There has been so much technological and musical advancement in the last twenty years it is almost dizzying. But even with such change there still is not as much discussion in woodwind circles about the organized, practical study of odd time signatures as I feel there should be, so I thought I would discuss them with you in this post.
“Odd” time signatures are any that are divided into non-even numbers: 3, 5, 7, and so on. Also, it is almost always the case you will eventually encounter, or be required to play in, time signatures such as 5/4, 9/8, or 7/16. What makes them feel “unusual” at first is that since most Western music (jazz, rock, classical, etc.) is in 4/4 or 2/4, a time signature like 7/4 feels “uneven,” or often hard to keep track of. But there are three basic approaches that will help you understand and feel comfortable with odd time signatures.
First, one must get used to note groupings less common in 4/4. We get so comfortable playing even eighth or sixteenth note groupings of four (in bebop for example) that playing odd note groupings feels strange. Thus, first learning to accent groups of five and seven in 4/4 is an excellent way of first getting the feel of odd numbers in a comfortable setting. A relatively easy way to do this is through scale practice. Using the C major scale in 4/4 for example, play the scale very slowly, in sixteenth notes, accenting the first of every three notes in sequence (C, F, B, etc). Thus we play [C d e F g a B c d E f g A…] and so on. Doing this makes it sound like we are playing triplets over 4/4, like we are playing in 12/8 simultaneously. This effect is a cross-rhythm (often mistaken called a polyrhythm) that plays against the main pulse.
Once you are comfortable with accent triplets, then accent in groups of five: C d e f g A, and so on. Another fun way is to accent notes in groups of two and three: C d E f g A b C d e, etc. What this does is introduce the feeling of playing in odd time signatures without counting in your head, which you want to avoid. This preliminary exercise also moves you out of old habits and clichéd (comfortable) patterns. Another really effective method is studying/adapting the first ten pages (pg. 4 – 14) of George Lawrence Stone’s book Accents And Rebounds For The Snare Drummer, to your scale studies. It will simultaneously strengthen both your motor and intellectual skills.
Second, one must actually listen to odd time music in order to get used to hearing its ebb and flow in traditional Greek folk music, for example. A classic example of simple yet brilliant usage of 7 and 5 are the songs on Dave Brubeck’s albums Time Out and Time Further Out, (including the wonderful “Unsquare Dance”). Many songs by Sting are also excellent examples of using odd time signatures very musically, and not just for show. “Seven Days,” for example is an excellent, minimalistic use of 5/4, while “Straight To My Heart” is an excellent example of creating a catchy riff in 7/4. It is important to start with music that is easy to analyze, as many groups (e.g. Animals As Leaders, Frank Zappa, Meshuggah, King Crimson, etc.) often play with such complexity that it is difficult to follow and analyze what their music by ear.
So I suggest listening to as many examples as you can in order to find what you are initially comfortable with, and progress from there. Then, when you have found a few songs you like, memorize the main theme or pattern as a kind of mental guide. For example, the main guitar riff from RUSH’s live version of La Villa Strangiato (starting just after 5:30) off the album Exit Stage Left is such a fantastic riff that for years I used it as a mental rhythmic guide if I had to improvise in 7/4.
Lastly, when you have begun analyzing odd time you will notice that many feel “lop-sided,” like they kind of limp along. This back and forth quality may feel strange at first, but it is a quality that other cultures enjoy. In Turkish folk music, for example, these rhythms are known as aqsaq (“stumbling”) rhythms. What is important to note about such rhythms is that they are divided into groupings of two or three counts in a (repeating) chain, e.g. 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 = 11/8. This stumbling or wobbling quality of threes and twos gives the music a pleasurable bounce, often figuratively compared to a young woman carrying sloshing pails of river water back to her village. Knowing this then you can begin to create your own odd time songs and riffs, using groupings of three and two that you feel comfortable with, as composing is often the most effective musical education. There are six basic combinations of two and three you can begin to play with: 232 (i.e. 2+3+2), 223, 332, 323, 322, and 233, before creating longer chains of 19/16 or 21/8.
For more on odd time studies, see my previous articles on aqsaq rhythms or South Indian solkattu, or read Trichy Sankaran’s fantastic book The Art of Konnakkol. Good Luck!