Time signatures, a musicians best friend if used wisely. Time signatures when used correctly can add other dimensions to a song, a feeling of awkwardness, incompleteness, shuffling dancing, rushing.
I’ve gathered a collection of some of the more famous examples of songs in slight odd signatures. Whilst there are entire genres, bands, and lesser known material that utilise the practice of time signature variation, it is somewhat of a rarity for popular songs that get radio exposure. Lots of IDM, Math Rock, overtly Prog, and other genres really expand the usage of time signatures.
By ‘slightly odd’ time signatures, I was primarily thinking of time signatures that deviate from either standard 4/4 (or equivalent ’rounded’ time signatures) or a Waltzing 3/4. However we’re not going to into the level of Math Rock either… much. This is supposed to be a run down of the ‘history’ of contemporary music (anything 1940s onwards for this purpose). Also included are songs that flirt between and throw in unexpected moments of other time signatures. What is interesting is that some of the biggest most recognisable songs from artists, are seemingly what people would deem as ‘unfriendly for radio.’ There’s a notion that if the song is not strictly 4/4 you haven’t a hope that it will get exposure on radio. This is probably the likely case, but it does not always ring true. Whilst researching this article, I discovered that Indian music is incredibly friendly to ‘uncommon’ time signatures. Rupak and Jhaptal are common musical ‘tala’ in Indian classical pieces.
If you want an explanation of time signatures then click here to jump to a quick guide. – Update also a very good resource is this article by Fraser Murray
The logical starting place, is with Dave Brubeck. One of the most famous Jazz names, and equally famous songs, Mr Brubeck was notorious for his usage of playing with time signatures. Blue Ronda A La Turk uses 9/8, Three to Get Ready switches between 3/4 and 4/4, and Castilian Blues is in 5/4 . However, if I’m going to talk about 5/4 the best place to start with is Take Five. This song was unusual at its time, yet the popularity behind Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’ album and staple song has made Take Five by a subversion and trope setter in Jazz.
Another early piece of 5/4 is the Mission Impossibly Theme. There are several instances in soundtracks that used slightly odd time signatures. One of the best and most natural sounding 5/4 pieces, the theme used for both TV series and film, was written by Lalo Schfrin. The modern adaption still retains the 5/4 nature of the song. This classic Latin groove is also the inspiration for the Doors ‘Break On Through’. (Note, not the theme, just the standard Latin groove the theme uses)
Burt Bacharach, writer extraordinaire, has dabbled in time signatures. One of the most famous examples is from the song ‘Say a Little Prayer’ by Dionne Warwick. Using both 10/4 and 11/4 , as well as measures as common time. A brilliant song covered by an array of featured artists, including this version by Aretha Franklin.
The most popular band of all time, The Beatles, were definitely not afraid to experiment with odd time signatures, or even dropping a bar into the middle of a song. One such example is We Can Work It Out. The song is mostly in 4/4 until the bridge where it briefly goes into 3/4 for 4 bars. Another famous song for tricky time signatures is Here Comes the Sun. George Harrison’s relaxing ode to spirituality has a chorus of counting deviations per each line.
However the song for this list is the papier-mâché collage of Happiness is a Warm Gun. Built using segments written separately, the song is partially in 4/4, however there are some wild deviations. During the ‘doowap’ section, it starts off in 4/4, moves over to 6/4 whilst the drums play 4/4. Throughout the song it includes measures of 3/8, 5/4, 9/8, 10/8, 12/8, and more to name a few. Strawberry Fields is another example of a song that features shifting time measures. To think this is from the greatest boyband of all time.
Led Zeppelin also got caught with the mixed time signature bug. Black Dog switches from common time to waltz, and then to 5/4. However, Kashmir reigns supreme with common time drums, but everything else in 3/4. This is further confused by having the odd measure of 9/8.
