Part 4: Time Signatures Explained, Writing Songs in Odd Meters

By David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | November 19, 2018

 

Part 4 Time Signatures Explained, Writing Songs in Odd Meters

Although so much pop music these days is written in straight 4/4 meter, there’s still room for some great odd-meter creativity. In this article, we’ll go over what odd meter is, when and why you’d want to use it, and share examples of the most common of uncommon meters to try out in your next song.

Prerequisite

Before we can define something as being “odd,” we first need to understand meter (or time signature). If this is your first time hearing these terms, or you feel like you need a refresher on the topic, head on over to Part 1 of the series to brush up on the basics.

Simple meters

As you know by now, 4/4 is by far the most popular time signature in the world. With four steady beats in each measure, it provides for a very stable rhythm. The top number in the time signature is easily divisible by two, which is what makes it feel "even." This is also true for time signatures like 2/4, 2/2, or 12/8.

As you learned in Part 2 of this series, despite having an odd number on top, songs in 3/4 still feel particularly stable and good. Whether they're marked as being 3/4 or 6/8, these songs are based on a rhythm that consists of groups of threes. Threes are easy to divide into sub-beats, so it's easy for us to feel their pulse, which is why these meters don't feel "off" or "strange" in any way.

4/4 and 3/4 (along with their variations) are all part of what we call simple meters. These can easily be divided either by two or three (also called duple or triple meter respectively). Simple meters naturally feel stable because they allow us to easily "feel" the groove even when all you hear is the click.

Odd meters, on the other hand, can create some very unusual and exciting rhythms.

What are odd meters?

Odd meters (as in strange ones) are those with no easy way to divide their sub-beats into equal groups.

Take 7/4 for example. You can't easily divide its beats into equal groups of two or three. Odd meters (also called complex, irregular, or asymmetrical meters) will have to consist of a combination of twos and threes in order make up their full measure and create their pulse. They feel unstable, slightly off-balance, and, well, odd—which is precisely where their beauty lies.

Groupings

Let's have a look and listen to 5/8 time.

Listen to the first part of the audio sample. As you can hear and see, there's no way to just divide each measure into equal strong/weak pulses. Although you could count 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, the groove will want to be subdivided into groups of beats, which will help create a more defined pulse.

One option would be to have a group of two beats followed by a group of three beats (2+3) as you can see and hear in the second audio example. In this instance, the first and third beats of each measure are accented.

Alternately, you could create a different pulse by flipping the order, first grouping three beats together, then two, (3+2) like in example 3.

5-8_example

Odd naming

The one thing that people sometimes confuse is that the "Odd" in Odd Meters refers to the top number of the time signature being an odd number, rather than an even one. Although in the majority of situations this way of thinking about meters may work, it doesn't always apply. The reason? Not all meters with odd numbers on top are actually complex meters (3/4 being an example) and not all meters with even based top numbers are actually simple (10/8 being an example).

So, think of the "odd" as meaning "strange." It boils down to a simple question: If you were to split things up, would you be able to subdivide the beats into even repeating pulses of 2 or 3? If the answer is yes, it's a simple meter. If the answer is no, you're dealing with a complex meter.

When should you use odd meters?

The meter of your song should be a reflection of the emotions you’re trying to convey. Consider this: if you’re singing about good times, friends, and how life is a positive journey filled with sunshine, then an even meter is very fitting. Think of Pharrell Williams' "Happy."

On the other hand, if the song’s topic is about heartache or the world being a mess, well an odd meter could be a perfect choice. Which one you choose will really be up to you. 5/4 and 7/4 are among the more popular choices, so maybe start there.

Once you write a couple songs in those odd meters, try exploring more complex ones. The more beats you have to play with the more you can experiment with odd groupings to create really complicated and chaotic sounding songs that still have an underlying pulse.

Examples

Although we live in a world that's been dominated by perfectly balanced songs in 4/4, there's still plenty of fascinating music that's been written in complex time signatures:

Pink Floyd - “Money” (7/4)

Radiohead - “15 Steps” (5/4)

Soundgarden - “Outshined” (7/4)

Hozier - “From Eden” (5/4)

Linda Ronstadt - “Get Closer” (7/4)

Cat Stevens - “Rubylove” (7/8)

Sting - “I Hung My Head” (9/8)

Grateful Dead - “Playing in the Band” (10/4)

Lalo Schifrin - “Mission Impossible Theme” (5/4)

Kenta Nagata - “Mario Kart 64 Music” (11/8)

John Carpenter - “Halloween Movie Theme” (5/4)

How to write songs in odd meters

As you may have noticed, rock artists, funk bands, and film composers are among those who have been using odd meters most often. In popular music, Sting is one of the few performers to have achieved worldwide success with his odd-metered songs. So start listening to songs in odd meters for groovy inspiration for your next song.

Once you choose which time signature you want to write in, you'll need to set up your metronome clicks accordingly to help you stay on beat. If you're writing using Spire Studio, head on over to the Tempo tab and set the metronome to 1/4 (this will make each click sound the same so you can make it work with whichever meter you choose). If you're working directly in a DAW like Logic, make sure to set your session's meter to the time signature of your choice. Once you have the metronome setup, get to writing. This part should be familiar and will work like writing any other song. The big difference here is you'll have to get the time signatures pulse into your body, but once it becomes comfortable and familiar you'll have a blast writing your song!

Conclusion

Odd-metered songs can provide a ton of creative freedom to write "outside of the box." Use this to your advantage. If the topic of your song calls for a little less stability and a little more chaos, go for it! An odd time signature will give you just that. Before you know it, you'll be writing songs in 9/8 like it's no one's business!