I'd like know how a drummer or percussionist should handle a change in the time signature of a piece such the one found in Low Light by the Pearl Jam.

I am familiar to syncopation as "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur" and I understand more clear change in the time signature (such change from 4/4 to 12/8).

My problem here is what to do when just single or few measure add or remove something (e.g. have a single 9/8 measure in a 6/8-based song, that is how I kind of now understand the linked 'Low Light'). This feels counter-intuitive to me as a percussionist trying to keep the time for the other musician!

PS: few days ago I was unaware both of the existence of such time signature shifts and the fact that question about specific works are (sadly?) not accepted on this site so I originally asked clarification on the time signature of Low Light by Pearl Jam here. Please also note that here I am more interested in understanding how a drummer/percussionist should handle these signatures in general.

4 Answers 4


You don't need to do anything special, in most cases. Just play an extra beat in the bar, or one beat less. It should be pretty obvious whether the odd beat (or beats) is a "strong" beat or not. For example, if you're doing a standard 4/4 rock beat with snare drum strokes on the 2nd and 4th beats, and you have one odd 3/4 bar, it may be that you need to play the snare on the 2nd and 3rd beats, or maybe only on the 1st beat, and it should be obvious which based on what the other players are doing.

To give another example, a 6/8 bar that's two groups of three quavers, you might just do an extra group of three quavers, the same as the other two, to make a 9/8 bar.

Less frequently, the odd bar will coincide with a drum break/fill. It's quite common to do that at the end of a phrase, to surprise the listener with the new phrase. In that case, you just need to know it's coming so you can make the fill the right length.

In some cases, the odd bar will also come right before a tempo change. When this happens, you also need to get everyone ready for the new tempo. This is just the same as it would be with a normal-length bar, and you should deal with it the same way you usually do with your group.

In short, there's nothing special about any of these situations. Just do what you'd normally do, with one beat added or removed.

  • I used to work with a drummer who'd do what's described in your 3rd. para. Trouble is, it was supposed to be a normal bar...
    – Tim
    Jan 4, 2014 at 17:19
  • @Tim LOL! Perhaps I should edit my answer to make it clear that everyone needs to know it's coming!
    – Dan Hulme
    Jan 5, 2014 at 0:36
  • @Tim I think it's something that happened to me too especially when I was a beginner. Trouble was to put fills inside phrases and bars, so each time I played a fill or a solo I entered in a kind of parallel tempo and most likely missed to get back into the song with the right beat on the phrases. A part from practice and listening to the other instruments, an experienced drummer gave me an advice: play the song's tune on my head while playing fills&solo. This is effective to both keep the tempo and make a sound solo.
    – Niccolò
    Jan 6, 2014 at 15:28

Simple answer - they just count, as they do in any song. But here, they may count 1,2 -1,2 - 1,2 - 1,2,3 - 1,2. If the beat is slower, they may count 123,456 - 123,456 - 123,456,789 - 123,456 for each of the quavers (1/8 notes).

The pulse is followed in that all quavers are the same length, so the count will be steady.


You need to write down a chart of each measure in the piece and what its time signature is. Then you need to determine what pattern of beats you will play in each measure.

For a simple song that stays in the same time signature all the way through, you may already be accustomed to playing different patterns for the different sections of the song: the basic beat, the fills, the introduction, the verse, the chorus, the bridge, the coda. But in a piece with frequently changing odd-time signatures, you need to go into more detail because each section of the song may consist of different combinations of measures which utilize different time signatures.

Start listening to drummers in rock bands that utilize multiple, changing odd time signatures. You may find this intimidating at first. Listen to the music of bands such as Rush, Yes, early Genesis, Dream Theater, Frank Zappa, and Belá Fleck and the Flecktones. When playing their music, each member of the band has to memorize the sequence of measures and the number of beats in each measure, since the number of beats in each measure changes frequently.

Ultimately, in all music of this sort, no matter what time signature is being used, patterns of beats are combinations of patterns of 2, 3, or 4 beats. For instance, a measure in 7/4 time may use beats in a pattern of 4 + 3, or 3 + 4, or 2 + 3 + 2. It is up to you to figure out what patterns are being used, and to memorize them.

I do not wish to intimidate you further, but there are styles of music that are polyrhythmic, which is to say that there is more than one time signature going on simultaneously. Usually different members of the band are playing in different rhythms at the same time. But it is not out of the question to have a drummer who plays in two different time signatures simultaneously all by himself. This kind of musical complexity is often found in African folk music; it is also found in the style of 20th-century and 21st-century classical orchestral music called minimalism.


Study this question and answer on this site, with an accompanying audio recording.

What is the time signature and tempo (let's say for the intro) of Yes' Close to The Edge song?

This will provide you with an example of how to learn to play such a piece.

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