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READING MUSIC - OTHER TIME SIGNATURES

First familiarise yourself with common time signatures

HERE

and what the top and bottom numbers mean before reading this page.
 
I’ve grouped the time signatures by their top number which is the number which makes the ‘odd’. The bottom number is the note value of each beat (1/2 or 1/4 or 1/8 for example) so it is less important or perhaps its is better to say it is already understood and not the tricky part in odd time signatures.
 
Often it is the counting of odd times that trips us up (particularly when we find a spoken numeral with two or more syllables under our tongues, such as seven or eleven – try counting up to eleven fast and evenly and see). Also counting up to 7 or 13 or 21 over and over is boring, taxing and in Dave Weckl’s words ‘timid’ sounding.
 
 
A common useful method is to subdivide the odd number.
 
Let’s take seven
7 = 2 + 2 + 3
 
so we could count it as
1 2 1 2 1 2 3
 
or how about
1 2 1 2 3 1 2
 
(so we have useful options)
 
but also
7 = 4 + 3
 
so we could count it as
1 2 3 4 1 2 3
 
and also
1 2 3 1 2 3 4
 
(so ... even more options)
 
Now go back and count each of the above 4 variations but this time clap out the 'ones'. The ones are the stronger beats and how you count (subdivide) the seven will dictate how you play it or vice versa of course. So this subdividing is not only easy on the counting but musically useful as well.
 
what about
7 = 6 + 1
 
or
7= 3 + 3 + 1
 
There are loads of options. Cool.
 
So here are just some subdividing options for a few of the odd numbers. I have also put in a few example songs for you to find and hear for yourself.
As an exercise clap all the ones in each case.
 
 
 
5 (5/4; 5/8; 5/16)
Straight counted as:
12345
 
Some subdivisions:
12123  (2 3)
12312  (3 2)
12121  (2 2 1)
12341  (4 1)
 
Example songs:
Mission Impossible theme song (3 2 or 4 1)
Take Five (3 2)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony  No. 6, 2nd Movement
Sting – Seven days
Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) – Isengard  Theme
 
 
 
7 (7/4; 7/8; 7/16)
Straight counted as:
1234567
 
Some subdivisions:
1212123  (2 2 3)
1212312  (2 3 2)
1234123  (4 3)
1231234  (3 4)
1231231  (3 3 1)
 
Example songs:
Pink Floyd – Money (2 2 3)*
Sting – Love is stronger than justice
Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
The Beatles – All  You Need Is Love
Radiohead - Paranoid Android’s Guitar solo
Joan Osborne – Right Hand Man
Riverdance – Firedance (2 2 3)
 
*this song is more complex than this even. It swings a little – so for the close scrutinizers amoung you it can also be thought of as in 21/8 time.
 
 
 
9 (9/4; 9/8; 9/16)
Straight counted as:
123456789
 
Some subdivisions:
123123123  (3 3 3)
123412345  (4 5)
121212123  (2 2 2 3)
 
Example songs:
John Lennon and Paul McCartney – Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Genesis – Apocalypse  in 9/8
The Human League – Morale
Soundgarden – Never The Machine Forever
Radiohead – The Tourist
Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun (solo and outro)
Tool – 10 000 Days (Wings Pt 2)
 
 
 
11 (11/4; 11/8; 11/16)
Counting a number as high as eleven is not easy nor useful so using subdivisions is preferable.
 
Some subdivisions:
12121231212  (2 2 3 2 2)
12312312312  (3 3 3 2)
12341234123  (4 4 3)
12123121234  (2 3 2 4)
 
Example songs:
Aretha Franklin – I Say a Little Prayer For You the chorus (2 2 2 3 2)
Tool – Right in Two
Grateful Dead – The Eleven
Steve Vai – Windows to the Soul
Paul Simon – The Teacher 
Primus – Eleven  (3 3 3 2)
 
 
 
13 (13/4; 13/8 13/16)
Some subdivisions:
1231231231234  (3 3 3 4)
1231234123123  (you get the idea...)
1234123123123
1231231231231
 
Example songs:
Genesis – Turn It On Again
Rush – Freewill
 
 

