How can I learn to identify odd meters
March 3, 2008 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking piano lessons and it's helping me better hear and understand the music I've been listening to for years. But there's one thing I don't understand: time signatures! How can I learn to identify them?

My piano teacher is hard to understand (thick accent) and she's a stickler for following the exercises and lessons. Since I am kind of working ahead here, I'm better off asking my fellow MeFites about this instead of her.

I listen to a lot of classical and jazz and a lot of it's apparently in odd meters (not 3/4 or 4/4), but I'm not sure how to figure out exactly what it is. Can you explain how you developed this skill?
posted by amfea to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Basically you're just listening to where there's emphasis in the time, even if it's subtle.

For example: sing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Which notes are most accented? It probably sounded like this:

MAry had a LITtle lamb, LITtle lamb, LITtle lamb.

Now try accenting everything third syllable:

MAry had A little LAMB, little LAMB, little LAMB.

Sounds weird, right? Sounds pretty dumb? That's because the tune is normally in 4/4 time, and when you're singing it the second way, you're accenting it based on a 3/4 pattern.

Another thing you can do, since you say you listen to lots of jazz: listen to the tune "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck, from the album "Time Out". See if you can tell how many beats there are in a bar. Hint: it's not 3 or 4. :). Once you figure that out, think about what makes it that way. Try counting beats along with the record, going "1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5", etc and see what happens whenever you say "1".
posted by rossination at 11:05 PM on March 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ack. My overly simple "Mary Had a Little Lamb" demonstration isn't that useful, I just realized, because the song has a rest in it ("MAry had a LITtle lamb [rest]"). Think of it this way. The song could be written like this:

MAR-ry had a
LIT-tle lamb [rest]
LIT-tle lamb [rest]
LIT-tle lamb [rest]

MAR-ry had a
LIT-tle lamb, its
FLEECE was white as

Note that there are four syllables (counting "rest" as one syllable) per line. You could count the song like this:

ONE-two three four
ONE-two three [rest]
ONE-two three [rest]
ONE-two three [rest]

ONE-two three four
ONE-two three four
ONE-two three four
ONE-two three four [held note].

If you were to try it again accenting every third note (preserving the rests where they belong), you'd get:

MAR-ry had
A lit-tle
LAMB [rest] a
LIT-tle lamb

...etc, etc. Again, this sounds weird and unnatural because the song is "supposed" to be in 4/4.

Sorry for the overly long explanation. Hopefully I made it less confusing and more clear, instead of the other way around.
posted by rossination at 11:13 PM on March 3, 2008

Find the downbeat, then count pulses. Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" has a steady pulse and a pretty strong downbeat -- find the strongest beat, start tapping your toe, and count taps until that strong beat comes by again.

Some tunes are harder than others -- I still find Ben Folds' "Kate" confusing.
posted by futility closet at 12:27 AM on March 4, 2008

tappa tappa tappa!

no seriously, just tap it out. like the above has stated, find the strong beat and keep tapping until it comes back around. the difference between 3 and 6 or 2 and 4 might be challenging, but just pay attention to the phrase.

things are often in duple (STRONG weak) or triple (STRONG weak weak) which lend to 3/4 and 4/4 and subsequently 6/8. but a combination of duple and triple can create more complex time signatures. STRONG weak weak STRONG weak becomes 5/4, and so forth.

In jazz and rock, the hi hat can be a great signifier of the pulse of the track. start there, then follow the phrase.
posted by blastrid at 12:35 AM on March 4, 2008

2/4: UMP chunk UMP chunk UMP chunk UMP chunk. If slow, 2/2. Marching music is often written as 2/4.

3/4: UMP chunk chunk UMP chunk chunk.

4/4: DOOT doot doot doot DOOT doot doot doot.

3/4, annoying Viennese waltz version: uhCHUUUNK chunk, uhCHUUUNK chunk

6/8: TEE dilly dee dilly TEE dilly dee dilly (classic jig rhythm, barcarolle). Just like 2/3, but the beats are divided into three units instead of two.

