Odd Time Signatures: 奇数拍子


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!




6 thoughts on “Odd Time Signatures: 奇数拍子

  1. Well, here I find a fellow Rush fan. Yay! Neil Peart and Phil Collins (specifically, his work behind the kit before Gabriel left Genesis and he took over with vocals) are what made, and still make, me want to dabble around with the drums. I don’t get all the technical stuff here (nor in the drum brushes article; I lack a brush, as I usually play around with hard rock, a little prog [which I do very, very badly] or heavy metal), but I applaud what you’re doing, Daniel. Yay, once again!

    1. To my delight, though, I have seen a fair number of jazz greats (drums and otherwise) come through St. Louis, and I’m always blown away by how technically proficient and creative/improvisationally out-of-this-world jazz drummers (and all jazz musicians, really) are.

      1. To me Jack DeJohnette’s performance on the Keith Jarrett Trio album “Standards Live” (1987) sings so insanely hard, especially on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Jack’s playing on that version should have gotten him a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance Ever!!

        But I also love Joe Morello’s bright, minimalistic playing on the “Time Out” and “Time Further Out” albums by Brubeck. How the tune goes back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4 with such a jovial, swinging feel is just marvelous. And with Desmond sweetly flowing through it all? Perfection!

    2. I have been a RUSH fan ever since the late 70s when I heard Hemispheres for the first time as a kid. I could write 5000 billion-zillion books about how much I love RUSH and how their music works, so I will save you the millennia of exhausting reading and just say, ” I REALLY REALLY REALLY love RUSH!!!!!!” Oh the things I could tell you…

      I am not even remotely interested in fame or power, BUT I am REALLY grateful that because of my circumstances as a professional musician/writer I had the privilege of meeting the band privately: just them and I and a few band wives/kids, in a small green room. Alex was super-friendly and hilarious (non-stop smiles), Geddy: reserved but friendly, quiet but witty, and Neil just silently walked away and hide around a corner, not wanting to talk. Not standoffish, but clearly not interested in all the “talking about myself” stuff… which I really respect because he was not being rude or anything. So I walked around the corner and just politely/briefly thanked him for his contributions to Canadian music. He mumbled a quiet Thank You without looking at me, and I walked away.

      He puts his heart and soul and great thought into his (composed) drum parts and books and lyrics, so I totally understand why he likes to keep as far away from all the nonsense that can arise from doing press and all the stupid, aggressive fans he may have met during the 40 years he has been active touring. He had no idea who I was, so there is no way he would know if I was going to be easy to deal with or not. I supposed he could have stuck around to find out, but I would just want to stick to myself if I had his personality and professional experience. There is no law saying Neil Peart must do X for his fans. He has given his all to us in the music itself, and I certainly think he “owes” us fans nothing after giving so much.

      So I understand why some people think he is an asshole, but I’ll bet those people thought they could just walk up and start praising him and hanging out and he gave them what they would see as the “cold shoulder.” He is a wonderfully passionate, private man, who refuses to let anyone force him to not be himself in public. So if you hear that Neil is a (insert expletive/adjective here), he really isn’t. And if someone is a real RUSH fan, they would know Neil is reticent anyways, so I think it is really their fault, IMHO. Reticence is good… “Passion” can be reticent too.


      NOW… I love Peter Gabriel’s solo work but LOVE Genesis (77 – 91) starting with “Seconds Out”. THAT is Genesis to me, so we are in the two opposite Genesis camps, theoretically. But hey we are drummers so who cares? Drumming is so awesome, the rest is just window dressing.


      It is so great that even if you are a part time player you love prog rock and heavy metal, which are such great energy musics. A great example of a mix of both is the song “Rational Gaze” by Meshuggah. Check it out, I think you will really dig the 25/16 and alternating time signature mix. Drummer Thomas Haake makes it sound like it is in “4/4” but in reality he is accenting 25/16 in a way that tricks you into thinking 4/4 is in there.

      1. Thanks, Daniel. I don’t dislike (at all) the Genesis years of Phil Collins. The music was just very different from the PG years. I like Phil’s solo work a lot, too, although he obviously kind of left drumming behind.
        As to RUSH, unfortunately, I’ve only seen them in concert once, from very afar. That’s cool that you got to meet them, even Neil. Yes, I’ve heard varying reports of his prickliness, shall we say, but I’m not surprised, considering songs like Limelight, in particular. And admire his individuality and definitely empathize with shyness and/or the need for privacy. So, I have nothing against him whatsoever. (Even as public figures) I think he has some reasonable (at least) expectations of privacy. So, anyway, not to ramble, but thanks again for taking the time to comment and even to revise one of your blog posts because, at least in part, of my ruminating about the ‘poet-lazy person’ origins. Take care!

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