One-two, one-two is the first rhythm we experience: our mother’s heartbeat. When everything else has leaked out from our atrophied brain, it seems we still understand that and respond to it. No wonder it’s the basis for most of the music we know and why we call the time signature* 4/4, ‘common time’.
But we also discover the lilting joy of one-two-three, or ‘waltz time’ (the time signature 3/4). We savour its hint of rebellion, yet remain secure in the certainty that two of these cycles make three comforting back-and-forth one-twos. Much African and Latin American music uses this pleasing tension between two- and three-beats in an accumulated 12-beat rhythm, which is both four sets of three beats and three sets of four. The chugging blues uses the same 12 beats but with much less subtlety: four main beats each sub-divided into three, of which we hear the first and third (i.e. duh, der-duh, der-duh, der-duh, etc). In truth, this rhythm is closer to that of an actual heartbeat, so that may be why we are so at ease with it.
We can all dance to music built on a base of three or four beats. But how about five beats? Or seven? Tricky. That’s why such oddities are generally only found in jazz or prog rock, where dancing is not the prime objective.
I think Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past is the only song in 5/4 time to ever make the UK charts (it got to number 3 back in 1969).
Dave Brubeck’s Take Five is probably more well-known but it never got played on Top Of The Pops and most people know it as an instrumental (although Brubeck and his wife wrote some lyrics for it). There have been several other well-known songs that have sections with ‘extra’ or ‘missing’ beats (The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, The Stranglers’ Golden Brown and Pink Floyd’s Money are all partially in 7/4 but they usually revert to 4/4 for the chorus or solo).
Is it possible to create a worthwhile song with an unusual time signature that doesn’t simply sound like something written to impress music nerds? Here are a few examples for your consideration. Do you know others (i.e. songs with lyrics and one time signature all the way through)?
- PJ Harvey – Water. Flowing in five beats to the bar, from her debut album, Dry.
- Soft Machine – As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still. Most of Soft Machine’s Volume Two is in 7/4 (or 7/8). This section has words. (Another Canterbury band, Caravan, played my long-time favourite in 7/4, If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You, here on YT.)
- Grateful Dead – Playing In The Band. The sheet music insists this is a repeated cycle of two bars of 4/4 and one of 2/4. That makes a complete cycle of ten beats; this performance sticks to it through the instrumental (I think!).
- Grateful Dead – The Eleven. A standard 4/4 jam morphs into a repeated cycle of 3/3/3/2. And it changes back later than you think.
- Grateful Dead – Estimated Prophet. The sheet music has this as a repeated cycle of 3/4 and 4/4 but the full cycle is 14 beats. Count ‘em.
*For those unsure, a time signature is a two-part instruction for playing a piece of music, in the form x/y. ‘x’ tells you how many beats there are in a bar (a repeating cycle) and the ‘y’ tells you how long each of these beats lasts. ‘y’ is (almost) always 4 or 8; a ‘4’ beat being twice as long as an ‘8’. In this post – and generally in describing rhythm – we’re only interested in the ‘x’ bit.