Magazine Archive

Home -> Magazines -> Issues -> Articles in this issue -> View

Hard Times


Article from Making Music, January 1987

There is life outside of 4/4. We dissect those funny times like five and seven and quarter past four on a Thursday.

And with one bound he was free of the cruel captivity of 4/4. Paul Colbert considers those funny time signatures of five and beyond.

OLD JAZZ musicians joke #5.

Man on stage: "I should now like to sing 'Life Is Just a Bowl Of Cherries' in 5/4 time."

Knowledgeable member of the audience: "You can't do that!"

Man on stage: "Really??? (sings) 'Life Is Just-a Bowl-a F-ing Cherries'."

We can tell this is an old jazz musician's joke by the simple test that it has some swearing in it, isn't actually very funny, but is entirely true. Insert that inventive expletive and a song that was in a 4/4 rhythm grows a horn to become 5/4. Go on, count it.

But what is 5/4? And why? It's an example of an uncommon or in general parlance 'funny' time signature, outside the near universal four beats to the bar standard. For the sake of this piece, we shall consider a funny time to be anything without a multiple of 4 on the upper deck of its bus. At a pinch we might admit to knowing what 3/4, or waltz time, is all about, but in general anything with an odd number in it is weird — 5/4, 7/4, 9/8 and so on.

Funny times always used to be the territory of jazzers. In the late sixties and seventies, "progressive rock" got the bit between its crooked teeth and with a few honourable exceptions adopted the more awkward and lurching elements of oddtime composition. The songs danced like a dog with five ankles.

You could find bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer ('Tarkus' 5/4), Genesis ('Cinema Show' 7/8), and Yes turning in tracks that clambered all over the pulse.

Why bother?

Well, when it's done properly, a piece of music in an unusual time signature has a flow all of its own.

We're forgetting, now, the gallumphing riffs of historical prog rock.

There's nothing to stop you keeping a solid, even danceablebeat behind a funny time. It's how the top line melodies converge upon that beat which presents the attraction. There's a freshness; a change of emphasis. Some writers do it without knowing, others get part way there, then add notes or chip them away to achieve the effect.

However, enough philosophy, let's get musical. As we all know, the number at the bottom of the musical fraction indicates the duration of each beat in the bar: 4 is a crochet (quarter note), 8 is a quaver (eighth note). The bigger the number, the shorter the note lasts. The digit on top of the equation dictates how many of those beats you get in a bar. So 4/4 represents four crochets then a new bar starts.

But there's nothing to say you can't have seven of those beats and then kick off with a new bar. That would be 7/4.

In many cases bars make convenient points for the repetition of a riff. But a simpler way of showing it might be to have the riff split into one bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 3/4. Now they're coming in more manageable chunks, and you can begin to see how your riff works — the first bar lures you into thinking everything's normal but the second finishes one beat sooner than you think, then whips you into the start of the riff again.

Try it. Play one of your favourite riffs and knock off the last beat. Or, play a 4/4 riff normally (preferably a short, snappy one) and tap along in time with your foot. Try to find a pattern that sits comfortably over four taps of your foot rather than eight. At the end of the riff add three new notes precisely in time with three beats of your foot. Then go straight back to the beginning.

It's a very crude version of 7/4, but if you've never tackled strange times before, it will at least get you started. You can loosen the feel of those extra notes once you've got the hang of it, but the vital stage is to zip straight back to the beginning of the riff. Listen very carefully to make sure your foot is doing three beats NOT four. Four/four is a difficult discipline to break.

When listening to a track you think is in a strange time there are a couple of simple ways of confirming your suspicions. Just count it on your fingers. Looks stupid, but it works. Otherwise, tap steadily with your foot and then consider where your tootsies are falling. Do they appear to be on-beat the first time the riff comes round, off-beat for the next, then back on-beat again? Chances are it's in seven and you're alternatively being left behind, then overtaken.

"I Advance Masked" — the title track from the collaborative Andy Summers and Robert Fripp album kicks off with a 7/4 riff but the bass drum keeps a solid on-beat thump all the way through, so you'd never know.

"Frame By Frame" — Fripp again, this time on King Crimson's Discipline. Another sevener.

"Solsbury Hill" — a deceptive little cut from Peter Gabriel's first solo album. Made it high up the charts as a single, and it was 7/4 all the time. The drummer came to the same conclusion as the Fripp/Summers man, but tagged the start of each riff by slugging in one double bass drum.

"Turn It On Again" — Genesis' single success from the Duke album. Very cunning this one, and still the punters danced. Listen to the keyboard riff and you'd say Tony Banks was playing a bar of six and a bar of seven producing a total of 13. Listen to the drums and Phil Collins is playing three straight bars of 4/4 but adding one extra beat for the concluding bar — 5/4. Sum's still the same, though... 13.

Some examples:

The idea of bar splitting can be taken still further and, at the risk of rupturing the space time continuum, we fly you back to the world's richest example of 15/8. Perhaps the wealthiest riff ever from (AGGHHHH) "Tubular Bells".

That main theme — de dum-dum diddy, dum-dum-de-dum — is in seven to begin with. But when it repeats it picks up one extra beat right at the end to slip into eight — de dum-dum diddy, dum-dum-de-dum-dum. Then the entire double pattern keeps going. Seven plus eight is 15. Voila. Again, listen for how the first version seems to snap back suddenly to the initial notes, producing the odd-time feel.

