I've noticed that this seems to be some sort of trick music composers have been using more and more of recently. Consider this song for example:

Nothing is odd for the first 15 seconds, then the beats come in on a different timing and stay there for the remainder of the song, whereas the, er, bell-like sounding instrument only lingers for a few more seconds before exiting stage left. Surprise! You have been "off beat" all along!

I've noticed using this especially in less classical music pieces such as dubstep.

I'm wondering if there is a more formal name or characterization for it, given that I realize I've been pretty inaccurate in my use of words.

  • “Firestarter” by the Prodigy does something similar, starting on on beat 4 with a big bass drum hit followed by a very arhythmic riff. When the 4/4 pulse finally kicks in it's very disorienting. Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 5:44
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    The fun game of 'where's the one?' can be played on non-computer-based music too... Consider Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon, or even Mama Mia by Abba. Both actually start on the 1, but your ear is drawn to the high note of the riff in both cases, pushing your perception of where the 1 ought to be until the entire band comes in & sets you straight. Another famous old one is All Along the Watchtower, by Jimi Hendrix, which doesn't start on the 1 & has left many a musician still struggling to come to terms with where it ought to be right up to the first verse. What I've found in common with all thi
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 6:02
  • Oh ha I got it backwards! Just listened to the song again and it does start on beat 1, but then the sample riff throws you off! Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 6:03
  • @Tetsujin Yes, that's exactly the problem I have with Firestarter. The song starts on one, but the riff doesn't, which is super confusing. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 1:44
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    [This part was previously truncated, posted for completeness] What I've found in common with all this type of piece is that unfortunately, once you get it wrong, for some reason you end up actually learning the mistake, sometimes so much that it's easier in your head to consider the last bar of the intro to be in 15/16 than it is to actually get it correct from the start. Less so if you actually play the song, of course, as you'd have a count-off - but each time you hear it on the radio etc, it's already too late to prepare yourself for where the one ought to have been.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 11:41

2 Answers 2


It's called a metric modulation because the time signature changes. In the example that you gave, the song starts in 3/4, and then uses a metric modulation to move to 4/4 time, and including the syncopation it does sound a bit surprising when your ear finally accepts the new downbeat as the "1". The tempo also speeds up considerably as a result.

The most likely reason you are noticing this appearing more often and especially in the genres you mention is for practical reasons. This kind of thing is much easier to do with DAW music editing software than it is for live musicians, who will likely muck it up a few times and need some rehearsal before they can get it down straight. And even then, the composer has to be confident enough that it will work in order to write it and take his band through the transition a few times to get it down. But the producer using a DAW can experiment with alot of ideas like this, and have immediate verification that they have the effect he intended.

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    Does it start 3/4? Sounds like 4/4 with snare on 4, when the beat enters, it's bass on 1 and 3 (well, 2.75 and 3), snare on 2 and 4. I.e. I don't think the time-signature really changes at all. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 10:53

I still think it's actually a game of "Where's the One?" Rather than it actually modulating signature, it just throws you by allowing you to believe that the intro is in 6/8 rather than 4/4 triplets.

Simple experiment, put a count on it & a very simple swung 4/4 under the first 4 bars, then let it continue into the existing piece, untouched...

  • I think you're right, it's more fun to play with music that actually has an anacrusis, if this one does, I can't hear it! So therefore this piece just sounds like it starts with more rests than notes in the drum pattern. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 13:48

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