[Note: this post is LONG. While you can read it in one sitting, I would recommend reading one section, taking a break to wrap your head around the concept, and then returning to read the next section. I go through a number of different concepts all related to complex time signatures, and it can be a lot to handle at once.]
Like many areas of music, time signatures are taught on the first pages of a beginner’s handbook, and then never addressed again (or never in the depth necessary to really understand them). This is unfortunate, because it’s one area that requires familiarity with music to really wrap your head around them.
Adding to this confusion is the fact that very few popular bands and songs use non-traditional or complex time signatures at all. The vast majority of songs on the radio are all in the more basic time signatures, like 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. Because of this, it’s very, very easy as a young guitarist to learn songs and never have to question the timing element. But while it’s true that more basic time signatures are easier to feel, that doesn’t mean that it is hard to grasp the more complex ones. You just have to know where to start.
With this in mind, I wanted to talk about how to get comfortable with complex time signatures.
Time signatures – a definition
Let’s go back to the very beginning when discussing time signatures (if you’re already familiar with mechanics of time signatures, you can skip to the next section). A time signature is a set of two numbers, with one placed over another. They are shown at the beginning of a piece:
The number on top (in this case, 6), signifies how many beats are in a measure.
The number on the bottom (in this case, 8 ) signifies what type of note gets the beat. The options are all in multiples of 2:
1 – a whole note
2 – a half note
4 – a quarter note
8 – an eighth note
16 – a sixteenth note
32 – a thirty-second note
and so on.
Hidden in this note on the bottom (the 8 in the above example) are a few hidden pieces of information for the reader:
1) The higher the number, the faster the feel
2) Time signatures with a 4 on the bottom denote a strong pulse with each beat (think “four on the floor”)
3) Time signatures with an 8 on the bottom typically denote a triplet feel for all or most of the measure (6/8, 12/8)
Time signatures offer a general road map for the piece, letting the reader understand what rules to obey when playing the song. Once they know these rules, they can judge how the piece should sound.
Let’s see this in action with time signatures you’ve heard before, like 4/4 and 6/8.
4/4 – using the above logic, we can see that since the number on top is a 4, there are 4 beats in a measure. Also, since the bottom number is also a 4, we know that a quarter note gets the pulse. Also, looking at the above hidden cues, you can see that there is probably a strong pulse on each individual beat. So the time signature 4/4 at the beginning of a measure signifies this:
6/8 – since the number on top is a 6, we know that there are 6 beats in a measure, and since the number on the bottom is an 8, we know that a quarter note gets the beat. Also, looking at the hidden cues in the note on the bottom, we know that there is a triplet feel to this measure. This means that seeing the time signature 6/8 signifies a measure that looks like this:
By breaking down time signatures by looking at what the numbers on top and bottom represent, you can get a sense of the pulse of the song.
Well that’s boring. How can we spice this up?
Okay, now that we know how to read time signatures, it’s important to go a step deeper. The above ways to break up the measures are the most square ones you can use, but it’s not the only way to cut the cake. The main guideline here is the number of beats per measure – anything else you do in that measure is up to you. When I say number of beats per measure, I mean:
4/4 – 4 quarter notes per measure, or 8 eighth notes per measure, or 16 sixteenth notes per measure:
6/8 – 2 dotted-quarter notes per measure, or 6 eighth notes per measure, or 12 sixteenth notes per measure:
By subdividing these total note counts into sets that don’t quite line up the beats, you can create syncopation.
Definition: “Syncopation” – a syncopated feel is a feel that goes against the natural beat of a measure. For instance, if a measure has a beat every 2 eighth notes, and you play a pattern with accents every 3 eighth notes, you’ll be playing a syncopated feel.
To see your options, take your measure, and divide it evenly with any small denomination (eighth or sixteenths work great). For example, let’s look at a sample measure of 4/4, listed as 8 eighth notes with even accents:
Now all you have to do is decide how you want to subdivide it. For example, you can divide it as 3 + 3 + 2 beats:
By using a smaller denomination (in this case, sixteenth notes), you have even more options. For instance, we can subdivide a measure of 4/4 as 5 + 5 + 3 + 3 beats:
As you can see, your options are vast.
A note about these subdivisions – by playing with subdivisions, you can create and release tension in a measure by just using the rhythm. This will free up options melodically and harmonically and give you a new way to build a song. Play around with this to see exactly what you can create.
2s and 3s revisited
Alright, now you understand syncopation. At this point, I need to talk a little deeper about subdividing rhythms in 2s and 3s.
