How Well Can You Count?

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school. I wrote and recorded a tune the other day. It's called Timmy Umbwebwe Lights A Candle (yes, I have a thing for odd titles). The initial beat was composed on the drum kit. Not that I planned it this way, but it turns out that the main theme is comprised of three measures of 9/8 followed by a measure of 13/8. This counting is somewhat "plastic" though, and if you prefer you can think of it as alternating measures of 5/8 and 4/8 with an extra measure of 4/8 thrown in at the end. Any way you slice it, it comes out "odd". Give it a try and see which way of counting it is more natural to you.

Popular Western music for some reason doesn't really "go" for this kind of thing. Pretty much it's all 4/4 with the occasional 3/4 ballad. Is it because people have a hard enough time dancing to 4/4 let alone 7/4 or 11/8? Is it because they were never introduced to it? I don't know. But I do know of a few relatively popular tunes that were not written entirely in 4/4 or 3/4 (or an obvious derivative like 6/8). I'm thinking Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and Sting.

Anybody care to guess the tunes?

(And to hear something that is a little closer to "normal", try this, which is based on a melody I wrote for my wife while we were kayaking one afternoon)

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The term you're looking for is complex compound meter, and one way of notating it is to divide the meter into groups of 2s (simple) and 3s (compound). So, the meter you've described could be written:

|:(3+2+2+2)/8 (3x) :| (3+2+2+2+2)/8

As for examples, I guess it depends on what "relatively popular" means. Bela Bartok originally adapted the complex compound meter of Bulgarian folk music to the classical tradition. This inspired Dave Brubeck's Take Five (3+2/4), Blue Rondo a la Turk (2+2+2+3/8), and countless others. Jazz trumpeter Don Ellis went absolutely apeshit (that's the technical term), utilizing complex compound meters and Indian talas in his hippy trippy big band in the 60s and 70s. Frank Zappa's music is full of complex compound meter, polymeter, and odd-numbered "tuplets" (e.g., dividing a single beat into 5, 7, 9, etc. equal parts).

The original Mission Impossible theme (from the TV show) is (3+3+2+2)/8.

Remember the old PBS show "Wall Street Week with Louis Reukhiser?" (3+3+2+2)/8, with hemiolas and polymeter.

I'm not very familiar with 80s pop/rock, although I do recall a tune by The Police in 5/4. So that might be your Sting reference. Can't think of the title offhand, though.

You're discussing unusual time signatures and mention Pink Floyd, Sting, and Peter Gabriel, but leave out Rush?

When my son-in-law plays his guitar, he manages to incorporate all these tempos when playing Gloria. Hell, he can also manage fractional beats. You call it plastic, I call it horrible.

By Bill from Dover (not verified) on 29 Dec 2008 #permalink

Solsbury Hill, like Money consisting mostly of 7/4 measures, is the Peter Gabriel song.

Not sure about the Sting one. Was this during his solo career or as a member of the Police? They used a lot of reggae beats, but I'm not as familiar with his solo career.

Trivia: Gabriel and Sting (who used to run 5 miles a day until someone turned him on to ashtanga yoga) reportedly both have bipolar disorder, and the living members of Pink Floyd are probably still too toxic from their excesses of decades past for any clinician to render a baseline diagnosis. Maybe this is why they create songs that are "off"?

jon- I didn't mention Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Renaissance or Genesis, either. That wasn't the point.

Ian- The links should work (the site it's on was under going some work yesterday). Nice list of odd-meter works. By no means exhaustive though (what, no ELP or Yes?)! I noticed that it didn't list the finale of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe which is (famously) in 5/4. It certainly did list the Floyd and Gabriel tunes I was thinking of (thank you, Diane and Kevin).

I don't read music, but I listen to loads of it. Isn't The Pretenders' "The Adultress" also one of those "off" songs? (I've always loved "Tattooed Love Boys" for the same reason...)

And don't forget DEVO. "Are We Not Men?" is in 7/8