Part 4: Feeling (and Understanding) the Odd Meters
(Previous essay: “Part 3: Identifying Odd Meters”)
In the world of music “feeling the music” means understanding the music with our “inner ear”. Music uses an abstract language, however, understanding the musical language doesn’t necessarily imply the intellectual understanding but rather the intuitive understanding by our “inner ear” which is just another metaphor for the “musical” part of our brain. This intuitive understanding of music is what we call “feeling the music”.
To easily explain the difference between hearing and feeling the music we can draw an analogy to the spoken language. Simply listening to some complex music piece whose language we are not familiar with would be the same as hearing a conversation in an unknown foreign language so that all the words would sound to us like a barrage of strange and meaningless sounds.
The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic aspects of music are naturally understood and enjoyed on the intuitive level, however, music can sometimes get so complex that an extra effort and concentration is needed in order to understand and feel it. This is also the case with the more complex rhythms. A couple of good examples for these more complex rhythms are the polyrhythms of West African traditional music and the odd meters in Balkan traditional music.
To unlock these mysterious complexities of the odd meters we will take a closer look into a 7/8 meter:
The two most common divisions, or groupings of the beats, in the 7/8 meter are (3 + 2 + 2) and (2 + 2 + 3). The third possibility (2 + 3 +2) is very rarely used.
For example, we would count the (2 + 2 + 3) meter as a collection of three consecutive segments:
(1, 2) + (1, 2) + (1, 2, 3)
with the emphasis on each division’s downbeat (each number 1) and with the very first beat of the bar naturally receiving the most emphasis of all. In other words, the first beat of each segment is accented because it carries more importance than the following beats (or the so-called “upbeats”) such as in:
(ONE, two) + (ONE, two) + (ONE, two, three)
Try to get the “feel” for this meter by pronouncing all the numbers while keeping a steady pace and then start tapping the hand only on downbeats (the “ONEs”). If a metronome is available, setting it to a comfortable tempo will help with keeping a steady pace. They key is in focusing your attention on the meter’s characteristic uneven pulse created by the hand taps.
Here’s a good example for a 7/8 meter to practice along with. This piece is based on the 3 + 2 + 2 variation, so you should count it as: (ONE, two, three) + (ONE, two) + (ONE, two)
The music is slow enough and the pulse is steady so it should be quite easy to count along:
“Tears of Joy [432Hz Edition]” – an original composition in 7/8:
Once you feel that you can easily follow the pulse and that your inner ear is getting familiar with the flow, proceed to only tap with your hand on the downbeats, without saying the beat numbers anymore or just continue counting them mentally.
After some practice, you’ll find that the main melody also follows these downbeats and then it will all start to “make sense” – almost like the melody has suddenly become “unlocked” to your ears.
Eventually, after some more focused listening, you will be able to fully concentrate and enjoy the melodic part of the music, as it will now seem logical – so much that you won’t even pay much attention to the rhythm. At this point you will realize that you indeed “feel” this odd meter, as it became a second nature to your inner ear after all the practice, and you can now fully enjoy the music!
This “How to” guide used the 7/8 meter as an example because it is one of the most common and easily explained odd meters. However, any other odd meter can be approached and “unlocked” in the same manner.
As we’ve already shown above, each of the odd meters can have several possible variations. For example:
9/8 meter can be rhythmically accented as:
(3 + 3 + 3)
(2 + 2 + 2 + 3)
(3 + 2 + 2 + 2)
11/8 meter can be rhythmically accented as:
(2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 2)
(3 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2)
The trick for identifying which variation is used in a given music piece is to listen to which beats are accented by the rhythm section (drums, percussion or bass) or to listen closely to the melody and determine on which beats its fragments fall. It takes some counting along the music at first, but eventually it all falls in place.
Below are two examples for a 9/8 meter. Both pieces are based on the (2 + 2 + 2 + 3) variation:
It should be easy to follow the pulse of the “Dragonfly” song because the tempo is steady and the melodic fragments closely follow the meter by falling on its downbeats.
“Dragonfly [432Hz Edition]” – an original composition in 9/8:
“Na srce mi leži, mila mamo” – my solo piano arrangement of the traditional folk song from Macedonia (in 9/8):
Due to multiple rhythmic variations of a given odd meter, in music notation the actual odd meter version is also often indicated alongside the time signature marking at the beginning of the music staff.
The inclusion of the meter version marking is especially important in the notation of traditional Balkan music. This written “shortcut” serves as an instant identification of the meter’s “feel” as it effectively eliminates the need to analyze the music before playing it. For example, for a 7/8 meter we would often see the meter marking shown as:
It’s worth noting here that sometimes the markings for a 7/8 meter are written in their simplified forms such as:
7/8 (3+4) – instead of 7/8 (3+2+2)
7/8 (4+3) – instead of 7/8 (2+2+3)
Theoretically, such markings could also indicate a specific accentuation of the meter. For example a 7/8 (4+3) would imply that only the 1st and 5th beats are actually downbeats which receive the rhythmic emphasis.
We can summarize the first four essays in these series with the following conclusions:
– Odd Meters in music are an advanced form of meters;
– All Odd Meters are classified in two main types: Simple (or Basic) and Complex (or Advanced) Odd Meters with the specific subgroups of Compound Odd Meters and Symmetric and Asymmetric Odd Meters;
– Simple Odd Meters create an even pulse while Complex Odd Meters create an uneven pulse in music;
– Complex Odd Meters contain both even and odd numbered beat segments while Simple Odd Meters contain either odd or even numbered beat segments but not both;
– Complex Odd Meters give the music a sense of “forward motion”;
– Placement of the 3-beat segment within the meter determines the type and feel of the meter;
– An odd meter is identified by counting its beats and a meter’s specific version is determined by identifying the subdivisions – groupings of beats.
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Finally, I will conclude this essay with an old Latin proverb:
“Repetitio est mater studiorum”
and applied to the musical context of these essays its perfectly fitting translation would be:
“The best way to get the feel for the odd-meters is to keep listening to the traditional Balkan music!”
(Next: “Part 5: Examples of Odd Meters in Modern Music”)
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