Jazz musician and ICMP lecturer, Anjali Perinparaja, encourages us to embrace irregular time signatures and explains how to ‘take five’
Many songs are often written in standard time signatures like 4/4, 3/4, 2/4 and 6/8 and 12/8. However, there are many other time signature options but so often we feel unsure how to explore using them so things feel natural in our songs. There are many artists that have utilized odd time signatures to great effect, often so effortlessly that we can hear something is different but we can’t always put our finger (or ears) on it!
Just like chords that might introduce elements of tension and release, so do time signatures and rhythmic patterns. It can be a great way to heighten the narrative of a song but equally, musicians don’t always feel comfortable working outside of 4/4 and 6/8.
Often songwriters, who are new to ‘odd time’ signatures, will try to immediately compose something in odd time on their accompanying instrument, whilst trying to construct a melody line at the same time. This is not only hard to do if you are less fluent in odd time feels, but also it is difficult to check you are staying in that meter and timing correctly so you may think you’re in 5/4 but sometimes you have reverted to standard 4/4 and just added in a rhythmic push! It’s hard to check you actually are applying odd time.
In order to compose in odd time signatures, it helps to start with a really simple pattern. Over-complicating things early will get in the way sometimes of being fully grounded in the odd time.
Start by setting your metronome (use any metronome app on your phone) to a steady BPM – 90 BPM works well. Let it run for a few minutes whilst you really get into the feel of the metronome. As it runs count “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” alongside the beat until you are really feeling that pace is set in sets of five. Clap with it, hum to it, just get it feeling internalised. You can also set up a project in Logic/Garageband to help with this. Set the timer to 5/4 and ensure the 1st beat of each bar is accented so you hear the start of the bar.
2. HARMONY/BASSLINE SUPPORT
Now decide on a super simple bassline. Again, the focus here is on simplicity – your bassline will ground you in the odd time signature and provides the foundation for a basic groove and top line.
Initially try to have at least two chord changes in the bar, so you’re having to define some sort of harmonic movement within the five beats. You might even want to compose a bassline riff/motif that anchors in the odd time feel. You can then record this bassline on a loop either just on your phone or through a recording/DAW platform.
Combinations to try – visualising the form
5/4 can be subdivided into 3:2 or 2:3 for a workable, simple bassline (i.e. focus on just two bass notes a bar) or experiment further across the five beats. You can write yourself out a “grid” to help experiment with some different options and to help identify your chosen chords: see example below.
Example patterns set across a grid of 5 beats:
Pick one simple idea and just get that as your foundation. Play that in and ensure you have a good few bars of it to be able to compose over.
Start humming a simple idea for a song over your bassline – make sure your bassline and simple chords are recorded as a basic instrument track. Do this even if it’s just on your phone, so you are not trying to play the bass and sing a topline melody over it at the same time.
Again, just construct a simple melody that works well with the bass and chordal movement you’ve come up with. Often lyrics is where things can come unstuck – the crafting required in odd time is different to standard time. So it’s important to have outlined a melody before adding in words, so your topline concept is strong.
Again, there is room for experimentation here. Try short phrases and then experiment with longer phrases. You may want to use a specific pattern – AABA/ABBA/AAB etc – or you may feel the flow of the song requires a much more fluid construction.
The main challenge is to ensure the lyrics really work in the odd time rather than trying to make a 4/4 constructed melody extend or work in 5/4.
5. STRUCTURE & CRAFTING
Once you’ve done this, start working out how this section you’ve composed could fit into a song structure. You may also want to start to add more rhythm – for example, syncopation/pushes on certain beats and craft a more complex groove.
You may want to have different time signatures for different sections or even feature a sequence of different time signatures, once you’re feeling confident in the odd time – e.g. 5/5/6; 5/4/4 etc. Sometimes a song will run along a more standard groove and then feature just a bar of odd time, to just rock the listener!
The main way to make this work is to always start simple with the basic rhythm featuring in your bassline/chords and get this set up well to then allow topline composition.
Examples of songs that use 5/4:
- Riverman by Nick Drake
- 2+2=5 by Radiohead
- Seven Days by Sting
- Theme from Mission: Impossible
- Take Five by Dave Brubeck