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6 pop songs in unusual time signatures

May 18, 2011 | By Abraham | 70 comments

Obviously, there are way more than 6 popular songs with interesting meters, and I probably didn’t pick the most obvious ones. Leave your favorites in the comments…

“Money,” Pink Floyd – 7/4

“Hey Ya,” OutKast – Emulates 11/4

Uses a cadential six-measure phrase consisting of three 4/4 measures, a 2/4 measure, and two 4/4 measures

Mission Impossible Theme, Lalo Schifrin – 5/4

The intro of “Whipping Post,” Allman Brothers – 11/4

Gregg Allman:

I didn’t know the intro was in 11/4 time. I just saw it as three sets of three, and then two to jump on the next three sets with: it was like 1,2,3—1,2,3—1,2,3—1,2. I didn’t count it as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11.

“Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Beatles – shifting meters

“I Say a Little Prayer,” Dionne Warwick – 10/4 for verses and 11/4 for chorus

(Sources: Wikipedia and Time Blimp)

70 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    I’ve always thought Gilmour’s solo on “Money” was an underrated Floyd moment. Most people just talk about Comfortably Numb or Time.

    1. Joel says:

      Oddly enough, the solo is in a part of the song that is not in 7/8 time, it switches to 4/4 (for the guitar solo, not the sax solo).

    1. Jonny says:

      With a little musical experience, it’s generally easy enough to be able to just hear it – without it, just listen to the emphases and count. In general, emphasised notes will mark the start of a bar, and you can count from there.

      1. Brad Williams says:

        I have learned to play the guitar, banjo, and I play the djembe every Sunday. I learned by ear, and by watching people, etc. No one ever taught me how to count time, really. It fascinates me that you can do this without even knowing that you are doing it.

    1. Corban says:

      Well if you want to move outside of the realm of pop songs, Dream Theater’s “The Dance of Eternity” has (by a quick glance at the sheet music) 124 time signature changes. Within the context of an approximately 6 minute song that comes out to a meter change every 2.9 seconds.

      But the cool thing about of lot of these songs that were posted is that the average listener hardly notices that they’re using unusual time signatures.

      Nobody hears the Mission Impossible theme and thinks “oh man – this song is in 5″. Unless of course…they try to dance to it. Then they’ll know something is amiss…

      1. bh says:

        1) Not a pop song, but surely a widely popular jazz tune which many people could have heard without noticing it’s in 5/4 is Dave Bruebeck’s Quartet’s ‘Take 5′:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwNrmYRiX_o

        2) Less popular but still known (I think), and with even stranger signature (the intro alternates 14/8 and 16/8, as in 3,3,3,3,2 + 3,3,3,3,4) which could go unnoticed perhaps: Goblin’s ‘Profondo Rosso Sountrack’:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JpuislFVzU

        3) Not popular at all but I’ll just leave this here since it’s by far my personal favourite among “songs with weird signatures which rock”: Ozric Tentacles’ ‘Coily’, in 17/16:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jf0-zrV0uHg

    2. Samuel says:

      That is weird because for the most part I feel variations of phrases of alternating bars of 5/8 and 7/8 then alternations of 6/8 and 7/8. There’s also a section of 12/8 in there.

    1. kari says:

      i wish i could click a ‘like’ button for this comment. These are two of my favorite tunes on one of my favorite albums.(‘mercury falling’ for those who might inquire)

  2. Matt says:

    Sting, “The Munificent Seven” in 7/4. Yeah, Matt C., Sting is crazy awesome with those time signatures…

  3. Beat Attitude says:

    What about 9/10? That represents the number of times that an unusual time signatures signifies a bored songwriter.

    Or, in Sting’s case, someone who wants to show off the awesome drummer he’s got to add chops to a dull song. (actually, that’s not fair, some of his songs are pretty good.)

    I can’t hear the “10/4″ in Dionne Warwick either. I hear 4 bars of 4/4 plus a bar of 2/4, (after “makeup”) which, if we’re being ludicrous and completely ignoring the relevance of the downbeat in time signatures, is a bar of 18/4, followed by two bars of 4/4.

