Odd time signatures are great techniques that help songs sound ‘outside-the-box’. Initially, playing songs in odd times may feel robotic, or more like studying mathematics than learning music.
However, after reading this guide, you’ll be able to learn and play songs in odd time signatures, and you may even find that an ‘odd’ time signature feels a bit more normal to your personal taste.
In case you’re not familiar with the concept of a time signature, here’s a brief summary.
Time signatures are an important part of the language of music, and are found in nearly every piece of written music, from sheet music for a classical performance or online tabs for a punk song.
However, you don’t have to be able to read sheet music in order to understand the role of time signatures!
In a nutshell, time signatures tell a musician how to count and group the notes in a piece of music, but most importantly, time signatures tell a musician how to ‘feel’ the beat of the song.
A time signature is similar in both look and function to fractions from math class;
- Bars, also called measures, are used to divide a song into individual sections
- The top number represents the amount of beats in each bar
- The bottom number represents the type of beats being played
*Above is a diagram of how an odd time signature should look
Understanding the bottom number’s role took me a while when I was learning music, so as a trick to help you conceptualize the bottom number, try feeling out the length of the beats. If a 4 means quarter notes, and 8 means eighth notes, then for example, ⅞ will feel almost twice as fast compared to 7/4, even though the top number tells us there are the same amount of beats in each bar.
So, if someone says every bar of a song is in ¾, you can infer that there are three beats that are each a quarter note long.
What makes a time signature ‘odd’ rather than normal?
The reason odd time signatures are considered ‘odd’ is because the beats do not fit equally into each bar. The beats cannot be divided into even sections, so some beats have to be shorter or longer than others in order for them all to fit inside the bar.
This is the opposite of normal time signatures, such as 4/4, where all beats fit in the bar equally and repeat at an even pace.
Odd time signatures may also be referred to as asymmetric, unusual, complex, irregular, or even reference the number of beats by name, such as ‘septuple time’, but calling them odd time signatures is a good, all encompassing definition.
As you might have guessed, there are endless combinations of numbers that will grant you odd time signatures. Some artists, like Dillinger Escape Plan, take odd time signatures to their extremes and are rumored to simply roll dice to decide what signature a new song will be in.
Other bands, like A Perfect Circle, like to write mainly in one preferred time signature, like 6/8, to the point that it is normalized as a cornerstone of their sound.
Odd time signatures are very popular in progressive rock and progressive metal, but nearly every genre can be played in an odd time signature. Odd time signatures are found in all types of music, from pop, to electronic, to traditional music from several different continents.
However, just because a time signature is an odd time signature, doesn’t mean it is too complex or inaccessible for anyone to learn to groove along to. All it takes is learning how to get a feel for rhythms you’re not used to.
How should I feel out the beat?
Just like with any other musical concept, technical information only goes so far. A musician needs to be able to feel the music, not just think about it, and the best way of getting a feel for odd time signatures is counting out the beats to notice the emphasis placed on certain beats.
Counting out loud is a great method to get a grasp on odd time signatures. For example, if you wanted to feel out how a signature of 5/4 would sound, try counting out loud ‘one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five’.
You might find that you naturally accent the ‘one’, or perhaps the ‘three’, but no matter how you feel the music, noticing where emphases are located is the key to playing songs in odd time signatures.
Try listening to one of your favorite songs, and counting the beats out loud as they come. Even if the song is in normal time, this will help you develop the ability to pick up time signatures in any piece of music without needing the corresponding sheet music. Just make sure you know how to keep a tempo first!
Don’t worry if it feels awkward at first, just like with any other concept in music, repeated practice will always help you improve!
There is no set rule on where emphases must go, but usually in odd time signatures, they sound best on the ‘one’ beat, and can be placed on others to help divide the beats up. For example, 5/4 can be counted as ‘one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five’, meaning emphasis is placed on beats 1 and 4.
This concept of counting and listening for emphases is even more helpful for breaking down longer odd time signatures, such as 7/8 or 11/4. Larger numbers which have more than one syllable really become tricky if you’re counting ‘five, six, seven’ and accidentally count the two syllables as two separate beats.
Counting in circles of larger numbers, regardless of whether you count out loud or in your head, is no easy task while simultaneously playing an instrument.