Pink Floyd are also notorious for their usage of 7/4 in the song Money. The Dark Side of the Moon single also features a passage of 4/4 for David Gilmour’s guitar solo. As far as popular songs with odd time signatures go, this may be the most famous example.
Prog Rock group Genesis, as with any Prog act, are notorious for unusual time signatures. Firth of Fifth’s piano introduction for example mixes duple and quadruple metres with 13/16 and 15/16. However, the Genesis track in this list though has to be Turn It On Again. Not only is this one of the bands most recognisable for non fans, it is also one of their later output that changes so frequently. The song varies in time signatures and the structure is quite complex. There is even a whole debate about exactly what signatures are where on Genesis forums and music forums. This guide for example shows one interpretation.
Also speaking of Genesis, Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill is in 7/4.
You could attempt analysis of the entirety of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, but for arguments sake we’ll look at the first 4 minutes most closely associated with classic horror The Exorcist. The piano melody that runs through the first 3 and a bit minutes is comprised of two measures – one of 7/8 and the other 8/8. This makes it technically 15/8. There is an additional piano part that plays chords underneath that I worked out was playing 3/4. As the guitar solo comes in the song shifts gear to 4/4 because the guitar solo is playing in 4/4. It is hard to count, but it is definitely in 4/4. (Thankfully, whilst fact checking the article Wikipedia confirmed this.)
Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights also plays with time signatures during the chorus. Going from 4/4, to 2/4, to 3/4, to 4/4. In fact Kate, along with Paul Simon, are bigger whores of syncopated lyrical structures over common time signatures, especially Paul Simon. If you ever watch the Graceland Classic Albums documentary then he goes through the lyrics profusely, with an attention on syncopation.
The Stranglers’ Golden Brown has an infamous repeated pattern of 13/8 as well as common time. It is one of the more memorable instances of a pop song in the 80s with an odd time signature.
Pop hits in the 80s became far more rigid by design. The increased use of drum machines meant that a lot of songs stuck with conventional ’rounded’ time measures. I actually found it far harder to find songs from this period that were popular and had odd time signatures. Tears for Fears used 12/8 and 3/4 for Everybody wants to rule the World, except it is still technically 4/4 with triplets. There are lots of examples of interesting song structures, polyrhythms and syncopation. Toto’s Africa for example sounds quite odd, but is in common time. Because of the odd bar or a few beats of one idea followed by another contrasting it feels like it should be in a peculiar time signature. The opening riff is a 3 beat riff, followed by 5 beats of marimba. This usage of using the 3 beat riff occasionally in the verse makes the chorus sound like a union by being far more linear.
This does not mean that no songs in the 80s outside of common time, far from it, but they were more likely found on albums, in deep sub genres than raking up notoriety. Lots of Heavy Metal and Prog groups including: Dream Theatre, Metallica, Rush, Porcupine Tree, and many others were toyed with time signatures and rhythms, almost in attempt to be more bombastic and clever than the other acts. Oh look, we have a song with 4 polyrhythms of 29/π, what do you have? A silly morse code pattern that spells out the title of your song, aw how sweet.
On reflection there is one song that jumps out from the 80s with a weird time signature. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s collaboration of Don’t Give Up is in a 6/8. I almost excluded this because it is essentially counted almost as a Waltz, however because the chorus is 6/8 with kick accents on 1 and 6 (so they follow each other) they make the 6/8 of Kate’s section less waltzing.
Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s however found an affiliation with 7/8. Several songs he wrote during the 80s are all in 7/8. The Money Kept Rolling In, parts of ‘The Temple’ and a few bars of ‘Heaven on Their Minds’ also is 7/8. ‘Who’s the Thief?’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat also starts in 7/8. However, the most famous example is easily from Cats. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser goes from 4/4 into 7/8.
The nineties has far more offerings of popular uncommon time songs. Soundgarden are one of the biggest ’causes’ of this. Various songs including: have time signatures that are stranger than usual. Their most famous deviant is Spoonman that features 7/4 in the verses.
