Part 5: Examples of Odd Meters in Modern Music
(Previous essay: “Part 4: Feeling (and Understanding) the Odd Meters”)
Odd meters are such an important element of traditional Balkan music that even in a randomly picked song we would most likely encounter an odd metered rhythm. However, odd meters are not exclusive to Balkan music and, although even meters (especially 4/4) are definitely prevalent in contemporary music, they are not as rare as one would expect and can be found in various musical styles all over the world.
On the other hand, some music styles utilize only even meters and odds of finding an odd-metered song in such styles would be equal to winning a lottery jackpot. Some of such styles include Reggae, Disco, Salsa, Tango and other Ballroom dance styles (excluding the Waltz which is based exclusively on a 3/4 meter), Club, Techno and others. The main reason for the choice of even meters in these styles is the fact that the primary function of music is to accompany dancing and to allow dancers to focus all their attention to body movement and intricate dance routines. Indeed, a simple and steady rhythmic flow in 2/4 and 4/4 meters creates such solid rhythmic foundation and provides the dancers with a predictable and easy-to-follow pulse.
Certain purpose-specific music styles that are based exclusively on even meters include binaural beats for brainwave entrainment and traditional percussion-driven healing music. Any inconsistencies in the pulse of such music would create a distraction, interfere with its “hypnotic” qualities and ultimately prevent the mind from entering the altered states.
We could add to this list even music for relaxation and meditation, except that here the rhythm functions as a very distant and merely supportive element and is usually overshadowed by the slow motion of the sonic landscape with all of its often densely textured, lush layers.
Jazz music, being one of the more sophisticated contemporary music styles, naturally abounds with compositions based on a variety of unusual and odd meters, however there are plenty of examples of odd meters in various other styles of music, even in Rock and Pop music. Progressive Rock groups such as Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush and many others experimented extensively with odd meters and even some mainstream artists had written odd meter based songs.
An excellent example is Sting’s song “Straight to My Heart” released on his 1987 album “…Nothing Like the Sun” and written in 7/4. This specific version of the 7/4 meter (2+2+3) gives the lead melody a very interesting phrasing while still retaining a steady pulse of the music. The lead melody could have easily fit in a 6/4 meter as well, however Sting’s choice of the 7/4 meter accommodates it much better by creating a more relaxed feel and allowing the singer to breathe between each line of the lyrics.
“Straight to my Heart” by Sting:
Another “unusual suspect” for the odd meters in Pop / New Wave music is a hit song “Heart of Glass” by American music group “Blondie”, originally released in 1978 on their third album “Parallel Lines”. Some of the instrumental interludes in this song feature a 7/4 meter – a very unusual feature for Disco music. Standard disco beat, known in music jargon as “four-on-the-floor”, is normally a straight 4/4 meter because it creates an even pulse – a solid foundation so crucial for this type of dance music. Even with this seemingly sporadic insertion of an odd meter a steady flow of the music remains undisturbed, primarily because of the meter’s properties (7/4 is a Simple Odd Meter, as explained in “Part 3: Identifying Odd Meters”)
“Heart of Glass” by Blondie:
(The instrumental interlude starts at 1:59)
“Pink Floyd”, a British music group well known for their experimental works, especially in their earlier Psychedelic Rock phase, masterfully crafted their hit song “Money”, originally released on their quintessential 1973 album “The Dark Side Of The Moon” which also became their first hit song in the United States. The song is constructed around a signature bass riff in a 7/4 meter. In the middle section the meter switches temporarily to 4/4 for an extended guitar solo and ultimately returns to 7/4 for the remainder of the song.
The points of interest in this song are the “chorus” sections with their Vm and IVm chords (F# minor and E minor, respectively). While technically still in a 7/4 meter, these sections seem to be comprised of two 4/4 bars followed by one 6/4 bar, which mathematically still conform to the underlying 7/4 meter:
(4/4 + 4/4 + 6/4) = (7/4 + 7/4)
with each side of the equation having 14 quarter notes.
The chromatic passing note (F) connecting these two chords falls on the eight quarter-note, which should have been the downbeat of the next bar, but due to its chromatic leading function it is perceived as belonging to the previous chord and as a consequence the first chord gets extended (to 8/4) at the expense of the next one (6/4).
Since the bass and guitar riffs are in unison with the lead vocal melody, perhaps the very reason for this “anomaly” was to accommodate the natural phrasing of the lyrics. After all, it seems like the vocal melody was the deciding factor in this section.
