We’re going to be focusing on strictly on counting and different ways to count and break up time signatures in this article and less on the names and different kinds of time signatures.
Grouping Will Set You Free. Here’s How.
The secret to tackling odd time signatures is to group and divide.
What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at this time signature for a minute:
What do we know already looking at this 5/4 time signature?
It looks just like 4/4 does – but with one more beat
The quarter note gets the beat (if you’re not sure what that means, listen to any rock, blues, hip hop, or funk song and that what it means for the quarter note to get the beat)
Using the knowledge we have already with with how we count 4/4 (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc.), how would we count 5/4?
Just like we would like 4/4 – but we would add one more beat:
Now, there’s nothing wrong with counting out 5/4 like 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, etc. But it can get cumbersome.
Just try tapping your foot and counting to 5 over and over again. Your mouth gets sore.
So how do we fix this? We can group out 5/4 into different groups of notes:
From 5/4 we can do:
1 + 4: 1 1-2-3-4 | 1 1-2-3-4 | 1 1-2-3-4, etc.
4 + 1: 1-2-3-4 1 | 1-2-3-4 1 | 1-2-3-4 1, etc.
3 + 2: 1-2-3 1-2 | 1-2-3 1-2 | 1-2-3 1-2, etc. and
2 + 3: 1-2 1-2-3 | 1-2 1-2-3 | 1-2 1-2-3, etc.
Just like that – how scary does 5/4 look now? Not very that’s for sure.
By simply grouping (or if you want to think of it like finding numbers that equal the top number of the time signature), we were able to take down big, daunting looking time signatures and turn them into smaller, more manageable time signatures that ADD UP TO the big time signature.
Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one way over another way to count out 5/4. They all get the job done. But some can feel better than others.
Here’s what I mean. Tap your foot to a tempo of your choosing and count out each of the patterns above. Which one feels better to you to say (and, thought the word “feel” might not sound helpful, much of music is feel-based or what “clicks” with you.
Whether the time signature is 6/4 or 7/4 (like Money by Pink Floyd), the same logic can be applied, just as we’re about to see in the next few sections.
Here’s some famous songs in 5/4 to check out so you can hear the different kinds of groupings in real settings:
Lalo Schifrin – The Mission Impossible Theme (1966)
But, like counting a whole bar of 5/4 like 1-2-3-4-5, it can get tedious to count like that for long periods of time. What we can do instead is group 7/8 into a more manageable way. For example:
1-2 + 1-2 + 1-2-3
1-2 + 1-2-3 + 1-2
1-2-3 + 1-2 + 1-2
Now, there are other ways to subdivide and group 7/8 than those listed above. 1-2-3-4 + 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5 + 1-2 are just a few others that are not wrong either, but using those particular groups can get tedious to count out as well.
Most songs in 7/8 will use one of the kinds of grouping variations mentioned above.
Sting’s “Like a Beautiful Smile” is a good example of a straight 7/8 time signature that isn’t subdivided and counts out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7:
As is Moondog’s “My Tiny Butterfly”:
Flobots’ “Rhythm Method” is a good example of a 1-2-3 + 1-2 + 1-2 pattern used starting at the 1:00 minute mark:
Now, what do these subdivision mean? Why does 1-2-3 + 1-2 + 1-2 feel different than 1-2 + 1-2 + 1-2-3?
The answer is very straight forward and here’s just how straight forward it is:
what other note do you know is made up of 3 eighth notes?
what about 2 eighth notes?
A dotted quarter note and a quarter note!
Think of each on of those groupings of notes for what they really are:
in the first example, there is a dotted quarter note, a quarter note and a quarter note.
In the second example, there is a quarter note, a quarter note and a dotted eighth note.
How do we know this?
Because 2 eighth notes equal 1 quarter note and 3 eighth notes equal a dotted quarter note (a quarter note plus an eighth note):
If you were to clap it out or tap your foot to hear the counting pattern, with D signifying when your hand or foot comes down and U when your hand or foot comes up, it would look like (or sound like this rather):
It’s also important to understand that these rules are not exclusive to 7/8.
Any time signature that ends with 8 or where the eighth note gets the beat can be analyzed and broken down in the same way.
Tips for Counting Odd Time On Your Own
So the next time you encounter a piece of music with a time signature that isn’t 4/4 or 3/4, take a minute to consider taking come of the following steps to make the process a little bit more manageable and a little bit more friendly towards your learning:
If the song you’re learning has an original version, play back the original recording of the song focusing entirely on how that different time signature is grouped out.
Focus your learning for the moment entirely on understanding the grouping pattern and how the song transitions into the odd meter as well as out of the odd meter for the sake of better understanding how the section fits into the song. Your goal should be to internalize the rhythm to the point that you can then begin to play while still feeling the new pulse.
Once you feel like you’ve internalized the rhythm, practice playing just the passage with the odd meter.
Then, begin playing the passage this time prefacing it by playing 1-2 bars before the change and 1-2 bars after the change or until the end of the passage. Like I mentioned before, this is meant to help develop the context of the passage rather than just learning it in (relative) isolation to the rest of the song.
For additional resources on counting odd time signatures, consider some of these awesome resources: