ODD METERS AND TIME SIGNATURES IN MUSIC (Part 3)

Part 3: Identifying Odd Meters

(Previous essay: “Part 2: Classification of Odd Meters”)

When it comes to identifying odd meters, the difference between simple and complex odd meters becomes obvious. Identifying the simple odd meters is quite easy – all we need to do is count the beats along the music and we will quickly determine the actual meter.

Commonly used simple odd meters include 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 and a simple form of a 9/8 meter. The very reason why they create a steady pulse without a feeling of “skipping” is the fact that all beats in simple odd meters are uniformly subdivided. In other words, all their subdivisions have either 2 or 3 eight notes each, but not both.

With the complex odd meters things get a little bit more tricky. In order to identify a specific meter we have to listen to the music closely and first try to identify the main downbeats – the points at which each bar starts. Usually the rhythm section (drums, percussion or even bass guitar) would accentuate these downbeats, but the melody would also often start or end at these same points.

Because an overwhelming amount of music has been written in 4/4, when we hear a new piece of music we instinctively expect an even pulse, due to what I would call a “4/4 brain conditioning” and we would naturally count the quarter-note beats as: (1, 2, 3, 4), (1, 2, 3, 4) and so on. With odd meters, however, we would eventually encounter a “skip” in the pulse and it would feel as if the music is suddenly moving forward before our next expected count. Whenever this perceived “skip” happens while listening to the music – it becomes a clear indication that we are hearing an odd meter.

We would then have to count the beats in each bar by tapping with a foot or hand along the music to determine how many taps precede the skip which is where the perceived “missing” note occurs.

For example, if we counted 4 beats before the skip occurs that means that the last counted beat was shorter, as the music seemingly proceeded prematurely into the next bar. That would give us three full beats (of one quarter note each) and the last incomplete beat would have to be a single eight-note. Mathematically formulated that would look like this:

(3 x 1/4) + (1 x 1/8)

which is the same as:

(6 x 1/8) + 1/8 = 7/8

and as a result, that gives us a 7/8 meter.

If we counted 5 beats (before the skip) that would give us a 9/8 meter:

(4 x 1/4) + (1 x 1/8) = (8 x 1/8) + 1/8 = 9/8

The procedure above assumes that we are counting the quarter notes, however depending on the actual rhythm and tempo of the music – we might end up counting the eight notes, so we could potentially count the correct number of beats right away.

While counting the beats is a good staring point for identifying a meter, trying to get the feel for an odd meter by thinking of it as an incomplete even meter (with one extra or one missing beat) would prove to be a dead end. By looking at a 7/8 meter as a 4/4 meter with a missing beat at the end, or as a 6/8 meter with an extra beat at the end, we would have to keep counting from 1 to 7 over each bar throughout the whole song just to stay afloat, without truly locking in to the rhythm.

The rhythmic sense of our brain is challenged by the irregular pulse of odd meters and a natural desire to identify the meter arises from a need to understand the rhythm and melody. Without this understanding, either intellectual or intuitive, the music and rhythm would remain to our ears as just an irregular, meaningless succession of sounds and beats.

The melody and rhythm of any music piece rely on each other and are usually interlocked. They closely follow and support each other, while in general the melodic part plays a key role and the rhythmic part assumes a supporting role. As explained previously (in “Part 1: Introduction to Odd Meters”), the rhythmic base of music is constructed with recurring time segments – bars, but the melodic part also consists of short fragments which, put together, make a complete musical statement. The phrasing, accentuation and length of these short fragments are matched by the rhythm so that the rhythm section in a music group will naturally accentuate or emphasize the starting beats of these fragments. These starting beats are called “downbeats” and they signify the beginning of each subdivision or grouping of beats. These downbeats receive the most rhythmic emphasis, with the first beat of the meter – the main downbeat being the most important of all.

We can conclude that the secret of odd meters lies in their uneven, irregular subdivision which creates a variety of different rhythmic “feels” of the same nominal meter, while each specific “feel” is determined by the placement of the odd-numbered segment within a meter.

We have now established that the first and necessary step to understanding any odd meter is to identify it by counting its beats. Once we have the number of the beats we can proceed to determine the meter’s specific rhythmic subdivision which will allow us to fully lock in to its uneven pulse and thus make it feel ‘natural’ to our ears.

Here are a few examples of songs to demonstrate some of the odd meters and to practice the counting of beats:

 

Clouds” – an original composition written in 3/4:

(“Clouds” from my solo piano album “Over Seen Seas”)

 

Ajde Jano” – my solo piano arrangement of the traditional Serbian folk song from the Kosovo & Metohija region – in 7/8:

(“Ajde Jano” from my solo piano album “Over Seen Seas”)

 

Dragonfly [432Hz Edition]” – an original composition in 9/8:

(“Dragonfly” from my solo piano album “Under the Sacred Tree [432Hz Edition]”)

 

(Next: “Part 4: Feeling (and Understanding) the Odd Meters”)

Copyright 2018 Koshanin. All rights reserved. Any copying, reproduction, or use, in part or full, without prior consent of the author is prohibited.

ODD METERS AND TIME SIGNATURES IN MUSIC (Part 2)

Part 2: Classification of Odd Meters

(Previous essay: “Part 1: Introduction to Odd Meters”)

Defining the term “odd meter” can be somewhat confusing because the word “odd” implies multiple meanings. Depending on the context, the word itself refers to a variety of different things and situations including: unusual, irregular, unexpected, eccentric, fantastic, bizarre etc. While some musicians often use the word “odd” to describe an irregular or uncommon time signature or meter, the correct term for all non-ordinary meters is “unusual meter” while “odd meter” refers specifically to meters with an odd number of beats. In other words, the time signature marking for an odd meter will always have an odd number for the upper numeral.