  4. Zach says:

    There’s quite a few Beatles songs with crazy time signatures, most of which were written by John Lennon. He was fascinated by the breaking of what feels “natural.” Examples include:

    The aforementioned “Strawberry Fields Forever”
    “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
    “All You Need Is Love”
    “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
    “Tomorrow Never Knows” is technically in 4/4, but the vocal rhythms rebel against it, as do the orchestral swells.
    “Don’t Let Me Down”

    1. Matthew W says:

      Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds also has a great little metric modulation between the verse and the chorus. Not sure if that’s one of Lennon’s though.

      1. Nick says:

        Lucy in the Sky was also one of John’s. I’ve read somewhere that he didn’t even really know he was changing time, he just did what felt right in the context of the song.

  5. Jacob says:

    Gotta love those crazy time signatures. One of the main reasons I started listening to Prog Rock and Math Rock is because of how brain-shatteringly confusing some of the timing on those songs can be. Check out The Littlest Viking-Labor and Lust. It’s a great Math Rock instrumental album with some cool time changes in it.

  6. Marc says:

    In college we used to go see a band called Jambay/Lazy Porch Dogs (Same band electric/acoustic) they were sort of jazz fusion jam rock. They would mess with time signatures in many of their songs. Ah the good old days back in Eugen Oregon.

  7. Brittany says:

    Those are some good ones! The first one that came to mind was “Let it Rain” by Ok Go. I never thought I’d be able to use that lil tidbit as a comment on a blog…lol.

  8. Casey Schultz says:

    Bastard – Ben Folds. Awesome song, awesome meter. It switches between 7/4 and 4/4 with some others.

  9. Matthew W says:

    The music from The Incredibles has great “odd” meters. There’s one part of the main theme that has 8/8 in all but the drums, which are playing a straight 4/4. There’s also a part that switches back and forth between 6/8 and 3/4 using equal eighth note tempos (which might actually be written as 12/8). In the same area as that one, there’s a 10/8.
    (not to mention the GREAT trumpet playing!)

    1. Kath Edwards says:

      thanks for that. that was my search that brought me here. I couldn’t work it out and it was driving me nuts.

  10. Rich says:

    Wrong: Money has a 7/8 time, except for the guitar solo. That switches to 4/4 time, because Gilmore didn’t want to have to count.

    1. Jeff says:

      I disagree with your disagree, although a few others on the Internet have made this claim. If you tap your foot to Money, the emphasis is on the quarter note, and the “rate” of your foot tap never changes throughout the measures. With 7/8 time, you have a “triplet-duplet-duplet” rhythm (or less commonly “duplet-duplet-triplet”) that requires you to change the rate of your foot tap from measure to measure. 7/8 is also called a “compound” time signature.

  11. Garvey says:

    I’m not sure if this counts as pop music, but the Number 12 Pinball song on Sesame Street is amazing… It has a real name… and some amazing time signatures :P

  12. Appie says:

    Solsbury Hill, Peter Gabriel
    11 times 7/8 beat and 1 time 8/8 beat
    I think compared to Money and Paranoid Android maybe the biggest hit in pop music!!!

  13. Jeremy says:

    Don’t forget the sections of “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, during the synth solo, where a beat disappears from every other measure – 4/4, then 3/4, then 4/4 etc.

    1. Debbie says:

      Point of Know Return constantly flip-flops between 3/4 & 4/4…almost to the point of being in 7, but it never stays in a 7 for more than a few measures.

  14. Allie B. says:

    Golden brown- The stranglers
    kiss from a rose- seal
    One- Metallica (I absolutely love the first 5 minutes)
    And most things by dream theatre

    I love music in non-traditional time signatures. :) Which sounds weird, but sometimes I’m literally in the mood to listen to songs in different time signatures.