9/8: TEE dilly dee dilly dee dilly TEE dilly dee dilly dee dilly. Just like 3/4, but the beats are divided into three units instead of two.

12/8: TEE dilly dee dilly, duh dilly dee dilly, TEE dilly dee dilly, duh dilly dee dilly. Just like 4/4, but the beats are divided into three units instead of two.

Those are all the common ones you will ever encounter in pre 20th century music.

If you are transcribing and you have to decide what time signature to use, it can be a matter of taste: a slow 2/4 tune that has four bar phrases might be just as well written in 4/4.

The odd time signatures with 5 or 7 to the bar are common in music derived from the folk traditions of Eastern Europe, to a lesser extent in jazz, and art rock where the performers enjoy watching their audience fall over as they try to dance. It helps to think of them as groups of 3 and 2 if you're counting, eg 7/4 is usually 3 + 2 + 2.

Some Latin rhythms that are nominally 4/4 are so consistently syncopated that it's best to count the eighth notes and think of them in 2s and 3s, eg rhumba can be counted as ONE two three ONE two three ONE two | ONE two three ONE two three ONE two.

Finally, some modern Western music (and a lot of African and Asian traditional musics) have so-called polyrhythms and hemiola. Polyrhythm is where we agree on the lengh of a bar, but slice up the beats differently. Example: I could play a tune where rhythm is based on three quarter notes like a waltz, and you could play a countermelody with 6 eighth notes grouped as two lots of three. They'd marry up and sound neat, but you can't really write a time signature for that, because effectively I'm playing 3/4 and you're playing 6/8. Time signatures just don't work that well in this situation.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:08 AM on March 4, 2008 [7 favorites]

PS: not to teach you to suck eggs or anything, but has your teach explained the fundamental concept? The upper number is the number of beats to the bar; the lower number is the unit of length of each beat (2 = half note, 4 = whole note).

There's a certain convention. If the upper number is divisible by 3, then the simplest underlying grouping will be triplets; that's why 6/8 is felt as two groups of three eighth notes.

You can argue that 2/4 and 2/2 are basically the same. There is notational convenience in picking a timesignature so that you don't waste ink and effort drawing a lot of tails on eighth and sixteenth notes.

The odd signatures (5/4 and 11/2 and god help us pi/17) don't have those kinds of conventions, and you have to use your judgement based on any hints in the form of accents and articulation marks from the the composer, or other people's performing tradition.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:15 AM on March 4, 2008

You develop the skill by counting with the music. Different meters will have different pulses, and eventually you should be able to recognize without actually counting 3/4 from 7/8 from other commoners by hearing the rate and pulse of the song. Get some 3/4 music and play it, counting along out loud. Eventually it will be second nature.
posted by rhizome at 1:26 AM on March 4, 2008

It seems likely you're confusing beat and rhythm, although it's hard to say for sure without examples.

To over-simplify somewhat, most music has a consistent underlying pattern of strong and weak beats, and the first beat on the bar is always the strongest! The rhythm can wary wildly within (or over) this. It's like the difference between your heartbeat and your speech rhythm, or between your skeleton and everything that's hanging off it. It's like dancing, not like talking.

4/4 time is not called common time for nothing- the vast majority of popular music uses it, with a small amount of 3/4 time- trying imagining waltzing or marching to distinguish between them. You should nearly always be able to distinguish triple ( ONE two three ONE two three) from duple meters. A common source of confusion among my students is that only the numerator (top number) relates to things you can hear in the music, whereas the denominator relates to the appearance of the notation, not the sound.
posted by Coaticass at 1:33 AM on March 4, 2008

You'll find it helpful to watch a conductor to see how their gestures relate to the music. They're basically drawing the beat patterns in the air for you.
posted by Coaticass at 1:36 AM on March 4, 2008

Also, be wary of rhythms that vary. Or something. God knows some typos are more apt than others.
posted by Coaticass at 1:39 AM on March 4, 2008

Hm, I would say not "a lot of classical" is written in odd meters. Before anyone starts howling, let me explain: before the 20th century almost no classical music is written in odd meters. There's the famous Tchaikovsky movement (1893, very nearly 20th c.). Saint-Saens' 2nd Piano Trio has an alegretto in 5/8. Ravel's piano trio has a movement which alternates bars of 5 and 7, and (besides getting in a bit of a rut because of it) could be though of as oddly-accented 12. There's a very little-known Finnish symphony from 1847 which also has a 5/4 movement. There are a few Reicha pieces in odd meters including some fugues with odd meters and an orchestral piece in 5/8. But aside from the Tchaikovsky, almost no well-known pieces.

