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I'm pretty interested in learning, composing and playing along to songs using odd time signatures (3/4, 5/4, 7/8, ...) and I'd like some advice on how to wrap my head around all this stuff.

For example, counting along to 7/8 is specially hard. I understand I can see this as 4/4 with an eight missing and stomp my foot 7 times at double tempo, but this tends to make me rush the song I'm playing. If I try to stomp 3 times plus a shorter one, oh boy, do I get lost.

Another annoying problem is that I tend to fallback to the more commonplace time signatures without realizing, even more if I have no metronome. I'd like to be able to just pick an instrument and play these songs, preferably counting only in my head.

I know there are some questions touching this matter but I wanted some tips and exercises to help me implement this successfully.

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2  
Be careful not to count "One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Sev, En." –  Mark Lutton Nov 13 '12 at 1:23
    
there a good book by louie bellson odd time for instruments –  user12187 Jun 19 at 1:12
    
Late, but . . . have you ever heard Pink Floyd's Money? –  octatoan Oct 29 at 17:13

8 Answers 8

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It is hard to generalize about music where there are odd time signatures or worse yet, frequently changing time signatures. Here are some suggestions that help me:

When you are starting out, count every single fundamental beat, whether the eighth notes or the quarter notes, and be extremely aware of each "one" or the first beat of each measure. Always figure out where the "ones" are.

As you get more comfortable with a piece, realize that odd time signature measures can be thought of as various combinations of groups of two or three beats. Sometimes those groupings can be quite arbitrary, but they are there. So once you can handle counting all the eighth notes or quarter notes individually, then you can think about only counting the groups of two or three beats (which may be changing all the time, depending on how the song is written!).

Having some accurate sheet music of the piece and a metronome is a huge help. I have also used Sibelius (you can use other notation programs) to construct "maps" of a piece with frequently changing odd time signatures, using a distinctive sharp percussion sound to signal the "one" of each measure and a softer percussion sound to signal the other beats in the measure. Then I play or sing along to the percussion map, starting at a slow tempo and building up to the performance tempo.

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Come up with a clave for the rhythm. Mehldau uses ones like quarter quarter dotted quarter, that becomes your rhythm base.

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I'm quite used to it by now, my point being that at one point, you can sort of feel this rhythm patterns. However, when you start a new time signature, it's good to break the bar up in smaller pieces. For instance, you can count a 7/8 as 2 times 2 and 1 time 3. Just tap your foot on the 1 when counting in your head the following pattern: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3. At first, you need to count out loud. But at one point, you feel the pattern. Another example is the 10/8: 2 times 3 and 2 times 2. Off course, the next step is coming up musical patterns that go along with this break up of the bar.

Good luck, Mark

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6  
If you look at most odd time signatures, in my experience, you'll find some grouping that makes sense, like 4+3 or 3+2+2 for 7/8. It's a question of checking the music to see whether, for example, 5/4 splits into 3+2 or 2+3. Also be aware that sometimes the emphasis changes between bars or alternates every other bar. –  Iain Hallam Jan 6 '12 at 16:28

Start by listening. Find the 5/4 and 7/8 classics such as Money by Pink Floyd, Take Five by Dave Brubeck and count along to them.

Do this until it becomes easy and natural.

Next, learn to play in those rhythms. Just practice the looping backing parts, simplified if necessary.

This will get you past the problem of rushing beats, so you can try to apply what you've learnt to your own compositions.

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With Money being in 7 and Take Five in 5, of course. :-P –  user3169 Nov 13 '12 at 5:41
    
Music from the Balkans help too (greek music has a lot of 7/8 (2+2+3) and 9/8 (4+4+1 or 2+2+2+3) for instance) –  Alexandre C. Jun 19 at 21:18
    
@AlexandreC. True. Spent a week in Crete. Interestingly most of the bazouki music on restaurant CD players was in "easy" time signatures, but when we had live musicians "work out the time signature" became an interesting game. –  slim Oct 29 at 14:12

I was strolling through youtube and found a series of videos that beautifully answer my question and illustrate a lot of the points made in the others answers here. This guy shows how to play along to some odd time signatures, slows things down and gives ideas on how to count it:

The last one is really cool because it shows how to group the beats in different patterns (2+3 versus 3+2) like some answers pointed out.