Arguably, Seal’s most well-known song has verses in an incredibly slow 5/4. It is better noted as 15/8 and 3/8.
A Nine Inch Nails classic, March of the Pigs, also features slightly odd measurements. 3 measures of 7/8, followed by one of 8/8. You can notice it quite a bit, as it is jarring.
One band that have become notorious for their use of time signatures and polyrhythms, and a band that are still on the go, is Radiohead. Similarly to Turn it On Again, the band’s Pyramid Song has long been debated by fans trying to decipher the rhythmic conundrum, with various wild theories floated. Personally, I count it as 3, pause, 3, 2, 2. Some argue that the song is in 8/8, and this basically opens up a chasm about time signatures, which I talk about further here. The band also have entire songs dedicated to 1 time signature. 15 Step, Let Down (sort of – click here for explanation), and Morning Bell (Kid A) are in 5/4, Nude and others are in 6/8, and Everything in Its Right Place is in 10/8. This video below shows the rhythmic structure of Pyramid Song.
Hangin’ Tree by Queens of the Stone Age is primarily in 5/4 excluding the guitar solo which is technically in 10/8. Included in this list is the original demo’d version from the Desert Sessions, mainly because it is a different version. Whilst not an incredible famous song, it is worth the inclusion to talk a little about other 5/4 greats. Gorillaz have a song called 5/4 which coincidentally is in… 4/4. Well, the drums are, the guitar riff is in 5/4. The Pixies’ song La La Love You is also in 5/4. Video obsessed OK GO, have a song called WTF? with a trippy music video – plus it is in 5/4. Out of all ‘odd’ signatures, 5/4 is possibly the most common in truth. It spans the classical world prominently, and again there are lots of recognisable songs that are either partially or entirely in 5/4.
In the early 2000s, Outkast were possibly the rap and hip hop act that everyone could get on board with. Their catchy melodies, quick lyricism, and brilliance is hard to contest. However, who knew they would provide not only one of the biggest hits with an insanely recognisable product placement phrase (Shake it like a Polaroid picture – which incidentally caused Polaroid to release a statement explaining that this could if anything damage a Polaroid), but a hit with a peculiar measure to boot. Hey Ya actually features 11/4 time signature, which is best counted out as 3 measures of 4/8, one of 2/8, and 2 of 4/8. Not only is the song great because of this, it also uses a deceptive cadence, and managed to get people dancing to a song about the futility of love – ‘If nothing last forever, then what makes love the exception?’. Deceptive pop, wonder if more acts should do this.
One of System of a Down’s best tracks and a popular single, is one the craziest. Question! is such a mental workout of time signatures, the band have had some incredibly rocky live performances. The included time signatures are: 3/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 10/8. As far as metal goes, this is one of the more popular songs of the last ten years to have such diverse changes.
One of the more prominent bands of the moment, Biffy Clyro, have various songs with odd time signatures. One of their most recognisable, The Mountain, has verses of 15/8.
Bjork’s last album Biophilia developed a close association with the 17/8 time signature, with 3 separate songs including it partially in the songs. Hollow, Moon, and Crystalline all featured this signature, however we’ve decided to included Crystalline. In the program, Björk meets Attenborough, she discusses how the face of a crystal could inspire her song writing by each face representing a different amount of beats. It is quite likely this was the inspiration for the track, as with the others on the album. Also, I personally love the destructive Squarepusher ending, so that may have influenced its inclusion on this post. A friend once described it as ‘a computer going haywire’, I think he meant it as an insult though, but I thought it sounded like an accurate compliment.