All odd meters can be classified in two categories, depending on the pulse of music they create:

Simple or Basic Odd Meters which create an even, steady pulse in music: 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 etc.

Complex or Advanced Odd Meters which create an uneven pulse in music: 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, 13/8, 15/8 etc.

Here’s an example of a 3/4 simple odd meter:

(“Dream Walking” from my solo piano album “Over Seen Seas”)

and an example for a 7/8 complex odd meter (3+2+2 variation):

(“Gusta mi magla padnala“ from my solo piano album “Over Seven Seas”)

I should note here that what I refer to as “complex or advanced odd meters” is classified in formal Western music theory as a part of “additive meters” or “additive time signatures” – a group encompassing both odd and even meters.

An exception to the classification above is a 9/8 meter which falls in either category, depending on its actual subdivision:

(3 + 3 + 3) = simple odd meter
(2 + 2 + 2 + 3) or (3 + 2 + 2 + 2) = complex odd meters

Other, much less common, exceptions include 15/8 and 21/8 meters. All of these three exceptions are actually classified in music theory as “compound meters” which are the meters whose upper numeral in their time signature is either 3 or a multiple of number 3 such as in: 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 15/8 etc. Obviously, as the term “compound meters” encompasses both even and odd meters, we would need to establish a separate group of “compound odd meters” that would include all our crossover exceptions (9/8, 15/8, 21/8), with two subgroups:

Simple Compound Odd Meters:

9/8 (3+3+3)
15/8 (3+3+3+3+3)

Complex Compound Odd Meters:

9/8 (2+2+2+3 or 3+2+2+2 etc.)
15/8 (3+4+4+4 or 4+4+4+3 etc.)

We can conclude that complex odd meters contain both even and odd numbered beat segments (internal groupings of 2 or 3 beats). The placement of the odd-numbered segment within a meter determines the actual “feel” of the meter, as it can be placed at the beginning, in the middle, at the end, or anywhere within the meter. When this extended 3-beat segment is placed in the middle of a meter it constitutes a “Symmetric Complex Odd Meter”, otherwise all other placements form the “Asymmetric Complex Odd Meters”.

Here’s a list of common odd meter subdivisions, with the extended 3-beat segments shown in bold:

– 7/8 meter subdivision variations:

2 + 2 + 3
3 + 2 + 2

– 9/8 meter subdivision variations:

2 + 2 + 2 + 3
3 + 2 + 2 + 2
or:
3 + 3 + 3 (simple odd meter)

– 11/8 meter subdivision variations:

3 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2
2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 2
2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3

– 13/8 meter subdivision variations:

3 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2
2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 2
2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2

– 15/8 meter subdivision variations:

3 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2
2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3
or
3+3+3+3+3 (simple odd meter)

Obviously, not all possible variations are commonly used in music. In case of a 7/8 meter, the extended 3-beat segment is placed either at the beginning or at the end of the meter and rarely in the middle. The most likely reason for this is that, when placed in the middle of the meter, a single preceding 2-beat segment would feel as a short “pick up” or a leftover from the previous bar, and our inner ear would eventually “regroup” the meter and recognize the 3-beat segment as the beginning of a meter. In other words, our inner rhythmic ear will naturally convert the 2 + 3 + 2 meter into 3 + 2 + 2 meter.

It looks like the prerequisite to a musically pleasing and comfortable placement of a 3-note segment is a set of at least two preceding 2-beat segments. The common placement of the 3-beat segments in the middle of meters 11/8 and 13/8 further support this theory. With these longer odd meters the 3-beat segments, when placed in the middle of a meter, are placed almost exclusively after at least two preceding 2-beat segments.

Every rule implies its own exceptions and the same goes for my “3-note segment placement” theory. Some examples of such exceptions can be found in a couple of Bulgarian folk dances which are based on 7/8 (2+3+2) and on 9/8 (2+3+2+2) such as in “Grancharsko horo” (Грънчарско хopo).

CONCLUSION:

1.
Odd Meters are meters with an odd number of beats and are classified in two main categories, depending on the pulse of music they create:

Simple or Basic Odd Meters – create an even, steady pulse
examples: 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 etc.
Complex or Advanced Odd Meters – create an uneven pulse in music
examples: 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, 13/8, 15/8 etc.

2.
Compound Odd Meters are meters whose number of beats (upper numeral in their time signature) is an odd multiple of number 3 and they can be Simple or Complex meters depending on their subdivision:

– Simple Compound Odd Meters
examples: 9/8 (3+3+3), 15/8 (3+3+3+3+3)
– Complex Compound Odd Meters
examples: 9/8 (2+2+2+3 or 3+2+2+2 etc.), 15/8 (3+4+4+4 or 4+4+4+3   etc.)

3.
Depending on the 3-beat segment placement, Complex Odd Meters can be:

Symmetric Complex Odd Meter (3-beat segment placed in the middle of a meter)
example: 11/8 (2+2+3+2+2)
Asymmetric Complex Odd Meters (3-beat segment placed anywhere, except in the middle)
example: 11/8 (3+2+2+2+2)

4.
Finally, if we wanted to complicate this classification even further, we could establish two more distinct subgroups for the Complex Compound Odd Meters, based on their 3-beat segment placement:

Symmetric Complex Compound Odd Meters (3-beat segment placed in the middle of a meter)
example: 15/8 (2+2+2+3+2+2+2)
Asymmetric Complex Compound Odd Meters (3-beat segment placed anywhere, except in the middle)
example: 15/8 (3+2+2+2+2+2+2) which is the same as (3+4+4+4)

 

(Next: “Part 3: Identifying Odd Meters”)

Copyright 2018 Koshanin. All rights reserved. Any copying, reproduction, or use, in part or full, without prior consent of the author is prohibited.