Time Signatures

Groovin’ with the Meters

By Scott Allen

If there is one area that traditional music instruction fails the student more than meters, I can’t think of what it might be. Most of the time playing in different time signatures is taught when a student learns music reading. This is fine and dandy when just reading the music in front of you, but what if you want to create your own music using odd times, or even just time signatures that are plain old not 4/4. Most instruction in this area is more limited than K-fed’s vocabulary. Well, that is about to change if I have any say in the matter. Like to hear it, here it go.

Playing the odds-

Odd times are not so named because they are stranger than Donald Trump’s hair; they are called “odd” because the numerator in the fraction is an odd number. 5/4, 7/8, 15/16, these are all odd meters. Odd times are incredibly good at building tension in a piece of music. If you have a crushingly heavy riff that you want to make achingly disturbing, put it in an odd time like 7/8 or 5/4. Just how do you do this? I’ll tell you.

First we must understand how to read a time signature. The numerator of the fraction will always tell you how many of a certain type of note happens per measure. 4/4 time means that you have four quarter notes per measure. Therefore, it stands to reason that 5/4 time would have five quarter notes per measure. 7/8 time would have seven eighth notes per measure. 15/16 would have fifteen sixteenth notes per measure, and so on. The denominator (no that is not the name of a crappy Schwarzenegger movie) tells you what kind of note you are using, such as quarter notes, eighth notes etc.

One simple way to get your head around these new meters is to play a very simple (Jessica Simpson IQ simple) chord progression with the most basic strumming possible. For instance try strumming a 5/4 time in steady quarter notes while counting: one, two, three, four, five. Try the same for 7/4, 9/4, ¾ etc. Remember, you are just trying to get comfortable here. The next step in making it a little more complicated is to try using eighth note strumming while still playing in a quarter note meter. Then try sixteenth notes until it feels totally natural. Remember that two eighth notes equal one quarter note. Two sixteenth notes equal on eighth note. One quarter note equals four sixteenth notes, or two eighth notes. I can already hear some of you groaning about the fact that this isn’t math class. No kidding, if this were math class, I’d be the guy in the back getting a C-. This is different, because unlike most math, this has implications in the “real world”.

Eighth note meters differentiate themselves from quarter note and sixteenth note meters because they are pretty particular about how they are grouped. In eighth note time signatures, if the numerator is divisible by three, the meter is usually played in triplets. If it isn’t divisible by three then it is usually grouped in either groups of two, or groups of three, or any combination of the two. So 9/8 time is played by doing three triplets. 12/8 is played with, you guessed it, four triplets. 7/8 time you can probably tell isn’t divisible by three, so we will use two groups of two and a group of three. 11/8 will be three groups of three and a group of two. See, it’s easy. But wait, you must also keep in mind all of the things that are equal to those groupings. So you could have eight sixteenth notes and a triplet and still be in 7/8 time. Remember, two sixteenth notes equal on eighth note, so if we want to replace four eighth notes we will need eight sixteenth notes.

Once you have a grip on the basics of playing in the meters described above, you will be ready to take it up a notch. How can one play something more complicated than a song in 15/16? How about a song that alternates between measures of 15/16 and 17/16. This is called a Metric Modulation. One cool way to get into this kind of groove is to group riffs in patterns of four, with the first three measures in one time signature (say 5/8) and the fourth in another (say 7/8). You can try this with any meters you can think of, and it is one of the best ways to breathe life into an otherwise stock riff or group of riffs.

Examples of this kind of thing can be found all over the place. Rush, Dream Theater, Yes, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Steve Vai, Planet X, and I might add Scott Allen Project use these very same ideas all the time. Check out the songs: Sapphire Sky, The Clock is Ticking, and A Girl I Once Knew on my CD, What Lies Beyond Words, to hear examples of odd times and metric modulations. Those other guys I mentioned are O.K. too. Kidding, where do you think I learned all about odd times, it wasn’t in the California public school system, I can tell you that (although I did learn to hate Jocks there).

One last thing I want to mention is that when used most effectively, odd times shouldn’t draw a ton of attention to themselves. It should just sound inexplicably fresh to the listener. Just like a teenage kid behind the wheel of a Ferrari, people sometimes misuse powerful new tools they receive. So make sure to use meters in service of your creativity, and not your ego. Do it for me, do it for you, do it for anyone has ever been victim to overly self indulgent music. Damn you Yanni, damn you to hell!!

Scott Allen Project - Eternal Optimist (Live)

Scott Allen Project's album, What Lies Beyond Words, is now also available at Amazon.com. Be sure to check out Scott's column, Touring the Arps, at Guitar Nine Records.