust your feeling to the actual beat throughout the intro and the stumbling will disappear. For me, the intention is to dally with the listener’s experience of pleasing melody–beat combinations.

Another example, where I am not sure about the intention, is Take it easy by The Eagles:

Apparently, this song starts with a common rhythm pattern and stressed chords on-beat. Actually, and you will notice it when the percussion comes in, the stress is off-beat between 4 and 1. Again, here you can switch to hearing the right beat (without stumbling) already from the beginning as soon as you got used to the pattern throughout the song. Before my teacher told me, he always here it the right way in this intro, I was sure there was a true intention. Now, I’m just confused about my feeling of rhythm.

Do you know songs with similar shifted meters? What do you think about the respective intention? Is it used to raise a certain effect or does it occur incidentally in the listener’s perception? And, is there a technical term for those shifts?

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I used to feel the same way with AC/DC's Hells Bells. When the beat fully entered, I use to realize that what I had been counting as "1" was actually "3". Doesn't happen anymore, probably due to familiarity. – cyco130 Jul 12 '14 at 12:13
Rose Royce - Car Wash. – slim Jul 12 '14 at 21:17
I think Sting got the idea for that one from Stewart Copeland: there's a whole lot of Police songs with such beginnings, e.g. Bring On The Night, Spirits In a Material World, Murder By Numbers. Another great example is Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin. – One of the oldest instances would of course be Beethoven's 5th: the beginning so sounds like a triplet on 1, rather than a rest and four quavers! – leftaroundabout Jul 12 '14 at 21:49
Team, by Lorde, has this same phenomenon at the end of the intro. She voices "send the call out", and when the beat comes in, it appears to fall on a different point of stress than expected. Thus, the "stumble". – Josh Beam Jul 12 '14 at 22:41
Thank you for the plenty examples! Amazing how often it’s is used! Very enriching, guys! @slim Car Wash seems a special example because it’s actually half a measure the intro is shifted. Seems so scarce, never heard before, or not noticed because it is more subtle if it’s shifted by whole numbers of beats. Lorde is similar, shifted by one beat, but not less ingenious because it shifts across/along the lyrics. Wow. – unndreay Jul 12 '14 at 23:16
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Mark Butler has written a scholarly book on Electronic Dance Music called Unlocking the Groove. In it, he proposes calling these moments "turning the beat around", and abbreviated it TBA. As in, "After an introduction that implies a straight 4/4 pattern, a TBA reveals that it has been syncopated all along." Personally, I think it's an unfortunate term, but it has been gaining credence in the scholarly community.

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This is a common phenomenon, based on the fact that - unless there are any other cues - we usually perceive the first note/chord/accent we hear as the '1' of the bar. There are of course a lot of cues (accentuation, melody, etc.) which might tell us otherwise, but is easy to fool the listener. I've encountered many songs/riffs where upon first hearing them I thought that the '1' was somewhere else, and I've always felt sure that the composer had exactly this intention of surprising the listener when the drums (or some other strong cue) enters.

A recent example of this - and by now you've probably found out that I do not know any technical term for this trick - is the song Pompeii by Bastille.

If you listen to the choir in the beginning you might think (and feel) that the first note is the '1'. However, when the verse starts (at 0:32) it feels like it starts half a beat too late. The reason is that in reality the first note of the choir is a pick-up on the last eighth note of the bar.

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The Beatles 'She's a Woman' does a similar thing. The chord intro is actually on 2 and 4, but because we hear it in isolation, we think 1 and 3. So when the vocals start, they sound a beat out. – Tim Jul 12 '14 at 15:38
@Tim: Yes, good example. Another great counter-example is You really got me. It could have been used in the same way, but because the guitar emphasizes so much the second power chord, people tend to hear it 'correctly'. But after all it's always hard to tell with songs that you've heard a thousand times. – Matt L. Jul 12 '14 at 15:44
That one starts on the anacrucis. Played it with hundreds of bands, yes, never give it a thought. It's also out of concert pitch - 'in the cracks'. – Tim Jul 12 '14 at 16:20
What's weirder is if the guitar starts and is really on 1, but sounds like it's playing offs... that's how I perceive This Fire Is Out Of Control by Franz Ferdinand. – leftaroundabout Jul 12 '14 at 21:54

Before I read down through your question, Take it Easy came to mind !It's always confused me, as the intro is on the beat, but the singing comes in wrongly. I bet that doesn't happen when they play it live, and I bet no cover bands put that 'mistake' in either. I've always thought that it was a dub that just got recorded in the wrong place.There's no good reason for this one.

