ODD METERS AND TIME SIGNATURES IN MUSIC (Part 1)

Part 1: Introduction to Odd Meters

In music theory terms “meter” and “time signature” refer to the pulse of the music and more specifically to the organization of the recurring time segments. Although interchangeable in music jargon, “meter” is a formal term and “time signature” refers specifically to the meter marking at the beginning of a staff in a music notation – it is actually a numerical representation of a meter. These recurring time segments can be thought of as “building blocks” for the rhythmic base of music and are called “bars” or “measures”.

We can safely assume that most of the music from around the world is based on 4/4 and 3/4 meters. Along with the 2/4, these are arguably the most natural meters and, as such, they are easily followed and intuitively understood and felt by our rhythmic “inner ear”. No explanation needed – even the very young children intuitively recognize these meters and naturally tap along the beat. These simple meters create an even, steady pulse which gives the music a sense of stability and predictability and I would dare to label them here as the “primal meters”.

While the 2/4 and 4/4 are obviously even meters, a 3/4 meter is technically an odd meter as it divides each bar into an odd number of equal segments (three segments with one quarter note in each). However, because of the subdivision of its 3 quarter notes into 2 eight notes each, and through its continual repetition in a given music piece, it creates a steady pulse, just like 2/4 and 4/4 meters do, so we can consider it a straight primal meter that creates an even pulse, at least by how the pulse is perceived by the listener.

In contrast to these simple, primal meters we find an abundance of more complex odd meters in various musical traditions around the world. While in some parts of the world odd meters are practically non-existent, in other cultures they are so overwhelmingly present that they can be considered a nearly crucial, defining feature. Along with several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, Armenia and some other cultures around the world, one such part of the world is the Helm region in Southeast Europe (also known today as the Balkan region). In countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and somewhat in Hungary, Romania and others, meters such as 7/8, 9/8, 11/8 and 13/8 in all their variations are so prominently featured in traditional folk music that they are truly an inseparable element – a staple feature, often to an extent that the music written in an even meter becomes an exception to the rule.

Because of the odd number of beats in each bar, the listeners who are not accustomed to odd meters would, at first, find it quite difficult to follow the rhythm and the flow of music. They would constantly find themselves lost in between the beats and would often feel as if the music is rushing or skipping beats. It would often seem as the performers are playing freely, with no regard to any meter whatsoever, but at the same time they would all somehow start and finish their melodies together, perfectly.

It might sound surprising, but this sometimes applies even to musicians, especially if they are not familiar with the odd meters. One famous anecdote recounts a funny situation in which a well known music group from Macedonia (“Leb i sol”) had someone from the audience complain that they “played their rhythms wrong”, while performing in a club on their USA tour. Naturally, they had to explain on the spot to the “concerned listener” about the odd meters and teach them to clap their hands along the 7/8 meter.

By applying to music the fact that odd numbers cannot be divided in half, we eventually end up with a bar that cannot be divided into two (or more) equal time segments. In fact, this is the crucial feature and the main cause for the complexity of the odd meters.

For example, if we attempt to count the eight-note beats in pairs – there will always be one extra beat in each bar. In case of a 7/8 meter we would then get to:
2 + 2 + 2 + 1
and, in turn, our brain would perceive this as an irregularity or skipping. For this reason, if listeners are to feel the rhythm without any skipping, they will have to constantly be aware of the meter’s main downbeat (the first beat of the bar). Eventually, counting along the music becomes redundant and this is where the placement of accented beats within the meter comes into play as it creates different “feels” of the same odd meter.

We can conclude that, when compared to the simple, primal meters, the odd meters force our brain to work much harder in order to keep the awareness of time and pulse of the music. On the other hand, as difficult as listening to odd meters is in the beginning – as enjoyable it becomes once we finally get to “understand” them. The odd meters create a “forward motion” in music – a sense of tension and rhythmic urgency which is perceived as moving ahead of the pulse. The odd meters also seem to be rhythmically more interesting and dynamic than even meters.

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Below is an example of a song in a 7/8 meter. It is a traditional shepherds’ folk song “Navali se Shar-planina(in Cyrillic alphabet: “Навали се Шар-планина” or also “Се навали Шар-планина”) from the Shara Mountain in the Balkan region. My solo piano arrangement places this song in an unusual, non-traditional context, but even with the slightly modified melody, the underlying 7/8 meter still remains as the cohesive factor throughout the song.


(Direct link: “Navali se Shar-planina” on musicoin.org)

 

(Next: “Part 2: Classification of Odd Meters”)

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