To understand complex time signatures (and by understand, I mean be able to feel these rhythms in your bones, not just figure them out when breaking them down), you need to know one law: all music can be broken down into 2 and 3 beat rhythms. This is the case no matter what. This isn’t just a reference to how 4/4, 6/8, etc. are naturally divided into sets of 2s and 3s. All rhythms, no matter how complex, will naturally fall into sets of 2s and 3s. Here is the idea in action:
5 beats = 2 + 3 beats, or 3 + 2 beats
7 beats = 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or 2 + 3 + 2 beats, or 3 + 2 + 2 beats
8 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, or 3 + 3 + 2 beats, or 3 + 2 + 3 beats, or 2 + 3 + 3 beats
9 beats = 3 + 3 + 3 beats, or 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or 3 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
11 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or = 3 + 3 + 3 +2 beats, etc.
15 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or = 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 beats, or 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
31 beats = 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
Anytime you have a set of beats in a measure, it can always be reduced this way. Further, it will always be reduced this way – your ear will not feel 5 independent beats. It just won’t. Your ear will always subdivide a 5 note pattern as 2 + 3, or 3 + 2, based on what is happening (listen to anything in 5/4 or 7/8 and you’ll see this in practice – as soon as your ear and mind grasp the pattern, it’ll naturally fall into sets of 2s and 3s).
To understand this, pick up your guitar or a keyboard, and play 5 random notes in a row. It doesn’t have to be complex at all – you can just play 5 notes ascending in a row. Now do whatever you can to make it sound like 5 even notes, without them naturally subdividing into 2 and 3, or 3 and 2. For example:
• Try playing all notes on one string, so you don’t have to choose playing 2 notes on one, or 3 on another.
• Try playing all notes with only one finger (play the 5th fret, slide up to the 6th, slide up to the 7th, etc.), so you don’t have to choose how to play 5 notes with 6 fingers.
• Try playing it with every note getting the same emphasis – if you start hearing any accents, play them in a way to de-emphasize those notes.
How’d it go? Didn’t work, did it. Your brain will always look for patterns and ways to subdivide it into the most manageable parts, and this will always be with 2s and 3s.
You’ve talked for 3 pages now. Get to the point.
Alright, so now you understand why everything is 2s and 3s. The next step is to use these as building blocks on their own, rather than as pieces of a smaller puzzle. Before, we were taking set designations and splitting them in groups of 2s and 3s (for example, 4/4 has 8 beats to subdivide). Now, let’s remove those confines.
This will make more sense if you see it in action. For starters, take the below measure of 4/4, already subdivided into 3 + 3 + 2 beats:
Now, arbitrarily, add on 2 eighth notes to the measure at the end:
You just created a measure of 5/4, or 10/8. Now let’s add another 3 eighth notes:
You just created a measure of 13/8 (or 26/16). Now, let’s remove a set of 2 eighth notes from the middle:
Now we have a measure of 11/8. You can add and remove sets of 2s and 3s to your heart’s content.
This is the freedom that using different signatures allows – you can chop up and move around what is happening rhythmically to fit your needs.
So how do I work on this?
The next step to understanding time signatures is to experiment on your own. You now have the basic building blocks for how they work, now you need to get comfortable with using them.
Like with most areas of music, the first step should be to find songs that are in abnormal time signatures, and listen to them. A lot. Here are a few popular examples of rock songs that are either all or in part in abnormal time signatures:
Peter Gabriel, “Solsbury Hill” – 7/4
Tool, “Vicarious” – 5/4
Tool, “Jambi” – 9/8
Soundgarden, “Spoonman” – 7/4
Soundgarden, “Fell on Black Days” – 6/4
Soundgarden, “The Day I Tried to Live” – 4/4 and 7/8, alternating
(note – the entire Soundgarden album Superunknown is a lesson on how to use time signatures)
Alice in Chains, “Them Bones”, 7/4
Deftones, “Diamond Eyes” – verse in 6/8, chorus in 11/8
When listening to these, start by just counting out the patterns, and then looking for the sets of 2s and 3s. Look for how the bands find ways to use these time signatures to make the songs more interesting, rather than just use them as gimmicks.
Then, start trying to create some of these patterns yourself. Here are a few ways to develop comfort:
• Take a chord progression, and find a way to arpeggiate it with 5, 7, 9, or 11 notes. Play the entire chord progression, but by using these arpeggio patterns.