In the 20th century, you see odd time signatures appearing, but there is still very little sustained writing in a consistent odd meter that you would come to feel as the meter of a piece (or, more likely, of a movement). Look at any of the big 20th century names, scores of Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and what you'll find is restlessly shifting time signatures, rarely ever one sustained odd meter. In a lot of these, the bar line is just a concession to tradition and the composers are really just writing in accents to show where the accents could be. Eventually later in the 20th century you see people abandoning the pretense and just dropping the bar lines in some cases. The clearest-cut not-totally-obscure example I can think off the top of my head is Prokofiev's 7th piano sonata, with a last movement in a really clear and sustained 7/8.

So - when you say you listen a lot of classical and it's apparently in odd meters, maybe better you should give some examples here that we can address specifically.

There are some difficulties in jazz, too, but one is that syncopation can cover up the meter to such an extent that it may be impossible to tell by listening what time signature the composer used in writing. In other words, again, the time signature on paper is kind of a fib, and the rhythms just are what they are.

Now, if you want to get acquainted with time signatures there's no better way to do it than to just beat them out yourself with your hands - and then move on to trying to write a little of your own with a rhythm you like. 5/8 and even more so 7/8 almost always get subdivided so that there's an accent on the downbeat (1) and then one or two more subsidiary accents. Try beating this on your desk, with both hands hitting the capital x's and just your right hand on the small ones:
X   x   x   X   x   :|
(ONE two three FOUR five) Now you know what one kind of 5 sounds like! That sounds a little like a waltz with a bit of a limp on alternate phrases. Embellish it a little:
X   x x x   X   x   :|
(ONE two-and-three FOUR five) That's also kind of dancelike, with the one two-and-three maybe suggesting something like a jig. How 'bout
X   x   x x X   x x :|
(ONE two three-and-FOUR five-and) You'll may have a hard time repeating that at first becase it feels like the accented downbeat comes too soon, but of course that's part of its charm. That one feels kind of aggressive to me, especially if you beat it kind of slowly - like a creepy, slowly advancing march.

Try the same thing with the second accent in different places in the measure, and try it with different subdivisions of 7, too. In the Prokofiev, you hear it subdivided as 2+3+2, so it's like "WHAM-wham-WHAM-wham-wham-WHAM-wham" over and over. One of my favorite ways to make 7 sound really driving is "ONE two THREE four FIVE six sev" (sorry for the nonclassical example, but you will hear that so clearly in Rush that you should give it a listen as an educational experience if you want to know what that kind of seven feels like - you want the song "hyperspace" from Hemispheres.)

Once you can beat these things out, try sitting at the piano and play some simple little things with the same rhythm. You will learn more, faster, that way than just about any other. Knowing these things from the inside out, as it were, is the only way you'll be able to identify them reliably when you hear them. And again bear in mind that only rarely what you'll be hearing is a single sustained odd meter - more often it's a complicated shifting pattern of meters; or something ambiguous that could have been written in more than one possible time signature; or, essentially an irreducible system of accents and syncopations that doesn't really repeat itself in the periodic way a time signature and bar lines suggest.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:51 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Here is a pretty clear example of piano writing in 5/4. See if you can find where the barlines are and beat out five beats to a measure. This one has a section that's in a very clear 7/8 - it's fast, but the melody's very clearly "ONE two-and-three four FIVE six sev" - spot it, and see how it feels to be rushing ahead, compared to the straighter parts of the song. There's also a less-clear section that's built on a pattern of three measures of 7 followed by one of 6.)
posted by Wolfdog at 3:05 AM on March 4, 2008

Experience/practice is the best way to make this second nature. Start out by analyzing every song you listen to. If you listen to pop music too, most of those will be in 4, but work on picking out the few ones that are in 3.

