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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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Be careful not to count "One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Sev, En." –  Mark Lutton Nov 13 '12 at 1:23
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5 Answers

up vote 5 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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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
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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
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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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