Time in the Land of Odd

Turkey is in the oven, family is still sleeping, and I have some time to kill before my day becomes a balancing act… and that’s what this timely post is all about. The balance of time. Spend enough time as a practicing musician and you’ll eventually start asking yourself if anyone you know, including yourself, knows how to do anything besides count to the number 4. Ask a few more questions, do some digging, and you’ll drop down through the rabbit hole into the world of ‘odd’ time signatures, polyrhythms, paradiddles, compound meter, and other time-twisting pleasures.

4/4 time is the de-facto standard for popular music. Sure 3/4 was popular back in the day (the day being oh some 100+ years ago) but 4/4 remains strong because it allows our minds to effortless glide through a piece of music on our base instincts. Left foot – right foot – left foot – right foot, tick – tock – tick – tock, wax on – wax off, etc. For the most part our western world is guided by the on-off switch and it takes quite a bit of effort to break this vicious cycle so we can explore other musical worlds.

When first delving into odd signatures… a phrase which I despise because it immediately casts the subject matter as less than acceptable… most people struggle with the overall mechanics of the count. It’s important to understand the counts and basic mechanics, but far more important to move beyond that as quickly as possible and develop a sense of ‘feel’ to the meter. Just like with the practice of scales, one must make the practice musical in order to avoid rigidity (and being a bore.) Nobody wants to listen to you sing “One and Two and Three and Four and Five and” over and over.

So before we get into counts we should take five…

Play this piece for anyone you know, including non-musicians, and they will almost immediately recognize it from TV or film… and be able to follow it. Well it’s 5/4 time. If odd signatures are generally considered too complex then how is this possible? Simply put, it’s not projected as a musical theory project, it’s feel and that is what connects with the listener. Now let’s have Brubeck hurt us a little…

When I first listened to Unsquare Dance I got angry because I couldn’t keep up… even with the intro primer handclaps I just got lost. It’s 7/4. I can follow it on feel, but deconstructing it seemed to take a Herculean effort on my part. I needed a way to increase my knowledge of odd time signatures which led me to Bounce Metronome.

Bounce Metronome is an awesome application for hearing and seeing complex time signatures including polyrhythms.

Check out this 5/4 visualization

Now how about a 5/4 over 4/4 polyrhythm?

The visual and sound approach provided by this app is by far the best I have found for quickly learning the feel of time signatures. Within a short timeframe I was able to get over Unsquare Dance and even start developing that sense of anticipation in the alignment of polyrhythms. Go on and check it out… make the time.


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