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The time signature 7/8, as well as other time signatures with 7 in the numerator, are less common. However, I have two reasons why this should not be true:

  1. 9 is commonly used in the numerator of time signatures, so smaller odd numbers like 7 should also be commonly used.

  2. A form of Indian classical music called Carnatic music frequently uses sets of 7 beats (e.g. the triputa tala and misra capu tala, which is broken into 3 + 2 + 2) but such songs still have interesting rhythms, so I don't see why bars of 7 beats shouldn't be used frequently in Western classical music. Other traditions of music also use rhythm where the song is broken up into sets of seven beats.

Why are time signatures with 7 in the numerator uncommon?

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    There is nothing keeping people from writing in 7, they just choose not to do it very often. It is a prime number so it doesn’t subdivide evenly and creates unusual rhythms. Jan 8, 2023 at 5:05
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    I wonder if there’s something about people having two feet is part of it. Jan 8, 2023 at 6:01
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    @mathlander Asking why people don’t choose something is bordering on being a subjective question. This site answers questions that are based more on facts. There is no factual information to answer it. As for your comparison to 9, 9 usually gets subdivided into three groups of 3’s which is much more common in a western music. Even though it is not common there is a large body of music written in 7. It is sometimes used in more advanced forms of jazz, fusion and rock. Jan 8, 2023 at 7:17
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    I would not say that it's "uncommon." Less common, yes, no question, but I can think of dozens of instances, including in western pop music (mostly "indie," admittedly, like Sufjan Stevens). If we broaden the discussion to "5" there are even more ("Take Five"?). I would vote to close except that I feel like I'm splitting hairs, but you might consider editing "uncommon" to "less common." Jan 9, 2023 at 16:59
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    It is fixed now.
    – mathlander
    Jan 9, 2023 at 17:01

2 Answers 2

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Time signatures with 9 in the numerator are most of the times 9/8. Cases of timesignatures 3k/8 are a bit special, because they they the role of a ternary subdivision. In early music a note could be subdivided in two or three smaller notes, and this is basically the same way. A 3k/8 measure will be seen as a k/4 measure with each beat subdivided by three instead of two: 6/8 is a measure of 2 groups of 3 eigths (~ 2/4), 9/8 a measure of 3 such groups (3/4), 12/8 one of 4 such groups (4/4).

So measures of the form 3k/8 are special in the sense that they are regular, regular meaning that the measure is subdivided into equal groups of two or three.

Now, there are two mainly used measure featuring a 7 in the numerator: 7/8, which is irregular and usually split into two groups of 2 and one group of 3, and 7/4, which is usually regular but with 7 equal beats in one measure.

Now the human is not in fact particularly good with internalizing rhythms. You can easily feel two, three or even four beats. 5 beats is still possible, but try to feel 7 beats without counting. The point taken is that the human as a prevalence for short rhythmic groups, which affects how dances and music work. (You can also draw parallels to stress speech.)

And this means that you are quite unlikely to find something like "7 equal beats", the same way you will seldom find "8 equal beats" or "9 equal beats" and so on.

Additionally regularity is something that gives a nice structure. Dances and music with irregularities are harder to conceive and perform. This means there is a huge bias towards regular structures. In fact you still find this today. Most dance music is simply written in 4/4.

So regularity is an important aspect of out musical language. Also you should keep in mind that in the origin is of the tactus is not filling up a measure with n small notes, but it comes from taking a whole and dividing it in parts (which can then again divided). This is something where you need to actually put in effort to not derive something regular.

Lastly you should keep in mind that notated regularity is not necessarily performed regularity. Playing music strictly to a meter is something quite recent, and traditionally much music would not in fact be played in the exact meter given. Traditional European music has many cases of meters with elongated beats. For example eastern european/turkish music as a traditional 4/4 with an elongated last beat, leading to a 2+2+2+3 9/8. Viennese waltz traditionally has a slightly elongated second beat, which makes the 3/4 into something between a 3/4 and a 2+3+2 7/8. Also in traditional music you’ll have cases of changing meter. Here in southern german area for example we have what we call "Zwiefacher", which is a type of dance that switches between 3/4 (waltz) and 2/4 (dreher) (and does not even do so regularly!).

So while it is not necessarily notated you do sometimes get the irregularity in performance.

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  • 3rd para. 7/4, I see split in the same way as 7/8. Can't think of anything which goes the whole 7 without any sub-division. What pieces are you considering?
    – Tim
    Jan 8, 2023 at 15:36
  • I guess 3k does not mean 3000? Jan 8, 2023 at 17:11
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    7 seems pretty regular to Indians...
    – mathlander
    Jan 8, 2023 at 17:42
  • @Tim Depends on the tempo I’d say. In a sufficiently fast tempo 7/4 will behave like 7/8, such as the 7/4 in Berlioz’ L’enfance du Christ. Also of course often a 7/4 can be interpreted as an actual 2+2+3 compound. The point here is about the general implication of a 7/4 meter. There’s not a huge number of pieces featuring 7/4 in any case, but I think both "pictures of an exhibition" (let’s face it, this thing has any possible timesignature with 4 at the bottom that’s possible) and Strawinsky do have have such non 7/8 style 7/4.
    – Lazy
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:57
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    @ToddWilcox No :) Although I’d love to see a 1000/4 measure. Telemann has 24/1. But also I wouldn’t consider 87/8 as 29/4 with ternary division in Stockhausen...
    – Lazy
    Jan 8, 2023 at 19:09
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Even 7/4 and 7/8 usually get split into 2s and 3s - there's not much else can be done to count to 7 musically than that, and we have always had the tendency to split that way, in whatever genre of music. Even 4/4 can be , and is, split into 2x2, maybe subtly, but it's there!

7 becomes a little unwieldy, although compared to some Greek stuff in, say, 13/4, it's quite simple. But even there, we never count 1>13, it's in 2s, 3s and 4s.

7 is interesting, there's no doubt. Although due to humans having a tendency to 'even things up', beginners will end up trying to play it in 3s or 4s - just like 5 time will get truncated to 4 or elongated to 6. So, from my point of view, 7 is unwieldy, not being regular enough for most. So it never caught on, with Western music at least. It could be written out with alternating bars of, say, 4 and 3 (or 3 and 4), but that starts to get too messy and complicated.

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    There is this joke where a drummer arrives at band rehearsal and says excitedly: "Guys, I’ve finally learned to count 7/8!" The others say: "Cool, show us!" The drummer: "Ok, ... One two three four five six seeeee-ven ..."
    – Lazy
    Jan 8, 2023 at 13:22
  • @Lazy - I know that drummer...
    – Tim
    Jan 8, 2023 at 15:32
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    First, this is only true of Western music, and second, it doesn't explain why Western music developed in this way.
    – Aaron
    Jan 8, 2023 at 16:49
  • @Lazy or the famous conductor (whose name I sadly do not remember) who reportedly conducted the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique as one-two-three-foooour-five.
    – phoog
    Jan 11, 2023 at 17:09

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