There are some exceptionally famous tracks distinguished for their deviation from common time, whereas others are completely glossed over. Until I went to start putting this list together, I had not even registered the various time signatures that Seal’s Kiss From a Rose has, for example. Others I instantly knew to put down. The biggest anomaly is the lack of the odd pop song in the 80s being in uncommon time. Other decades I had to actually be a bit more selective with, but covered as many bases as possible. Hopefully this shed some light, or baffled you further. Either way, I’d love to hear about other popular songs I’ve missed or obscure/less well known songs that have great use of time signature.
Thanks to Chris Hilton, Kirstie Hopper, Colin Obbard, and anyone else who suggested or fact checked this post.
Of course, this not being the first list on the subject, there are many places to find people gathering songs or talking about them. Included in the sources are more examples, as well as time signature explanations. If anyone has any burning urge to correct some mistake I’ve made, please let me know in the comments.
Playlist of all songs featured or talked about extensively in this article:
Sources and other examples:
Blur’s The Universal is sometimes cited as an example of a song in uncommon time. The question is, is it actually? The chorus is clearly in 8/4 and the opening orchestra is clearly in 4/4. This confusion lies in the verses, where the guitar and drums accent the beats like so. 1 2 3, 4 5 6, 7 8 – This rhythm is over the conventional orchestral playing, creating an awkward tension, despite it being a resolved 8/4.
There are a few occasions where strategic accents can create confusion in the time signature. As shown above, Pyramid Song can technically be counted as 8/8, but you probably would not want to if you were playing the song. It is quite likely that Phil Selway would play the drums counting 2 beats of 6 followed by one of 4.
A time signature is, in its most rudimentary form, a way of counting a song. It is split into beats and ‘lengths’ or more accurately note value. This guide on the BBC explains it simply. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/music/elements_of_music/rhythm_metre3.shtml
Essentially, the top number is what you are counting. When you have a song in 4/4, you count the numbers ‘1, 2, 3, 4’. The bottom number represents the speed of the counting. For example you could count a song as ‘1…2…3…4’ or you could double speed you count and the length of numbers. So instead of counting 4, you count 8. There is a lot more involved, but generally this is the principle. If you want a good example, of time signatures and drum patterns explained then have a listen to ex Dream Theatre drummer, Mike Portnoy.
The guitar part is in 5/4, but the rest of the band play in common time. Due to a mixing error, the band actually came in too early. This oddity though rather amused and delighted the group. That was until they had to play it live and it became a bit of a chore, thus being dropped from most setlists since the OK Computer tour.
Edit – This section expanded.
After getting a pingback on this from Reddit, I decided to look at it again as someone mentioned this section was confusing or incorrect.
According to Citizen Insane the original acoustic guitar part was mixed out by accident. After trying to find the original source about this comment I was unable to. As memory recalls when the band went to record it at 3am in Bath they came in early and so the syncopation of everything changed from when it was rehearsed so Jonny Greenwood’s 5/4 part was meant to start on the 1 of Thom’s acoustic guitar piece when the lyrics came in, but instead started early. I will update this again if I find the source, or remove it entirely for being inaccurate.
There is often a debate about what time signature Pyramid Song by Radiohead is in. This debate often opens up to a further over hanging debate about does it even matter. Not in the sense that hours of talking about it instead of something else mean it is wasted, but rather, are time signatures themselves important if it is not the individual playing. For example, I explained how I count the rhythm of Pyramid song, but someone else could count it entirely differently. In fact if the counting makes logical sense for the player then it does not matter. If someone chooses to play a 4/4 song by counting it in 5/4 then they have every reason to do so. This is the core belief to a lot of Math Rock musicians. Mahavishnu Orchestra once joked to Ken Scott that they had no idea what time signature the songs were in because they were all busy counting their own parts.
Notable exclusions: Tool, who take the absolute piss with their time signatures.
There were several songs that could be mentioned, however I wanted to try and keep the progression and history going.
Thanks to Reggie cat for getting into shot.
Edited – April 29 2016, cleaned up and relinked outdated content. If anyone has any questions or spots anything they want to point as completely incorrect please do. Hope the read was enjoyable.