The first example is still in time as far as the vocals are concerned, to about 3 mins, but the drum pattern tries, quite successfully, to mess the rhythm up with an oddly placed snare. Can't hazard a guess at why, though.

There are examples of other songs with odd bits - Rolf Harris' 'Two Little Boys'- (is that topical or what!!)seems to go off beat, but that's because of a 5/4 bar in the middle of 4/4.Rather pointless in my opinion, but there it is.Some Johnny Cash numbers have extra or missed beats, but I guess that's 'cos he couldn't/didn't want to keep in strict time.

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The Eagles definitely do this live as well, e.g. Hell Freezes Over. It's very much on purpose and nothing comes in wrongly, indeed the first guitar chords are just syncompated in an unexpected way but they count as in the rest of the song right from the beginning. Don't know about cover bands... I did cover the song once with a band, and we played the original intro. – leftaroundabout Jul 12 '14 at 21:43
"Ring of Fire" is an example of a Johnny Cash song with tricky meter. There are a lot of traditional songs with extra beats here or there--you might think they're mistakes until you hear them treated consistely as part of the song. I'm not sure that's the same phenomenon, though. The OP seems to be interested in cases where the shift in the meter changes the listener's understanding of the meter of the previous music, and I don't think those qualify. – Bruce Fields yesterday

The term you are looking for is anacrusis, also known as a pick-up measure. This is where the piece of music begins on a partial bar and on an off-beat before a full bar of music occurs. Beyond that, off-beat phrases can be introduced later in the piece by changing to a different (often odd-time) time signature for one measure and then going back to the original time signature on the next measure.

The point is that not all pieces of music follow the same perfectly symmetrical phrase and beat structure all the way through the piece.

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Some more examples worth mentioning:

  • Doobie Brothers "Minute by Minute" -- The percussion tells us 13 seconds into the song that the incredibly fast tempo keyboard fade-in in 2/4 is really a moderately-paced 6/8 in disguise.
  • Genesis "Man on the Corner" -- The synth percussion that starts the song seems out of sync with the keyboard intro a few seconds later (which establishes the beat pattern for the rest of the song).
  • Brian Auger's Oblivion Express "Compared to What" -- percussion intro sounds confusing but quickly settles into common time.
  • New Order "Blue Monday" -- Here the culprit is the keyboard fade-in is off-cue by two beats--an accident, according to the Wikipedia page--but the group seemed pleased with the results and left in the mistake.
  • Steely Dan's live version of "Reelin' in the Years" (from their 1995 album Alive in America) -- another keyboard intro played syncopate from the percussion (which enters about 30 seconds into the song).
  • Mumford & Sons "I Will Wait" -- I cannot make any temporal sense of meter shift with regards to how the verses are sung--not a bad thing, as I love that song--but most certainly intentional artistic expression by composer Markus Mumford.
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I'd like to mention the possibility that this happens because of the recording process and is not an intentional 'shift of meter'.

Most modern pop music is recorded to a click, and even when it isn't there is almost always a scratch guitar or drum take laid down first to serve as a guide for the overdubs. Sometimes the instrument/track that served as a rhythmic guide does not make it to the final mix and when it is dropped out the remaining instruments can be perceived as stressing a different beat which fools the listener.

(I think this is what happened in the Eagles example. If you focus on the acoustic guitar on the verse and then rewind to the intro it is possible to hear it 'correctly', ie in meter with pushed upbeats, and not be surprised when the drums come in. The players were probably playing along with a scratch drum track and so it sounded natural to them.)

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That could easily explain how they got that result. But they also had to decide to leave the recording like that, and I find it hard to believe nobody involved noticed that a new listener would hear it as a shift of the meter. I like this sort of thing, it can really grab the listener's attention. – Bruce Fields yesterday

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