Compound Time
Simple time signatures have beats like quarters or eighths but in compound time the beats are dotted to make the maths of the bar work. Its all a bit beyond the scope of this website to go into the necessary detail needed to make this all clear. Here is a quote from one of my sources to show you what I mean:
‘We have no way of writing, say, two dotted crotchet beats per bar, so we split the dotted crotchet into three quavers which gives us a total of six quavers in the bar. Hence we write 6/8, i.e. six quavers (eighth notes), but we MEAN two dotted crotchet beats per bar.’ - wikipedia
 
For a really detailed explaination please visit and explore:
 
 
 
Mixed meters
Some pieces do not have one over-all time signature throughout or even one single time signature per part(verse or chorus). Here are examples of songs where the time signature changes sometimes every measure or worse still every bar!!! Sometimes it helps to think of these as another form of subdivision. Imagine a song which has the first bar in 4/4 and the next in 3/4 and continued alternating them... wouldn't that also be 7/4? But alternating signatures is easy. what happens when we have a dense complex structure of signatures? You then have no choice ... you mix 'em.
 
Example songs:
The Beatles – Here Comes the Sun (11/8  preceded 7/8 measure)
Led Zeppelin – Bron-Y-Aur Stomp (4/4 + 3/4 + 3/8 + 2/8 + 4/8 + 6/4 + 4/8.)
Led Zeppelin – Black Dog (4/4, 5/4, and 5/8)
Led Zeppelin – How Many More Times (12/8, 4/4, 1/4, 4/4, 3/4 and 5/8)
Led Zeppelin – The  Crunge(4/4, 9/8 and 5/8)
Have a Cigar" by Pink Floyd (4/4, 5/4)
King Crimson – Red (5/4, 6/4, 4/4, 7/8)
Grateful Dead – Money Money" (7/4, 4/4 and 6/4)
Tool – Schism  (5/4, 6/4, 3/8, 13/8, 10/8, 6/4, 3/8, 13/8, 10/8, 6/4, 11/8, 6/4, 3/8, 13/8, 11/8, 7/4, 12/8 and 15/8 (alt 12 times), 4/4, 2/4, 4/4, 9/8, 10/8, 3/8, 13/8, 10/8, 9/8, 13/8, 9/8 and 5/8 (alt 4 times), 9/8, 6/8, 6/4, and  4/4 (47 times in one song)
Dream Theater – The Dance of Eternity (4/4, 7/8, 3/4, 13/16, 15/16, 17/16, 14/16, 5/4, 6/8, 2/4, 5/8, 11/4, 9/4, 7/16, 6/16, 5/16, 10/16, 9/8, 15/8, 12/16, 16/16 (3+3+3+3+2+2), 3/8)

kjb.jpg

just remember ... DON'T PANIC
dsc01112.jpg
odd time signatures are relatively rare.

And further ...
 
I was asked in a response to this page how you can work out the time signature of and odd time song just by listening.
 
The best advice I can give is to find songs that you know are odd timed and ones that you already know the signature for, listen to them and count along.
Work from smaller numbers (5 and 7) to bigger ones. As the familiarity grows you will get an instinct for each time signature. Just as I'm sure you can probably spot 4/4, 2/4 or 3/4... so your skill in spotting the odd ones will grow.

My first success at spotting an odd signature was when I was trying to learn 'Love is stronger than justice' by Sting. Vinnie not only plays odd time but also doubles up and inverts the back beats making it even harder to spot the count. Not only that but he actually hides the one half the time. Nasty. But I sat in the car one day tapping the steering wheel and counting like so ...

1 . 2 . 3 . 4 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 1 . etc

So I could fit four quarters into each bar but I had to shift forward an 8th each 4 to still fall on Vinnie's invisible 1 of the next bar. 4 quarters is 8 eighths ... then minus 1 of the 8ths therefore counting 7 of them ... 7/8.

This system could be used for other signatures too. Count in quarters and adjust to come back onto the 1 of the next bar each time and then work out what you had to do.
 
for example:

1 . 2 . 3 1 . 2 . 3 1 . 2 . 3 1 . 2 . 3 . 1 . etc
would be 5/8

1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 1 etc
would be ?