Find a list of music in odd time signatures (and maybe ones that just switch between 3 and 4, like Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet"). I think wikipedia has one. Listen to the music from that list, and try to follow along. It can be harder to hear time signatures when there are loads of instruments and singing going on around it, and identifying them is what you're working toward eventually, right?
posted by aswego at 4:58 AM on March 4, 2008

For a long time I saw time signatures as fractions and tried to reduce or multiply things along those lines - I saw them as numerator and denominator.

If you really want to hurt your head, listen to America from West Side Story.

*I* like to *live* in A- | *mer*-ic-*a*

With the first measure is like saying 1-2-3, 1-2-3 and the second is 1-2, 3-4, 5-6.

A few Nine Inch Nails songs are in 6/4 or have weird time signatures (Somewhat Damaged, March of the Pigs is in 7/8, The Becoming has some 13/8 segments). And I'm trying to remember that one alt rock song years ago that was in 7/4. 'Rolling On In' from Evita is in 7/4.

Here is a partial sortable list of songs in alternate time signatures.

Of course if you really want to break your wrists - grab some Sondheim. I got carpal tunnel inflammation one fall being accompanist for Assassins.

Yeah Reznor and Sondheim. That's what I got.
posted by ao4047 at 5:56 AM on March 4, 2008

The clearest-cut not-totally-obscure example I can think off the top of my head is Prokofiev's 7th piano sonata, with a last movement in a really clear and sustained 7/8.

If you want something less obscure, the Finale of Stravinsky's Firebird suite starts out in 6/4, but switches into 7/4 about a third of the way in. Just to mix things up, the bars switch back and forth between being subdivided as 2-2-3 and 3-2-2.

But on everything else, I'll concur with the honourable Wolfdog: very little classical music written before 1900 is in time signatures with "numerators" other than 2, 3, 4, or 6. If you learn how to get those four time signatures into your head, you'll be able to reliably follow or play 90% of all classical music, 99% of classical music written before 1900 or so, and 100% of your beginner piano pieces.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:46 AM on March 4, 2008

Oh, and speaking of Stravinsky: if you want to hear an example of the "restlessly shifting time signatures" that Wolfdog alluded to, the best-known example by far is The Rite of Spring. Don't even try to follow the meters in this piece without a full score and a team of Sherpas.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:54 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms has more odd time signatures than any other piece Ive ever sung. I remember that the first movement changes time signature something like 10 times on the first page, but eventually settles into 7/4.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 6:58 AM on March 4, 2008

Non-obscure rock song in weird time sig (not including Yes, who should be shot): Them Bones, by Alice in Chains. The verses are in 7/8. If you say "one" when the singer goes "I", and you can count out up to sev (don't say "sev-en", obviously) and then you're back to "one.
posted by notsnot at 7:02 AM on March 4, 2008

And I'm trying to remember that one alt rock song years ago that was in 7/4.
Quite probably Soundgarden, Outshined.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:07 AM on March 4, 2008

(...which goes "ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-AND-(five)-and-six-and-(sev)-and", where the parenthesized beats are not struck; they're tied to the previous one. It's a good example of how a moderate tempo and some syncopation do a lot to disguise an odd meter. You feel the oddness a lot less than you do when every beat is being hammered out.)
posted by Wolfdog at 7:16 AM on March 4, 2008

The best common example of 5/4 I know is the theme from Mission: Impossible. Beware sneaky radio/dance remixes that mush it into 4/4 - or listen to them alongside the original and try to hear the difference.

Piggybacking on Coaticass's comment re: conductors drawing beat patterns, the images here might be a helpful accompaniment to watching someone conduct.