• Pick a set of 2 and 3 beat patterns, like we did above. Now take a chord progression, and only play notes on the beginning of the 2 and 3 beat patterns.
• Take riffs and patterns you’ve already created, and find ways to add notes to the end in a musical way. For instance, take a riff, and just don’t play the last note, but play everything else the same. Or add one note on the end.
Over time, you’ll start being able to feel these patterns more and more easily, until these become second nature. It just takes time.
Finally, there are a few stylistic elements to keep in mind.
It’s time to start paying attention to accents
Now that you see how time signatures can work, we need to talk to how you can apply these when writing your songs. And while the options are endless, there are a few points that need to be made, the first of which is that accents are about to become a real issue.
One part of having popular music often written in the same time signatures is you become accustomed to certain feels. You might not notice in a rhythmically complex song, the drummer will be going out of his way to hit the ride every quarter note, and the snare on every beat 3 of a measure. As one instrument becomes more a-rhythmic, another will become more square, in an effort to keep the song grounded. You don’t need to pay attention to how all of the different parts work together to keep the feel steady.
If you’re going to start playing with these, you have to start paying attention.
Here’s the reason: all of the conventions you know are about to go out the window, as soon as you change up the number of beats. While I’m no drummer and don’t want to pretend to discuss the finer points of keeping a song grounded, there are basically two levels you need to keep in mind:
Level 1 – viewing the piece on a measure by measure basis (i.e.: looking at it as measures of 5/4, 7/8, etc.)
Level 2 – viewing it based on the makeup of 2s and 3s.
These are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they should be used together, because the more you can guide the listener where you want, the more impactful your music can be. What this means is that you’ll need a set of cues to happen at set points to act as guideposts for the listener.
So, in English, that means the following example. Let’s imagine you have a piece in 5/4, with a pattern of eighth notes playing 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 beats. Here are ways you could ground it:
• Have a drummer hit the ride symbol ever quarter note/two eighth notes, and the snare on every 4th quarter note of the measure (beat 4 of 5). The base drum plays on the first beat of every 3 + 3 + 2 +2 section (hit, rest, rest, hit, rest, rest, hit, rest, hit, rest, repeat).
• Have the bassist play a note on the first note of every 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 pattern. Have everyone else play a more complex but distinguishable rhythm, that repeats every ten notes (the bass player accents the 3 + 3 + 2 + 2, whereas everyone else accents the 5/4 by playing a pattern that repeats).
• Have the guitarist hold chords for the entire 5/4 measure, and hit the chord on every first beat. Everyone else can play the 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 pattern.
• Have everyone play complex patterns using the 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 pattern, with the only thing signifying the 5/4 measure be the drummer hitting the crash on every beat 1.
The concept is only that you need something strong happening in a set pattern of notes. The above are all ways that will really guide the listener to where you want. You should by all means experiment however, and see which of these elements you can remove, while still keeping the listener grounded.
Less complexity is more
There’s another element that you need to keep in mind now, and it’s of overall complexity. When you’re playing in 4/4, 6/8, etc., things go by certain familiar patterns. Even if the patterns are heavily syncopated, it’s still easy for our ears to find and grasp onto these patterns to find the structure.
This happens with more than just rhythm. When listening to music, the ear will grasp onto a wide variety of different elements – the chords and typical cadences, melodies and typical movements, even typical instrumentation, sounds, and effects. These elements follow the same rules and logic from song to song, and as listeners, we’ve learned to find these rules.
By changing up the rhythm and playing outside of basic time signatures, you are in effect breaking these rules. Any patterns in these time signatures are going to be much more foreign to the listener’s ears, which means that it’s going to be much, much easier for them to feel lost, and they are going to be searching for an anchor to keep them grounded so they can find other patterns in melody, harmony, etc.. You’ve taken away their North Star, so they will want a compass.
Now, do you have to give them anchors? No, by no means – you can be as creatively atonal, a-rhythmic, abrasive or atmospheric as you want. But the listener’s ear will be searching for any ropes or anchors to ground them.
So if they want an anchor, how can you give it to them?
The easiest way is to take less risks in the other areas. When picking chords, don’t take any large risks. When playing melodies, making your note choices square. When choosing effects, don’t use this as a time to make your guitar sound like it’s screaming.
Again, like everything, it will take practice to figure out how much grounding you need to give the listener. Just keep in mind when you’re writing that it is a factor that needs to be considered.
Now you have a new tool in your arsenal. Again, the only way to get comfortable with this is to try it out, a lot. So break out a metronome and start coming up with riffs!