I recall being told once that odd time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, etc. are perceived by layman people as if the interpreter had an execution error (like he/she made a tempo mistake).

Is it common sense ?

7 Answers 7


I believe that the person a step beyond a layman would be the most likely to interpret an odd meter as a mistake, however, there are many factors that weigh in here. First of all, we have to say that our layman is of the Western music persuasion, as odd meters are very common in other cultures (including some that fall very near the Western tradition). The layman, as others have suggested, is not always paying close enough attention to interpret anything as a mistake. They could also be paying attention and just find the music confusing and likely say that they don't enjoy it. One of the things that can make someone think this is a mistake is that they can't bounce there head or tap their foot in time, let alone dance. The inability to steadily bounce your head is the result of the uneven beats within the odd signature. But if the tempo is fast enough, then the listener can bounce their head by the measure instead of by the beats. In this case they probably wouldn't notice the sets of 5 or 7 or whatever meter as it is going by too fast (and they can bounce their head, so who cares?).

Before I go on with the person a step above the layman, I would like to make a point about the interpretation of mistakes. When someone hears a mistake (an actual mistake made by the performer), their interpretation will depend on who is performing and how they think of that performer. Say you go to see your favorite virtuoso performer and he/she makes a mistake. Given the intense abilities and diverse vocabulary of the virtuoso, you are likely to think that they played something that you don't understand. Beyond the perception of their technical prowess, with that much experience the performer has mastered the art of the mistake, by which I mean the recovery from a mistake. Performers make mistakes and recovering from them or making them sound intentional is part of the reason they 'always sound good'; the mistakes are so small and/or brief that they are largely unnoticeable to anyone that is not a well studied musician. On the opposite side of this, if you see a child performing (non-virtuoso) or even a mediocre band that you don't have much esteem for, make a mistake, then you will think it is a mistake. In the middle ground, a decent or good band. If you think the band is terrible, you will hear the mistakes and possibly think some of their intentional choices are mistakes. If you love the band, then you will likely not even hear the mistakes or even think that they are beyond your understanding, like the virtuoso. We can also think of watching a performer playing a foreign music, say some traditional Balinese orchestra. Assuming you have never heard this before, you would have no context to say whether they were bad or good and unable to place how much regard they should be held in. You would likely find this music confusing and depending on your tastes, you may or may not like it but you would most likely not be able to recognize a mistake.

With that said about interpretation, I think the person a step above layman will be most likely to think an odd meter is a mistake. Or maybe the critic, but that's a whole other conversation... The person I propose would be a music fan that listens regularly and is relatively capable of hearing a recording and naming which instruments are doing what. Basically they have a little knowledge about music and are interested enough to pay attention to more than just the foreground of the music (the melody). They understand to clap on 2 and 4. Assuming it's not the virtuoso performing, this person would likely be able to hear a mistake. A lot of people who fall into this category may not have heard any music in odd meters, or virtually none. So if this person is trying to bounce their head along, like they do to every song they know, then they are going to fall off the beat. With the ability to recognize a mistake and having enough beat awareness to clap on 2 and 4, I think they would be most likely to interpret an odd meter as a mistake.

Whether or not they do has a lot of factors, such as how persistent the odd meter is. If the meter is 5/8 the whole song, then they will probably be able to recognize the intention due to the repetition. If there is a single bar of 5/8, it could be heard as a mistake, as if they left a beat out. This also depends on how many instruments are playing along. If 20 instruments all 'leave out a beat', you are less likely to think it is a mistake, as it is unlikely that all 20 of them made the same mistake at the same time in the same way. Often times in odd meters you will find a steady 1/4 note pulse going against it, often in the drums. If you are in 5/8, the 1/4 note pulse will line up every 5 1/4 notes, or 2 bars of 5/8. Because of this many people refer to 5/4 and 5/8 as the Big 5 and the Little 5 (or Big 7/Little 7, etc.). If this phrase of Big 5/Little 5 came after a section in 4/4, the proposed person could try to clap along on what would be 2 and 4 and fall off the beat and interpret this as a mistake, even though the 1/4 note pulse is still giving them something to bounce their head along to.

Ultimately it is possible, and in some cases somewhat probable, that an odd meter will be interpreted as a mistake. I think the biggest factor is who is performing.

  • Hi. I disagree that you can't tap such odd beats, although head boucing is really more fittable to even signatures indeed. Nice thought about the intimacy of the listener to the performing group. Thank you.
    – Niloct
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 16:02
  • The idea is that the beat is uneven and you can't tap evenly to the beats, though you can tap evenly to the sub-divisions. If you try to tap evenly to the beats you fall off the beat, which can be maintained and you will line back up after the second measure (or a few measures) but you will be tapping on off beats for the subsequent measure. Depending on what meter and what pulse you tap to, you will find that you will be alternating between upbeats and downbeats through different measures. Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 16:19
  • I always tap 7/8, all the time... see my comment in another answer, it's more suitable to tap in that way (three quarters and one eight tap).
    – Niloct
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 17:01

Whilst even time-sigs are far more common that odd ones, once the 'feel' of a tune is running, most people will go with the flow. Even when there is a change of time in the middle of a line, most people don't spot it. Having sung/played 'The 12 Days of Christmas' (topical !) for many years, it took me by surprise when I looked at the music; the time changed frequently.