“Money” by Pink Floyd:
One of the most recognizable odd-metered jazz standards is Dave Brubeck Quartet’s iconic “Take Five” written by the quartet’s saxophonist Paul Desmond and originally released on their 1959 album “Time Out”. As its title clearly hints, it was written in the time signature of 5/4 and it is another example of a steady pulse created by Simple Odd Meters.
“Take Five” by Dave Brubeck Quartet:
Another interesting song from the same album is Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” written in 9/8 and 4/4. This is a great example of a composition that utilizes even meters as well as simple and complex odd meters. The first section of this composition starts with three consecutive complex odd meters (9/8 = 2+2+2+3) followed by one simple odd meter (9/8 = 3+3+3). The choice of the meter for this piece was inspired by the Turkish “aksak” time signatures. The composition then continues with mixed 4/4 and 9/8 meters before settling into a classic 4/4 swing jazz feel for the improvisational section, only to return to the previous ‘mixed meters’ section before closing the song with the opening theme in 9/8. This is perhaps one of the first attempts at blending Balkan and Turkish rhythms with mainstream jazz music.
“Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck Quartet:
“Shadowfax” – a music group from Chicago, demonstrated an interesting application of multiple odd meters in their song “Castaneda’s Boogie” released in 1994 on their final studio album “Magic Theater”. This song includes two extended interlude sections consisting of a repeating pattern of alternating 5, 6, and 7-beat measures: (5/8) + (6/8) + (5/8) + (7/8).
Placed in between the main themes, these two time-shifting interludes signify a temporary departure from a 12/8 rhythmic foundation and obviously represent a virtual journey into another reality, invoking an otherworldly, shamanic sonic environment, as suggested by the song’s title.
“Castaneda’s Boogie” by Shadowfax:
(The first interlude section starts at 1:25 and the second section starts at 3:27)
One of the most creative and clever applications of odd meters is arguably the Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ composition “Vix 9” written by bassist Victor Wooten and originally released on their 1993 album “Three Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. This 9/8 piece is a real treat for the ‘musical ears’ because the intricate dancing around the meters’ beats by all three musicians creates a challenge for the listeners’ rhythmic sense, keeping them barely hanging to the pulse of music.
“Vix 9” by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones:
Brazilian pioneers of Afro-Samba sound of the 1960s “The Ipanemas”, famous for their 1960 cult album “Os Ipanemas”, reformed the group in 2000 and released several new albums. Their 2006 album “Samba Is Our Gift (O Samba e nosso dom)” includes the song “Malandro Quando Vaza” with two instrumental interludes that subtly transform a classic Samba rhythm into a unique 7/8 meter feel.
“Malandro Quando Vaza” by The Ipanemas:
Odd and Irregular meters are not uncommon in Classical music either and there are numerous examples of composers experimenting with odd meters in their works. A truly beautiful example is the Symphony No. 66 (“Hymn to Glacier Peak”) by Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, with its first movement starting in 7/4 – one of the composer’s favorite meters.
Alan Hovhaness – Symphony No. 66, Hymn to Glacier Peak, Op. 428
(Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Gerard Schwarz)
English composer Gustav Holst incorporated an unusual meter into the two movements of his seven-movement orchestral suite “The Planets, Op. 32”. The opening and closing movements “I. Mars, the bringer of War” and “VII. Neptune, the Mystic” are both based on a 5/4 meter. In addition to this metric experimentation, Holst also arranged the closing of the last movement (“Neptune”) with a gradual diminuendo of women’s chorus until the sound eventually becomes inaudible. This movement, written in 1915 and first performed in 1918, became one of the first orchestral pieces with the “fade-out” ending, well before the onset of the recorded music. The sound recording and electronic manipulation techniques which developed decades later practically turned this “fade-out” effect into a preferred ending for popular music recordings and it also became an indispensable music duration control tool, especially important to the Radio and TV industry and the modern Audio and Video production.
Gustav Holst – “Mars, the bringer of War” (the first movement of “The Planets, Op. 32”):
(The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras)
Gustav Holst – “Neptune, the Mystic” (the seventh movement of “The Planets, Op. 32”):
(The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras)
The English Progressive Rock group King Crimson reworked Holst’s “Mars, the bringer of War” movement and titled their lengthy adaptation “The Devil’s Triangle” (released in 1970 on their second album “In The Wake Of Poseidon”) while retaining the original 5/4 meter. Their adaptation didn’t receive the Holst legal estate’s permission to use his works, hence the new title.
“The Devil’s Triangle” by King Crimson:
While the examples discussed above are practically just the tip of the iceberg, they demonstrate a wide range of applications of odd meters in various music styles and their ability to break the monotony of even meters and enrich the rhythmic foundation of music.
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