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On The Beat (Part 12)

No time to lose when it comes to odd metres. Nigel Lord takes a look at "difficult" time signatures in this month's instalment of MT's rhythm programming series.


BACK IN THE days when I was editing MT's sister magazine, Rhythm, I wrote an editorial in which my somewhat reactionary and dismissive readership was asked to consider the possibilities of playing in odd time signatures. To emphasise the point, I compiled a list of all the records that had reached the charts (and could therefore be judged "successful") which had incorporated rhythms outside the more common 2-, 3- and 4-based time signatures. I was immediately deluged with letters pointing out (with all the smugness readers are wont to display when they think they've spotted a mistake) all the records I had neglected to include.

Summoning my skills as an editor whose omniscience they had until that point been unable to disprove, I neatly side-stepped the criticism by claiming that in no way had I meant to infer that my list was complete. It was, I argued, simply a cross-section of the better known records which fell into that category. (And of course I was truly grateful to them for bringing these other examples to my attention.)

With or without the help of the readers, however, I still believe the point was well made. Odd time signature rhythms can be readily adapted to suit a surprisingly wide range of music, and indeed, the word "odd" itself, need only refer to the structure of the rhythmic, not to its inherent "strangeness" in a contemporary music setting.

It could be argued that the problem we have to address lies not with musicians but with their audiences. Odd metres simply don't sit squarely with the great listening public. Or do they? It seems to me that providing a rhythm is dressed in the right clothes, most people aren't aware that anything untoward is going on - even the appearance of an extra beat to the bar.

I appreciate that this may sound like something of a Trojan horse approach to writing music, but why should that matter? If, as many of the odd metre tracks which have appeared over the years would seem to suggest, there's a direct correlation between non-standard time signatures and musical innovation, it is surely incumbent on us to at least consider them the next time we sit down to put a rhythm track together. Take some of the examples that were mentioned in my list: 'Take Five' (Dave Brubeck), 'Solsbury Hill' (Peter Gabriel), 'Living In The Past' (Jethro Tull), 'Wuthering Heights' (Kate Bush) and 'Turn It On' (Genesis).

Convinced? I'm not sure many of the Rhythm readership were, but then, most of them were drummers, and playing in odd time is the sort of exercise which brings your average skin basher out in nasty red swellings. Not so our friend the beatbox, who will happily sit there while you program him/her/it with the most fearsomely complex patterns and then, with great dignity (and not a trace of resentment at being expected to perform such a task), replay them flawlessly from beginning to end.

This isn't to suggest that the patterns that I shall be presenting this month could be described as fearsome - or complex. There is nothing inherently complicated about odd time in any form, and the examples I have come up with here certainly shouldn't present any problems - providing your machine is capable of handling the "arithmetic". Of course, being written in odd metres, it's unlikely that any of these patterns will fit, without modification, with other parts which you may have already written. But you should find yourself being led down some interesting avenues if you do choose to try adapting a song or instrumental track for use with them. And if you're starting from scratch, you can almost guarantee the sort of music you'll produce will be given a considerably greater degree of rhythmic interest by using one of the patterns here.

Having listened to a wide range of odd metre rhythms in preparation for this article, it seemed to me that where most of them fall down is in attempting to adapt existing patterns in common time for use as 5-, 7- or 9-based rhythms. More often than not, this tends to sound like a beat has been added to the bar (or missed out, in the case of two-bar patterns), and our 4/4-sodden brains are immediately alerted to the fact that something is "wrong". Here I have tried to devise patterns which, from the outset, are intended to be played with an odd number of beats to the bar, and which therefore stand on their own feet, rhythmically. Where I have adapted an existing 4/4 pattern, however, I have attempted to employ a few diversionary tactics so that the attention is drawn away from what we might perceive as a missing or an extra beat.

How successful I have been in this, I'll leave for you to judge, but I would ask that you give yourself enough time to acclimatise to these patterns before deciding on their value. Hopefully, after your brain has shrugged off its 4/4 straitjacket, you should start seeing the rhythmic possibilities contained within each example. There is no elaborate-instrumentation to concern yourself with. I've stuck to snare, bass drum, hi-hats and cymbals for most patterns, with the addition of a side stick or cowbell part here and there to add a little colour.

Of course, if you feel like getting adventurous I'm sure every one of the patterns could be improved upon by pressing other instruments into service, and it goes without saying (or should) that the overall effect will vary according to the duration of each voice (particularly the bass and snare drums) and the kind of ambience to which they are subjected. So choose your samples with care.