The problem most folk seem to have is playing in odd times for the first few goes. 5 time ends up either as 4 or 6, and 7 goes to 6 or 8. I think it's because they're so used to even times, like 4/4, which is probably 90% of tunes.3/4 time seems quite easy to grasp, so if one thinks of 5 as 123-12, or 12-123, then it's not too confusing.

5 time is often used for theme tunes for t.v. thrillers - reason - they are unsettling as they are not 'regular'.Some Greek tunes are a lot of fun to play, 13/4 being 123-123-123-1234.

So, simple answer to your question - No.

Common sense isn't all that common... Since you were only told once, it certainly doesn't sound common.It is generally NOT perceived as an execution error, and that is not the same as a tempo mistake. The latter would be a change in the pulse of the music, as in speeding up or slowing down. A tune in 5 or 7 would have the same pulse/ beat running through it all. If anything, 5 or 7 (for example) would feel odd to a layman (5 and 7 are odd !!) initially because Mr. or Mrs. Layman are used to hearing songs in 4 time.After a couple of verses, however, they would probably fall into the odd rhythm, without counting, and feel it's o.k. A rhythm is a pattern (which repeats), and humans are programmed to accept patterns.

Apart from all that, if it was thought of as a mistake, and it kept repeating, how long before the listener realised it could not be a mistake ?

From my perspective, tunes which change their time signatures are the awkward ones to comprehend, for just the reason stated above - no pattern. Even as a non-musician, Mr. Layman has a hard time making sense of these. Foot-tapping becomes almost impossible, so it's hard to keep track.

  • Yeah changing time signatures or the first beats of odd tempos for non musicians can be confusing I agree with that. thanks.
    – Niloct
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 15:46

If executed correctly, those time signatures have powerful affects and create a distinct feel. In fact, these time signatures are very common in Eastern music. Sometimes problems come when people don't create patterns that fit the style of the time signature. For example, in 7/8, the grouping is counted by the idea of 1 2 3 - 1 2 - 1 2 so it is most effective with a group of 3 followed by two groups of 2. If trying to just do a group of 7 it may feel incomplete to people expecting a more common feel (4/4 for example).

  • Daniel Gildenlow from Pain of Salvation once lectured the audience on counting 7/8: One-Two-Three-Fo[One-Two-Three-Fo...] =)
    – Niloct
    Commented Dec 6, 2013 at 22:33
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    Also 7 is 12-12-123.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 7:52
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    I love to compare the mechanical, somewhat oppressive feel of the Terminator theme, in 13 vs. the more conventional and reassuring the Terminator 2 theme, in 6.
    – Édouard
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 12:46

When two or more musicians are playing 5/4 in tight step, it would be very hard to reach the conclusion that they're doing it by mistake.

The art of playing in "unusual" time signatures is to make it sound natural. The layman listening to Dave Brubeck's Take Five (5/4), or Pink Floyd's Money (7/4) won't perceive either as an error. Both sound confident, and flow well.

The musically literate, of course, will spot the time signature, and think "Wow, they've done a good job of making that time signature flow".

Is there a level of expertise somewhere between those groups of people, who would say "I have learned that music has four beats to a bar, and therefore this music is being done wrong!"? -- well, possibly. But I think it would be a very small group of people; they'd soon learn better; and the fact that the "mistake" is being repeated confidently bar-after-bar would convince them that it's not an error.

There are some songs which don't stick to a consistent time signature. Quite a lot of Crowded House songs are in 4/4 but slip in a 2/4 bar from time to time. When The War Came by The Decemberists, seems to slip between various prime-numbered time signatures -- I find it very difficult to analyse. But all the instruments are perfectly together; you can tell it's all very deliberate.

... which brings us to solo performers. I have seen amateur performers with no feel for rhythm, singing well known songs, adding a beat here, skipping a beat there - and I would argue that these are execution errors. They are not doing it knowingly or on purpose.

But I have also heard Ewan MacColl singing his own song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. When Roberta Flack and others sing this song, they pad it out to a steady 4/4 beat. Ewan MacColl's version does not keep a steady beat - if a rest goes on too long for him, he'll start the next bar early. This does jar for me -- I latch onto a beat easily, and I find it hard to listen to someone ignoring the beat. But it's not an error - the performer knows what he's doing.

