Adding unpredictability in Music – Odd Time Signatures

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Odd time signatures

Besides the commonly used time signatures, such as 4/4, 2/4, and 6/8, time signatures (or meters) with beats that cannot be divided into equal groups or subdivisions are called odd meters. For example, 5/4 must be divided into uneven groups, such as 3+2 or 2+3.

“If your intention is to create unexpected and exciting rhythms, 4/4 shouldn’t necessarily be your first choice of meter.”

Time signatures like 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, or even 6/8 are the most common in popular music today, as they are arguably the most comfortable and familiar to our ears. However, the rhythmic possibilities from common time signatures can be slightly limited and often predictable. If your intention is to create unexpected and exciting rhythms, 4/4 shouldn’t necessarily be your first choice of meter.

Using odd time signatures can bring rhythmic asymmetry and uniqueness that common time signatures can’t always offer. However, creating unique rhythms and tension is one thing, but making them sound natural is another challenge. In this section, we’ll explore some examples that utilize odd time signatures while maintaining their balance and unpredictability.

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3/4 may be defined as an odd time signature since it cannot be divided equally. However, since it frequently appears in Waltz form, we will exclude it from our discussion in this book.

Ex. 1) Elmer Bernstein, “Staccato’s Theme,” from the TV series Johnny Staccato (1959)

Elmer Bernstein - Staccato's Theme
Elmer Bernstein, “Staccato’s Theme,”

Ex. 1 is a rearrangement of the opening measures from a classic soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein. The song starts with an electric guitar riff accompanied by bass playing an octave lower in unison. In the section above, the timpani and alto saxophone group phrases into beats of 3 + 2 by emphasizing the note ‘E’ on every fourth beat of the measure.

Ex. 2) Lalo Schifrin, “Mission: Impossible Theme,” from the TV Show: Mission: Impossible (1967)

Lalo Schifrin, “Mission: Impossible Theme,” from the TV Show: Mission: Impossible (1967)
Lalo Schifrin, “Mission: Impossible Theme”

In this famous example by Lalo Schifrin, the song provides a good amount of tension (and a catchy melody!) while maintaining the 5/4 rhythm. The rhythm groupings can be divided into 3+2, as we did in Ex. 1. A repetitive tutti motif (See Fig. A) helps establish a solid rhythmic device on which consecutive chromatically descending melodies flow from measure 5. Also, note that the rest between the first three beats and the last two beats of each melodic motif functions to emphasize and divide the beats into 3+2.

Mission Impossible Rhythm
Fig. A

Ex. 3) Yasunori Mitsuda, “Drowning Valley,” from the album Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack (1999)

Yasunori Mitsuda, “Drowning Valley,”
Yasunori Mitsuda, “Drowning Valley,”

Ex. 3‘s beat grouping is identical to the previous two examples, with the only difference being that the note value of the denominator is an eighth note in this piece. This is another great example of how to build a musical theme over an odd meter using repetitive motifs or riffs. The melody played by the woodwinds is based on quarter notes, eighth notes, and two eighth-note phrasings to follow the 3+2 grouping. The bass is at the center of the rhythm, while the marimba (in unison with string pizzicato) further accentuates the 1st, 4th, and 5th subdivisions in the background, providing firm rhythmic support (see Fig. B).

Fig. B

Ex. 4) Rupert-Gregson Williams, “Wonder Woman’s Wrath,” from the album Wonder Woman (2017) 

Rupert-Gregson Williams, “Wonder Woman's Wrath,”
Rupert-Gregson Williams, “Wonder Woman’s Wrath”

Led by its bold 7/8 string ostinato figures, Ex. 4) opens the song with a solid low string riff, which soon layers up with a Taiko ensemble as the piece unfolds. Compared to other odd meter examples we’ve discussed so far, this example does not purposely stress certain beats to divide a measure into two groupings; instead, each downbeat of a measure has been accentuated.

Depending on the analyst’s perspective, the 7/8 time in this song can certainly be subdivided into 2+2+2+1 or 2+2+3. Regardless, the melody played by the horns is not bound by time but chooses to flow naturally, demonstrating a less restrictive feeling.

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This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.