Bill Bruford, always a sly old codger, added together enough multiple times to reach 19 on "Hells Bells" from One Of A Kind — two bars of seven and a bar of five.

More recently, Yes mixed it fiercely on the 90125 LP in a ditty with the giveaway title of "Changes". I made it a bar of 4/4, a bar of 3/4, a bar of 4/4 and two bars of 3/4. Grand total 17 if you want to think that way. This was a good example of how the players' emphasis means just as much as number on the top of the fraction. The last two bars seem to race to their conclusion.

Now let's go down the scale to 5/4; fewer beats to manoeuvre around, here, so bar splitting tends to go out of the window. Instead riffs stretch out across the whole 5/4 segment. For the classic example close your eyes and think of old music appreciation lessons at school when the bald old coot with the glasses put on a scratchy version of 'Mars' from Gustav Holst's "Planet Suite". (Interesting copyright sideline; early prog rock bands were forever trying to rip off this riff for their own concept albums. They thought they were safe because Gustav Holst was dead, and the copyright had died with him. Wrong. He'd left it to his daughter, Imogen Holst, who defended the sanctity of the work and steadfastly refused to let anybody touch it.)

Anyhow, it goes diddly-dum dum dum-dum-dum. If you count a steady five, then each half of the diddly-dum falls on the first two beats, the isolated dum has one of its own, and the final three are evenly spaced across the remaining two beats.

A clue. There is only one note in this riff, you never have to move your fingers. This is an mega popular trick with bands dabbling in funny times. Witness 'Watcher Of the Skies' from Genesis (6/8... diddly dum-dum dum-dum dum-da-da diddly diddly). It throws all the funny time emphasis on to the rhythm, making the most obvious use of its weirdness. It's a trick worth trying on some of your own writings. Once you've established a pattern in a strange time — scuttling in a few extra notes to make up the desired quotient of beats — try to identify the rhythm the whole line makes. Then play that on one note only. Could be good.

And so we dress up to the nines. Nine/four could get out of hand — a top heavy, overextended bar — so 9/8 is more common and again it often gets subdivided into a bar of four and a bar of five. Drummers seem especially fond of this feel, perhaps because it can be less jerky than five or seven. The extra beat you're adding is a smaller percentage of the overall sum than 5/4 would be to 4/4, or 7/8 might be to 8/8. Many 9/8 riffs can seem smooth, almost seamless.

One of the best known jazz exponents of funny times was Dave Brubeck who, in the sixties, released two seminal albums "Time Out" and "Time Further Out". They were brilliant experiments in unusual time signatures, and are worth buying and comparing, if only to see how the poor band, who struggle with such concepts on the first release, seem like old hands at the end of the second.

The two infamous single out-takes were 'Take Five' (guess) and 'Unsquare Dance' in seven. (The laughter you can hear at the end of 'Take Five' is the band, particularly drummer Joe Morello, collapsing in disbelief because they've actually succeeded in getting the track right while the tape recorder was running.) 'Blue Rondo A La Turk' had a go at 9/8 and in later experiments Brubeck took his band off towards 11s, 17s, and telephone numbers.

'Blue Rondo A La Turk' became a popular track to cover for bands wishing to show off their rhythmic muscle. Another favourite was "America" which just about everybody strived to get completely wrong — an example of how your ears can deceive you if you're struggling against a 4/4 discipline. It's supposed to be in 6/8 — diddly diddley da-da-da. The two diddlies are played evenly across three beats, then the das have one each. But if you're not aware of the real time, it's possible to mistake it for a slower version in four — the 6/4-12/8 conundrum as posh musical sorts call it. In other words, if there are six beats to the bar and you play two bars worth, that's 12 beats. Unfortunately 12 is also divisible by four so you might think that what you're actually playing are three bars of four because the beats appear to fit. So you get tempted into counting four and playing the diddly diddly on the first two beats, one of the das on the third, then the last two das joined together on the fourth — diddley diddley de dada.

But to make use of this signature business, do you really need to write the whole song in the same time? And of course the answer is No.

The bar that stands out is the one that adds the twist, and the commonest device is to drop one bar of 3/4 into a 4/4 song. You can find these everywhere. Blondie do it in the chorus of "Heart Of Glass", The Beatles lost a beat in the verse of "All You Need Is Love" (after 'Nothing you can do that can't be done...'). Once more it's a trial you can carry out on one of your own numbers. Try knocking off a beat just before the chorus repeats and see if you can find that hiccup where the music turns round faster then you expected. That's what you're after.

More with this topic

Browse by Topic:

Music Theory

Previous Article in this issue


Next article in this issue

Akai X7000 keyboard sampler

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


Making Music - Jan 1987


Music Theory

Feature by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> BookLook

Next article in this issue:

> Akai X7000 keyboard sampler

Help Support The Things You Love

mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.

If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!

Donations for July 2024
Issues donated this month: 14

New issues that have been donated or scanned for us this month.

Funds donated this month: £20.00

All donations and support are gratefully appreciated - thank you.

Magazines Needed - Can You Help?

Do you have any of these magazine issues?

> See all issues we need

If so, and you can donate, lend or scan them to help complete our archive, please get in touch via the Contribute page - thanks!

If you're enjoying the site, please consider supporting me to help build this archive...

...with a one time Donation, or a recurring Donation of just £2 a month. It really helps - thank you!

Small Print

Terms of usePrivacy