To begin with, we have a trio of patterns in 5/4, each extending to two bars. All three of these examples, though very simple to program, are characterised by their driving feel, particularly the second and third rhythms which are helped along by their side stick and cowbell parts, respectively. Any tendency for our brains to question the existence of a fifth beat in each bar is overcome by restricting the amount of space left between beats. Without that space, we are not given the time to conclude that anything might be wrong: the patterns always seem to roll ahead of us.

Patterns 4 to 7 are, as you can see, all two-bar, 7/4 rhythms, but unlike the previous examples, all have a radically different feel to them. The first, pattern four, is probably my favourite, and perhaps more than any, illustrates just how natural odd-metre rhythms can be made to feel. Having said that, Pattern 5 could be said to be the most versatile of the group, particularly in terms of tempo which can extend from 150 to well over 200 beats per minute.

Pattern 6 is rather more energetic than the other three examples in this group, while Pattern 7, including, as it does, a natural cadence at the end of the second bar, could be used as a fill, or even an ending to a particular musical phrase. In this role, you could, perhaps, use the first bar to establish the overall rhythmic feel of the piece, and program bar two to occur at strategic points in the song.

Moving along to Pattern 8, we find ourselves in the realms of 9/4 - and a rhythm which, though much extended, shares a common feel with the 5/4 pattern we encountered earlier. Again, the rhythm is constantly pushed along; there is no time to dwell on its simple indivisibility by two. Incidentally, the cowbell part could be given over to a variety of other instruments, claves and handclaps being perhaps the most obvious.

From 9/4 it is but a small step - alright, two small steps - to the rhythmic delights of 11/4, and once again there has been a radical shift in feel. Though relatively simple to program, Pattern 9 has a distinctive flavour, provided largely by the side stick figure which actually starts at the end of the bar but which continues through to the beginning as the pattern repeats itself. I used a similar figure back in part seven of this series, but in case you missed it, let me explain that the small number in each of the beats is intended to represent a dynamic level. The idea being that you program all eight notes to extend across the dynamic range of your machine. In other words, 8 should represent the highest level, and 1 the lowest.

The effect of this is to provide an extended decay-like effect on the side stick which gives the pattern an interesting twist. Incidentally, you could try using a digital delay to provide a similar effect, programming only the first of the notes, and even experiment a little with the delay setting to alter the timing of the repeats.

For our grand finale, we enter the dizzying heights of 15/4 and a pattern which illustrates quite graphically, that as far as rhythm is concerned, large numbers really don't equate with complexity. Though there's rather a lot going on in the hi-hat part, the rest of the pattern is simplicity itself and really shouldn't offer any programming difficulties at all.

You could break the pattern down to a mixed metre format - in other words, three bars of 4/4 and one bar of 3/4 - if this makes life easier for you, and indeed, this is true of all other odd time signature rhythms. Personally, I think it better that we try to forget about common time signatures altogether when dealing with odd metres, only in this way can we begin to accept them on their own terms, and not simply as modified version of more familiar patterns.

But why, you may ask, should we bother to come to terms with odd time at all? Well, apart from the obvious advantage of rhythmic interest, it's the old story of changing the framework in which you work to encourage yourself to think along different lines. And there can be no doubt that odd metres do force you to think along different lines. Try it, and see what I mean. There is, of course, a problem with dancing to some of these rhythms: quite simply, you can't (unless you're into the kind of free-form epilepsy that was popular amongst hippies back in the late '60s and early '70s). But far from being any sort of disadvantage, I believe there's more than enough room for a little music which doesn't require a dancefloor before it becomes valid.

Speaking of which, I well remember an incident at the Hacienda club in Manchester late one Saturday night back in the mid-'80s. The DJ, after playing some of the most insistent dance tracks around at the time, decided the evening needed something a bit more laid back to bring the temperature down a little. And what could be cooler than Dave Brubeck's '60s classic 'Take Five'? The crowd, hearing the familiar opening bassline and the dulcet tones of the sax positively fell over themselves to get onto the dance floor. But that ol' 5/4 rhythm really can play havoc with your feet...


Read the next part in this series:
On The Beat (Part 13)

Previous Article in this issue

The Ministry Of Propaganda

Next article in this issue

Yamaha SY22

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Jul 1990


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Feature by Nigel Lord

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