That’s why odd time signatures become a lot easier to digest when the beats are broken down into sections. For example, 5/4 can be divided into a few different groups of beats, making the odd time signature feel a lot more natural.
*above is a diagram showing how an odd time signature can be broken down for easier understanding.
How does this work in the context of a song?
The Time Signature 11/4
- 11/4 – Jimmy, by Tool
The song Jimmy by Tool, written in 11/4, is great to show how deconstructing an odd time signature can make you more familiar with it. Listen to the opening guitar riff, and instead of counting all the way up to 11, try counting “one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two”, at a quarter note pace. This breaks up the 11 beats into bite sized chunks of 3, 3, 3, and 2.
The time signature 11/4 tells us we have 11 beats, which each last a quarter note. However, that can be too lengthy to count and not get confused, so we break it up into chunks that equal a sum of 11.
Listen to how the drums place an emphasis on each count of “one”, and place additional emphases on other beats as the song progresses. This idea of breaking down the numbers is the foundation to being able to play any song in an odd time signature, especially when it comes to lengthier quantities of beats.
Let’s go over a few more common odd time signatures, along with some not-so-common ones.
The Time Signature 5/4
- 5/4 – My Wave, by Soundgarden
5/4 is much more common than several other odd time signatures, and Soundgarden used it to create the song My Wave, a straightforward, driving rock track. After the short guitar intro in 4/4, the drums enter and introduce the odd time signature.
The time signature 5/4 tells us there are 5 beats in a bar, and that each one is a quarter note long. 5/4 is fairly common as far as odd time signatures go, so you may already have a feeling for it regardless of what genre is your favorite.
Listen to how the drums hammer on the last two beats of each measure during the verse. The accents Matt Cameron places can be spoken out loud as ‘one, two, three, one, two’, implying a group of 3 quarter note beats, along with 2 quarter note beats accented fairly hard. Add both of those up, and you get that feeling of 5/4!
The Time Signature 5/8
- 5/8 – Donkey Carol, by John Rutter
This Christmas carol by John Rutter is a great example that shows how 5/8 is just slightly different than 5/4, but still evokes an entirely different feeling. Since you know the bottom number of a time signature describes the type of beat being played, that means the 8 calls for eighth notes.
The time signature ⅝ is almost the same as 5/4, but the difference lies in the length of the beats. Eighth notes are faster than quarter notes, so this time signature will feel quicker than 5/4.
From the start, the bells and flute join together in descending arpeggios, both in sequences of five eighth notes. The accents are put on beats one and three, so if you wanted to deconstruct this one, it would look like “one, two, one, two, three, one, two, one, two, three’. This shows a group of two and a group of three beats being added together, but since they’re brisk eighth notes, the track is right at home in 5/8.
The Time Signature 7/4
- 7/4 – Afterglow, by Jose Gonzalez
Singer/songwriter Jose Gonzales uses an odd time signature to create this mellow, yet energetic track. Right off the bat, a percussive ‘stomp’ reveals where the ‘one’ is in the song. Simultaneously, a shaker is being played on every single beat, giving the track quite a lot of forward motion. .
The time signature 7/4 tells us there will be seven beats in total, and each one is a quarter note long.
Instead of traditional drums, Gonzalez uses stomps and claps to imply the 7/4 odd time signature. Since we can tell the very first stomp is the ‘one’, and there’s a shaker for each quarter note beat, all we have to do is count the beats until the ‘one’, or stomp, comes back around.
Lastly, if you pay attention to the ‘clap’ sound in the track, you’ll find it accents the beats as ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven’ during the beginning, and when the track progresses, the claps start accenting the five as well.
The Time Signature 7/8
- 7/8 – St. Augustine in Hell, by Sting
This track by Sting details the use of 7/8 quite well. Personally, it is easy for me to get lost in 7/8 while counting, since one measure of 7/8 is one missing beat away from being two measures of 4/4. In fact, the cymbal in this track repeats a steady quarter note, making it even easier to get lost in a rhythmic illusion.
When there is a time signature of ⅞, that tells us there will be seven beats in a bar, and each beat has the duration of an eighth note.
