# I need help understanding a complex (or maybe compound) time signature

I composed this song a few years ago originally using a tracker (an old-school, very freeform compositional workflow), and have been recently trying to transcribe it into a more modern DAW (Ableton Live). I'm struggling to find the "right" way of transcribing it, and in general have a rough time understanding more unusual timings and meters.

Listen to this stripped-down loop:

http://soundcloud.com/cinasaffary/dirty-water-simple-loop/s-zREjC

For reference, the full song is available here.

The way I count each loop is

1-2-3 4-5-6 | 1-2-3 4-5-6 | 1-2-3 4-5-6 | 1-2 | 1-2-3 4-5-6 | 1-2-3 4-5-6


Does that mean this is 32/8? I'm not sure it's correct to count the entire loop as one long measure and that time signature sounds ridiculous. Seems that the more likely answer is that it's a compound 6/8 8/8 signature, but that's only a guess. Plus I don't know how I'd go about setting that up in my DAW sanely. Also, I don't really know where the measure divisions would go.

Can anybody shed some light on this? The good news is I'm pretty sure the chorus of the song is considered straight 6/8.

• If you make the soundcloud loop track "public", it will show directly here in the question body. See how to do it here. – awe Dec 17 '13 at 13:33

I believe there are two things you are looking for here. The analysis of the meter and how to translate that to a DAW, such as Ableton Live. I think these could be two different answers.

I could analyze this fragment a few ways depending on what or whom it is for. With the phrasing I hear, I would say the analysis that best describes the phrasing would be: 12/8 | 8/8 | 6/8 | 6/8 | This is because I hear the first 4 beats as one measure and the last four beats feel broken into two pieces, where the first two beats are the echo of the bar of 8/8 and the second are a sort of turnaround.

If I were writing this out for players to read, I would have the bar of 12/8 separated into two bars of 6/8 to keep the changing of time signatures to a minimum, making it easier to read. This would be: 6/8 | 6/8 | 8/8 | 6/8 | 6/8 |

For the DAW, the easiest way is going to be to keep it in 4/4. The tempo in the loop you posted is aprox. 1/8 = 290, which means you would want to set the tempo at 1/4 = 145. Your pattern neatly lines up with 8 bars of 4/4, so your loop will fit neatly in the grid and you won't have to map out the changes. The biggest problem with this approach is that the metronome would not properly represent the actual beats.

I know that when I am programming/composing in a DAW with strange time signatures, I like to see everything how I think of it. I also prefer to have a metronome when I record over programmed loops. So I personally would map out the meter changes because it helps me see and hear exactly where everything is. Even though I analyze the first four beats as one bar, I would probably map it in 6/8 because it is so closely related, I can think of it either way. I use Logic Pro and it is relatively easy to map and you can copy sets of changes. I'm not very familiar with Ableton Live but they certainly have a good reputation and I would be surprised if it were not versatile enough to copy time signatures.

You are right that this is somewhat a complex time signature.

The first measure sounds like some sort of prelude (it is basically the last 4 beats in the repeating pattern that follows). The time signature for this measure is 4/4:

1 2 3 4


The pattern that follows is one measure with time signature 3/4, followed by two 4/4 measures:

1 2 3 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4


This pattern is repeated throughout the song.

The point is that the time signature does not have to be the same for the entire song, and this is an example of that. It would be possible to say it is 11/4 that has 4 beats as prelude before the first measure begins. But this is a quite slow beat, and it would be more natural to split it up. You might see other options to split it up, but that is up to you.

At first, I was thinking to split up the repeating pattern like this:

1 2 3 | 1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3


But then the first 4 beats in the prelude would not fit in. This is not a big problem. It is valid to say that the prelude was just the 5th beat from the measure in the middle, and then 1 2 3 before the full pattern starts.
In this case, if you follow the "rules" you should end the piece with a 5/4 measure that has only the first 4 beats in it.
This is because the 5th beat is in the beginning of the prelude.

How you choose to split it up is much a matter of taste, and where you want to emphasize the first beat.

• You could also say that the first 4 beats is the start of the pattern, so that you have 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 4 as the repeating pattern, but I feel that the musical phrase starts most naturally with the 3/4 measure. – awe Dec 17 '13 at 10:31
• I disagree here actually, after counting through the sample several different ways, I feel that 4/4 | 3/4 | 4/4 is the clearest representation of the meter. – jjmusicnotes Dec 17 '13 at 14:23
• I'm not so sure that 3/4 is correct for the middle measure. I think it's actually 8/8 because the last beat of the 3 is simple while the first two are complex. – cina Dec 17 '13 at 15:53
• I definitely would not analyze this using a 4 as the denominator for a few reasons. 1. The proposed bar of 3/4 is two eighth notes shy of the full bar. 2. All of the subdivisions played are in sets of three and I can't imagine why you would rather write endless triplets. 3. If you call it 4/4, then properly identifying the second bar would require a change of tempo. – Basstickler Dec 18 '13 at 1:34
• @awe - Yes, I was aware - I disagree with the nomenclature of "prelude" as that refers to entirely different type of music. "Introduction" may be more accurate here. One of the fun things about discussing and interpreting music is learning how everyone perceives what's going on, and there are of course, multiple ways of correctly notating the same heard sounds. – jjmusicnotes Dec 18 '13 at 14:22

It is not difficult. In simple time you have a certain number of regular beats. You can have beats of minims. You can have beats of crotchets. You can have beats of quavers. When a time signature becomes compound its beats become dotted notes.

So for instance 3/4 time is simple triple time. 9/8 is compound triple time. You went from three beats of crotchets to three beats of dotted crotchets. 9/8's grouping would be three groups of dotted crotchets

2/4 time is simple duple time. 6/8 is compound duple time. You have gone from two beats of crotchets to two beats of dotted crotchets. 6/8 time's grouping would be two groups of dotted crotchets.

4/4 time you have four beats of crotchets 12/8 time you have four groups of dotted crotchets.

Let us now try groups of minims.

2/2 is simple duple time with groups of minims. Compound time would be 6/4 time where you would have 2 groups of dotted minims worth of notes.

3/2 is simple triple time with groups of minims. 9/4 is compound triple time with groups of dotted minims.

4/2 is simple quadruple time with groups of minim. Its compound signature would 12/4 (Very Rare)

And lastly we have the groups of quavers.

2/8 is simple duple time with groups of quavers. Its compound time signature would be 6/16

3/8 is simple triple time with groups of quavers. Its compound time signature would 9/16

4/8 is simple quadruple time with groups of quavers. Its compound time signature would 12/16

Hope that helps.