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Let me offer an alternative, based on being thrown in the deep end of turkish/greek/balkan music when I moved to Germany.

You don't count four, you feel it. The same goes for three. You need to get that way with 5,7,9 et al.

Repeat 'Apple apple apple pineapple' with no gaps. That's 9, in what Brubeck claimed was the turkish style.

'Pineapple apple' is 5, but feels totally different to 'Apple pineapple'.

You get the idea. Just get used to the feel - and other - of these fruit/rhythmic combinations. Let your feet learn to tap along without needing to count.

I didn't really get turkish music until seeing rows of kids dancing to it (I was on stage at the time, and very grateful to those kids too).

And when you're confronted with Stravinski, you'll be glad that you no longer need to spend more effort counting than playing.

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I had a memorable evening where, while waiting for the host to finish cooking dinner, a music lecturer took me and another of the host's pupils through 5/8 and 7/8 by limping around the room.

As he explained it, if you liken a regular time signature to walking at an even pace, you can liken irregular time signatures (which is what we call things in 5, 7, 11 etc.) to walking with a limp, thus slightly unevenly. For pieces in 5 it's generally grouped in a group of 2 and a group of 3 within the bar, rather like how a piece in 6/8 is usually grouped in two groups of three.

So you take two steps, one of them being 50% longer than the other - STEP-two STEP-two-three STEP-two STEP-two-three. Or the other way round, sometimes the 3 is the first group (and of course some music swaps over at will - an advantage of notating 5 and 7 in quavers is that you can use beaming to indicate the correct grouping).

7/8 is the same, but there are two one-two groups and one one-two-three group. So you can consider it as an extension of 5/8.

One-two-three One-two One-two-three Four-five

becomes

One-two-three One-two One-two One-two-three Four-five Six-sev'n

Again some music moves the subgroup emphasis around and this is usually indicated by quaver beaming. Also you might find 7 done not as 3+2+2 but as 3+3+1 - but I can only recall seeing that once... in something I wrote. This is all just what's normally done, and you'll always find something to throw you for a loop in any time signature when composers start getting ambitious.

So once you've been limping around the room for a while muttering numbers to yourself and clapping beats, you should be in a position to play some tunes in 5 and 7. If you haven't got any, try writing scales out on 5/8 and 7/8 bars and playing those with the 3+2, 3+2+2 subgroup emphasis included. Or just one note repeatedly, with the emphasis on the One, Four and Six.

Then you need to find some music in 5 and in 7 and listen to it with that awareness of the time signature. Hear where the bars fall, hear how the musicians are dividing the bars up. Mostly ignore any singing, because all the songs I know that are in these time signatures don't really bring it out much in the vocal line and let the instruments deal with it - particularly the drums.

I can't bring many to mind right now though. Lunasa play a tune called Road to Barga which is in 7 and notated at http://thesession.org/tunes/5746 in a way which really shows the way people use beaming to subdivide the bar - this one with a strong idea of 3+4 rather than 3+2+2 in most bars. There's a video on YouTube so you can hear it too

starting at 1:14 (the first part of the set is a different tune in 9/8). Listening to that now I'm definitely put in mind of Phillip limping around the room, as this one has a sense that each bar is stretched out by a quaver, even though every single bar has it in it still feels like an extra bit.

Karine Polwart's Terminal Star is in 7/8, although it's one of those songs where the vocal line sort of feels like it's in something else. The version of that from her album Scribbled In Chalk is particularly worth seeking out because the drums make it far more obvious - the one on Threshold is a lot lighter in instrumentation.

And finally I always have to mention Light Flight by Pentangle, which is in sections - some sections are in 3/4, and the other sections are in alternating bars of 5/8 and 7/8. This is great for feeling how a 7/8 bar can be seen as a 5/8 bar with an extra bit in.

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Grouping idea sounds good but to understand the odd time signatures feeling i would like to give you some examples:

As we walk with a constant speed we could say that we are walking with a simple 2 beat time signature as in 2/4 or 6/8 or at some points 4/4.

Imagine a cripple guy or some one who is shot in leg drags on of his feet on the ground. in this case you feel a long phrase made by the healthy foot and the short one by the damaged one :)

so It will be like (Loooooooong beat- short beat) for example (4 and 3 for 7/8)

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