But, by listening to the snare accents in this track, you can get a feel for 7/8 and compare the differences it has with 7/4. We know that the 8 means eighth notes, so the track will be slightly faster. The snare accents the third and seventh beats, so ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.’ This gives us a pattern of one group of 3 eighth notes, followed by a group of 4 eighth notes, adding up to the sum of 7/8!
The Time Signature 9/4
- 9/4 – Somewhat Damaged, by Nine Inch Nails
Finally, we’ll take a look at a track that uses rests, or simply the absence of notes, to create an odd time signature. This track uses an uncommon odd time signature during the intro, and later on near the end of the track, it switches to 4/4 imposed over 3/4.
Like any other song, waiting for the drums to cue in before you start counting is the best bet. The simple, gritty guitar line would initially imply 3/4 time, but when the drums come in, they strongly enforce an odd time signature of 9/4.
The time signature 9/4 tells you that there will be 9 beats in a bar, and each one lasts a quarter note. However, when first listening, this sounds like ¾, so it’s important to note that the bar doesn’t repeat until all 9 unique beats have been played.
Start counting the drums in quarter note beats, and you’ll find that they accent 8 consecutive beats, disappear for a single beat, and then return back to ‘one’. That ninth beat, even though it has no notes, is the key to why this odd time signature works. The empty space caused by the use of a rest forces the rest of the song to revolve around it.
When the additional layers of instruments enter the track, they support this odd time signature by stopping on that ninth beat, and letting it breathe. The drums then switch to a pattern of accents that better outlines the 9 beats, playing ‘one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three’, with that last beat always being a rest. This creates an almost heart-stopping and abrupt feeling.
Using a rest in an odd time signature is a unique way to make the notes you do choose to play, hit even harder.
What if I don’t already know the odd time signature?
More often than not, an artist isn’t going to tell you the odd time signature of their song right off the bat. But, that doesn’t mean they have a secret no one else is allowed to know. As with learning different keys, focusing on the feeling of an odd time signature is a great way to develop a personal connection with the music, and ensure that the practice you put in shows results.
Much like how you can develop the ability to pick out what key a song is in, you can develop the same ability to distinguish odd time signatures with your ear. A good method for figuring out what key a song is in is to listen for root notes that act as ‘home base’, and we can tweak this method to find the ‘home base’ in a song with an odd time signature.
Instead of listening for the pitch that sounds like home, listen for the beat that sounds like home. This is the ‘one’ beat of each measure, meaning that if we can find the first beat, we can listen carefully to figure out the rest of the measure. Try finding the ‘one’ in a song you don’t know the odd time signature of, and then count until the ‘one’ comes back around.
Even the most cerebral of songs will have a ‘home base’ for their odd time signatures, and percussionists of all genres will use certain cues like a snare, kick drum, or a cymbal crash, as their ‘one’ beat depending on their style.
Some artists frequently change odd time signatures in a song, which throws even the most experienced listeners for a loop, but you can still get a good feel for it by following these steps.
When practicing how to play songs in odd time signatures, they may be hard to wrap your head around. But, remember these tips and you’ll be able to play any song in an odd time signature with practice.
- Don’t worry if the start feels unusual! Odd time signatures are called odd for a reason.
- Start by counting out loud to get a feel for what odd time signature a song is in.
- If you know the odd time signature, take note of where the emphasis is placed.
- If the odd time signature is lengthy, try dividing it into easily digestible chunks.
- If you don’t know the odd time signature, try looking for the ‘one’ beat, and counting out the beats until it comes back around again.
- Just like learning to recognize the feeling of different keys, learning to recognize the feeling of odd time signatures takes practice!
Paul R. Ramsey is a musician/writer based in Asheville, NC. He has a B.S. in Political Science from East Tennessee State University. He was always interested in music, specifically guitars, and after he heard classic lead guitarists like Randy Rhoads and Duane Allman on the radio as a child, he knew he had to know the path to their seemingly supernatural ability to let their emotions flow freely through an instrument. After his uncle let him listen to Tool’s 10,000 Days the week of it’s release, his fate as a music fanatic was sealed. He will listen to any type of music that comes from the heart, but he leans towards alternative, country, soul, and a multitude of metal subgenres.