Odd time signatures can be a drummer’s biggest headache or a math rockers greatest delight. But what do we even mean by odd time signatures, and why would anyone ever use them?
The simple fact is that music is about repetition. Without some structure, we wouldn’t really have music anymore, just some arrhythmic chaos.
You can choose to play a very common repeating time signature or something unusual that will give your music a unique flavor. Let’s dive into these weird times and see if we can’t make them a bit easier to understand.
All About Time Signatures
A time signature tells you the way to count out a piece of music. It explains both how it repeats and how many beats to put into a bar or measure.
Let’s look at the world’s favorite time signature, 4/4, also known as common time or quadruple meter for a simple breakdown:
The bottom number tells you which type of note gets a count. In this case, that’s a quarter note. Besides a whole note, all note types are divisible by 2, so the bottom number of a time signature is always going to be even. The bottom numbers /4, /8, /16 are the usual suspects.
Now for the more complicated top number.
The top number tells you how many counts are in a single measure or bar. In 4/4 time, each bar has 4 quarter notes, so when you’ve counted 4 notes, it’s time for a new bar. 4/4 time counts like this:
1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4
That’s the standard rhythm for just about every rock, pop, or hip-hop song out there!
The other most common time signature in the world is 3/4, aka triple meter. The bottom number says quarter notes get the count, and the top number says you get 3 quarter notes per bar, right? So you’d count this as:
1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3 and so on.
That’s 4 bars of 3/4 time. This is the time signature you’ll hear in all waltzes (oom-pah-pah) and other styles of music. It sounds less like a march and more like the slow, steady plod of a slightly tipsy giant.
If you know your fractions, you’ll immediately notice something a bit weird here. Isn’t 6/8 equal to 3/4? It is, and that makes the difference between these two time signatures simply technical. Here, the 8th note gets a count rather than the quarter note. So you’d count 6/8 like this:
1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3 (3/4 time)
1-2-3-4-5-6, 2-2-3-4-5-6, 3-2-3-4-5-6, 4-2-3-4-5-6 (6/8 time)
Now you may very well be asking yourself, “Isn’t a fast quarter note the same as a slow 8th note?”
While this is a bit of a controversial argument, let’s just say yes. There’s no set length of time for a quarter note, an 8th note, or any other note for the matter.
At the same time, when writing out a piece of music, composers like to use time signatures and measures to control how and when their tunes are voiced. And there is a sort of agreed feel for what is a slow and a fast tempo. Then, of course, we get to the subject of beats.
When we talk about meter in music, the word ‘beat’ takes on a different meaning than it does in normal, everyday speech. Normally we say a beat is the rhythmic pattern of the drums on a track.
When talking music theory, a beat is a strong, emphasized strike of a drum or other rhythm instrument that gives a certain pace to a bar of music.
In 4/4 time, each bar has 2 strong beats. For one of the very clearest examples of this, check out the beginning of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. It goes a little like this:
kick x snare x| kick x snare x| kick x snare x| kick x snare x|
…where the ‘x’ is an unstressed note, here played on the hi-hats (well, actually drum synthesizer, but you get the idea). This is the same as:
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 |
A time signature like 6/8 time also has 2 strong beats per bar, like this standard beat:
1 2 3 4 5 6 | 1 2 3 4 5 6 | 1 2 3 4 5 6 | 1 2 3 4 5 6 |
As a player, this is probably just a simplified technical explanation of what you already know by feel. After all, nearly all Western music is played in triple or quadruple meter (OK, and polka, which is 2/4 duple time oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah).
Problems arise with unusual time signatures because the strong beats are equally distributed across their bars.
Playing Odd Time Signatures
Some strange time signatures pop up more than others. Let’s take a look at 5/4 time and 7/8 time as examples on how to count these odd times out.
If we take one of the most common weird time signatures, 5/4, we can start to see why they’re so difficult.
Because 5/4 is still counted on the quarter note, it still assigns 2 beats to each bar. But because we’ll have 5 quarter notes in each bar, and 5 isn’t divisible by 2, things get weird.
Two possible ways to break up this time signature are:
1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5 | and 1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5 |
…or even weirder combinations of these.
This is already pretty tough to count, let alone play. And 5/8 time is the same animal, just written out in 8th notes instead of quarter notes.
But wait a second. 5 = 2 + 3, or 3 + 2. Many players find it easier to count out these smaller parts of the measure and automatically adjust to 5/4 or 5/8 in the following way:
1-2 1-2-3 | 1-2 1-2-3 | or 1-2-3 1-2 | 1-2-3 1-2 |
Have a look at that. In either case, the beat now always falls on a 1 count. That’s a bit easier, isn’t it?
And since you’re curious, yes, composers could write out their music this way, but they’d have to change the time signature with every bar, alternating 2/2 | 3/2 | 2/2 | 3/2 | and that would be a total mess.
Probably the most memorable riff in 5/4 time has to be the Mission Impossible Theme song. It’s not exactly in straight time – it has a bit of swing to it – but see if you can count along. With a familiar song like that, 5/4 suddenly feel so odd, does it?
Of the weirdo time signatures, 7/8 is another of the most familiar. This time, 7/8, or septuple time, usually has 3 beats to a bar. Once again, 7 isn’t divisible by 3, so we’re going to have to divide the counts up in some funky ways. For example:
1-2-3-4-5-6-7 | 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 | and 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 | 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 |
Now that’s maybe a bit hard to count, so again, we can use the trick of breaking up these bars into shorter counts. Try this instead:
1-2-3-4 1-2-3 | 1-2-3-4 1-2-3 | and 1-2-3 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3 1-2-3-4 |
Hey, a 4 count and a 3 count – those are more familiar, right?
Extreme Time Signatures
Time signatures like 13/16 and 27/8 can be used, as can anything else. And why stop there? Why not play two bars of 15/4 followed by six bars of 31/32? There are groups out there who do, and for most audiences, their music is far too inaccessible. But if you want to push the boundaries, why not?
Famous Songs with Odd Time Signatures
A lot of Afghan traditional music is in 5/4. Spain’s flamenco has a ton of 12/8, alternating with 3/4 and 6/8.
But here’s a list of some more modern songs with weird time signatures. See if you can count and play along to these chop-busting tracks. When in doubt, use a metronome, such as the KLIQ MetroPitch – Metronome Tuner for All Instruments to help keep things steady.
5/8: Within You Without You by George Harrison
6/4: Electric Feel by MGMT
7/4: Money by Pink Floyd
10/4: Everything in its Right Place by Radiohead
11/4: Blockhead by Devo
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