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:
“Ajde Jano” – my solo piano arrangement of the traditional Serbian folk song from the Kosovo & Metohija region – in 7/8:
“Dragonfly [432Hz Edition]” – an original composition in 9/8:
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