Piggybacking some more on ao4047's "America" example, that one switches back and forth every measure from 6/8 to 3/4 as shown here. Bernstein's Mass has some time signature shenanigans too, including the same 6/8 to 3/4 switching in the Offertory and some other kind of crazy shit in the Gospel-Sermon "God Said." (I marched both of those in high school and to this day I find weird time signatures to be super awesome fun. *NERD ALERT*)
posted by clavicle at 7:26 AM on March 4, 2008

The best way to learn about odd meters is to play them. Bartok's Mikrokosmos — a good collection for beginning piano players in any case — has some wonderful examples, under the title "Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm." I'd start with those and see if some of this starts making more sense.

> And I'm trying to remember that one alt rock song years ago that was in 7/4.

Quite probably Soundgarden, Outshined.

Or "Spoonman." They're a good band for this stuff.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:45 AM on March 4, 2008

Other than all of the info above... here's my tip: start practicing piano along with a metronome. It won't be easy at first, but it will really really help you to understand and feel the rhythms and time you are supposed to be keeping.

And this isn't a bad theory lesson really.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:36 AM on March 4, 2008

If you want another modern song to practice with, The Divine Comedy's "Through a Long and Sleepless Night" goes through four different time signatures at various points - 7/8, 4/4, 6/8 and 3/4 if I remember correctly.
posted by bent back tulips at 8:56 AM on March 4, 2008

To identify time signatures by ear, you could do worse than just pick up a CD of Brubeck's "Time Out," since "Take Five" (which has been mentioned several times already) isn't the only tune on there in an uncommon meter -- "Blue Rondo a la Turk," for example, is in 9/8 counted duple-duple-duple-tripalet -- and you can pretty much tap along with any of them to figure out how they work.

If you really want to hear weird things done with time you have to seek out "world" music or, um, for lack of better terms, "prog" or "math" rock. Multiple-Grammy winners Brave Combo won me over instantly at a concert almost twenty years ago with a song they introduced merely by saying, "This is an Armenian folk song" (Chem-oo-chem [iTunes]) -- that's a good example of hemiola, where the drum part is accented in threes, and the vocals and guitar part are (mostly) accented in twos. You can even dance to it, although the person next to you might be dancing along some other way. For truly overlapping time signatures, listen to the title track on King Crimson's "Thrak" -- the band is in a "double trio" where one trio is playing in five, one's playing in seven, and they line up for a unified downbeat every 35 beats. Anybody dancing to that probably just wants to prove that he can.

(Dancing about architecture indeed).

Oh, and to add to i_am_joe's_spleen examples, you'll sometimes hear jazz waltzes explained with the accents thus:

who parked the car / who parked the car

A friend of mine extended this to jazz numbers in 5:

who parked the car, yo mama did / who parked the car, yo mama did

Happy counting!
posted by fedward at 9:04 AM on March 4, 2008

Re classical music in 5/4 time, Gustav Holst's Mars (from The Planets) has fierce, driving 5/4 beat that's really easy to hear.
posted by carmicha at 9:52 AM on March 4, 2008

Another thing to watch out for in jazz land: swing. In musical traditions where people play with swing, they often don't bother notating it; instead of writing quarternote + eighth note, which is arhuably closer to musical reality, they just write two eight notes, so you see some tune that sounds almost 12/8 written as though it were 4/4.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:38 AM on March 4, 2008

My suggestion for learning to identify time signatures: Dance.

Harmony and melody are emotional and lyrical: you can do them with your ears, your brain, your heart. Rhythm is PRIMAL and involves the whole body, starting with your feet and your gut.

If you dance, or do aerobics at the gym, or even practice your music to yourself as you walk, you can feel where the downbeat (the strong beat at the beginning of a bar) is. Once you know where the downbeats fall, you can feel the shape of the rest of the bar pretty easily, and the shape of the whole piece.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:18 PM on March 4, 2008

the best-known example by far is The Rite of Spring

Hell yeah. Rite of Spring will mess you up. I read that there were riots when it first debuted because of it's structure and sound - but then later read it was really the revealing costumes of the dancers.

Thumbs up on metronome practice. You'll hate it. But it'll help.
posted by ao4047 at 5:01 AM on March 5, 2008

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