  • All of your examples here have a 4 in the denominator. If you have a steady 1/4 note pulse, most people will latch onto that. I believe the questions is more concerned with meters with an 8 in the denominator, as this makes the beats uneven with no steady pulse. Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 13:25
  • I don't think that makes a difference to be honest. I could have said Money was 7/8. I guess you could conceive time signatures with a fraction of a beat "missing" like 15/16 which would sound very much like a "wrong" 4/4.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 15:49
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    While one could say it was in 7/8 and write it out that way, the reality is that having an 8 on bottom implies uneven beats. This remains true even with 8/8, even though you can easily place a 1/4 note pulse against it, it is 3+3+2 (or 2+3+3 or 3+2+3). Saying that Money is in 7/8 would not line up with the standard conventions. So you could call it 7/8 but if you told someone to play in 7/8, they would more than likely play the song wrong, especially drums (wrong being that it is not representative of what Pink Floyd wrote and would then be a variation of the original). Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 19:19
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    @Basstickler - The 4 or 8 as the bottom number will only affect the speed /tempo of a song. It's more often chosen to make the tune easier to write/read. It cannot imply even or uneven beats: it tells whether the pulse is in crotchets or quavers.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 7:43
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    @Tim - Yes, the denominator does tell you what everything is broken into and all of the 1/8 notes will be even but these 1/8 notes are subdivisions in odd meters and compound meters. In 6/8 there are 2 beats with 3 subdivisions per beat, hence being compound. One would not say there are 6 beats, rather 6 subdivisions per measure. Though the 1/8 notes pass evenly in an odd meter, each beat does not have the same amount of 1/8 note subdivisions, making the beats uneven. The emphasis determines the beats. Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 19:18

Depends on the listener's background and the way the piece being played sounds. I've learned several odd signature songs in the past, and there were one or two that seemed like a mistake, but when I got into the tabs or sheet music, I figured out that it was because of what they were playing, not the timing, that it seemed off. Some notes and chords just complement one another, while others don't.

To answer the question though, I would say its absolutely plausible to say that someone could take an odd signature as a mistake by the player, but more often than not, in my experience, those that don't play an instrument, or have musical knowledge, don't really pay all that much attention. That is by no means a rule, just what I've seen firsthand.


Define layman. A non musician? I don't think it would make a lot of difference if the listener were a musician or not. Except that the musician is more likely to have listened irregular meters before.

A person who's never (rarely ever) heard odd meters or heavily syncopated music? Yes he would perceive it as mistake. Personally, I do remember hearing those things as mistakes when I was younger.

Ever heard of Behold the Arctopus? Me and my friends used to make fun of their music because it was so chaotic and irregular. But after listening to it a few times (out of curiosity) it doesn't even bother me anymore. Try it yourself, listen to this for a few minutes, then listen to it tomorrow.

It's well known that through history we have learned to tolerate more and more complex musical features be it harmonically, rhythmically or melodically. Check out this documentary.

The more complex the pattern the harder it is for the brain to pick it up. It's no surprise kinder gardeners prefer nursery rhymes over hard bop. Most of us probably don't remember how the first odd meter song we heard sounded choppy, or how dissonant was the first 11th chord we heard, because we were very young.

  • Aah, what have you done! I just had to listen to that entire album, twice. This kind of thing hasn't happened to me in a while, great band! — Sure, though, most people would find that kind of music highly unpleasant. But I don't think you can attribute most of that, or even much of it, to the time signatures. More crucial are the dissonant harmonies, incoherent arrangement and aggressive playing style. — I had a similar experience when I was younger, with the Police song Mother. But what's disturbing about that is less the 7/8 meter than the screaming vocals. Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 2:34
  • Well I was just trying to show the OP that it's not just about odd time signatures. Jazz harmony used to annoy me a lot, and the heavy use of chromatics in the melody to me sounded like an amateur struggling to stay in the scale. The drums solos sounded like a beginner's practice. It is really common to reject these things when they are new to you.
    – Anthony
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 7:46
  • Hey, weird stuff! Nice example you picked up. For me a layman in music would be a non-musician indeed, someone who doesn't play an instrument and listens to more pop stuff.
    – Niloct
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 17:13

I think that the layman mostly perceives odd time signatures as a mistake if the performer plays them like they are a mistake.

Note that this is not just for Jazz or modern music: this concerns hemiole (best-known example probably "I wanna be in Ame- ri- ca") in baroque music as well: those are formally in-meter like 3/4, but durations and word syllables make clear that the "natural" meter has dropped to half speed for three half notes.

Going with the word flow means a natural and interesting skipping of time. Keeping with the "proper" time instead sounds like someone reciting rhymed music and making an explicit pause at each line ending even if the rhyme is in midword.

So to come back to modern meter: it mostly depends on the performer believing in the meter and going with it.

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