  15. TA Smith says:

    Kashmir by Led Zeppelin,
    Ween’s song “Even if you don’t”
    Also, many songs by Stereolab. I think I counted one with 11 beats per measure.

  16. Debbie says:

    There are some songs by the Dead in compound meters…(yeah, not exactly pop…)
    Estimated Prophet & Lazy Lightning- Supplication are in 7. Uncle John’s Band has the instrumental part in 10, and also Playin’ in the Band is in 10.

    Some non-Dead, but great tunes in compound meters? Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel (in 7), Do What You Like by Blind Faith is in 5 (I think written by Ginger Baker)

    Also, consider some showtunes (!, I know, right?) Half of the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar (and for that matter, lots of other Andrew Lloyd Weber stuff)…

  17. paul says:

    Thanks for these.. Didn’t know the Dione Warwick one.. very nice..
    I’d say mission Impossible is 10/8 rather than 5/4.. It’s a subtle difference
    but it’s broken into 3-3-2-2 so doesn’t fit well so into 5/4.

  18. pasta says:

    Pyramid Song, Radiohead. I have no idea what the time signature is, but I think at one point it’s 9/8….I don’t really know. Then there’s a part in the Incredibles theme song that’s in 7/8 or 7/4 i think…..

  19. Bobalicia says:

    I’m gonna blow all of these out of the water. Not exactly pop, but Breaking All Illusions by Dream Theater changes time signatures 169 times.

  20. musicman says:

    Id like to point out Wayward Son by Kansas because it constantly switch several different time signatures between 4/4, 3/3, and swing, similar to Dave Brubeck’s Rondo ala Turk and Pink Floyd’s Money and The Black Key’s Tighten Up

  21. musicman says:

    By the way if anyone really wants a toe tapping challenge, listen to Dave Brubeck’s “Un-square Dance”

  22. stevie t says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned genesis yet: phil was all about 7/8 and other non-symmetrical time sigs.
    just to name a couple of my favs:
    1. the instrumental section of cinema show is an awesome fusion jam in 7/8;
    2. robbery assault and battery alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 except for the solo section which is in 13/8 (7 plus 6 – awesome feel);
    3. supper’s ready has a few time signatures but the coolest section is the “apocalypse in 9/8″ which has a keyboard soloing over the 9/8 rhythm section alternating between 7/8 and 4/4!! crazy – luckily for the keyboard player this was always played live with 2 drummers, one of whom kept him honest in the 4/4 bits;
    4. dance on a volcano – 7/8 alternates with 4/4;
    there are many more examples – also gabriel solo tunes in 5, 7 etc.

  23. kevin m. says:

    I’m pretty sure “Love Is Only Sleep” by, off all “bands”, The Monkees was in 7/4 time with the chorus switching to 4/4. Of course, it was written by Mike Nesmith, who was the only member with actual song writing talent.

  24. TC says:

    Thumbs up to those already mentioning Genesis, as well as Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. Sticking with the theme of pop songs, add to the list of Genesis songs the somehow radio-friendly Turn It On Again which alternates between 13/4 and 9/4, I believe.

  25. Coroa says:

    Hallo,
    there is also the possibility to play songs in an odd meter and arrange them around that idea. Here is an example:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32CUtWTmcvY

    or this one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgPTVIrR9NA

    anyway some work better than others but there is usually always a way that sounds good. The rest I bet is practice – until it feels natural.

    and here one of the guy that is incredible with odd meters.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWP4ycPT1rY

  26. Daniel says:

    Actually more probably I think is in a shifting time signature: verses are in sets of 3 bars of 4/4 then 1 bar of 2/4 followed by 3 bars of 4/4 . The chorus is in sets of 2 bars of 2/4 followed by one bar in 7/4.

  27. Daniel says:

    Actually more probably I think I Say A Little Prayer is in a shifting time signature: verses are in sets of 3 bars of 4/4 then 1 bar of 2/4 followed by 3 bars of 4/4 . The chorus is in sets of 2 bars of 2/4 followed by one bar in 7/4.

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