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It’s About Time: Uncommon Song Time Signatures in Rock Music

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Time signatures are used in Western musical notation to indicate how many beats are contained in each measure of a song. If you’ve ever seen sheet music, the time signature will appear at the beginning of each line, with notation like “4/4,” which is known as “Common Time.” The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure Most Western music is written in Common Time and can be counted during a song by saying “1,2,3,4,” with each number representing a beat and the emphasis often on beats 1 and 3. The beats then repeat as the next four, and the next four. Note: this is different than “tempo” which indicates how many beats in the song occur within each minute (“beats per minute” or BPM). Contrast that with Eastern music, which often does not have a regular beat or cadence.

Editor’s Note: Queue up the songs mentioned below on Spotify or Apple Music as you read the remaining part of the article so you can experience the differences in musical timing described.

Common Time has a natural feel—a rhythm that is pleasing to the brain. Think of songs like “Michelle” by the Beatles. The first line can be counted as:

Mi–chelle|     my belle. | These are words that| go to-ge-ther|well–   |

1-2-3-4  | 1-2-3–4     | 1     2   3     4   | 1 2 3 4   |1 2 3 4 |

Related: “10 Great Beatles Songs with Girls Names In the Titles”

Blues and Rock music is nearly all in Common Time. It’s the bread and butter of music construction.   So, when you stumble across a different time signature, it’s almost jarring to your brain.   It makes you listen more intently—why does this sound different? And it’s more common (pun intended) than you think.

Three-quarter time, written “3/4,” means there are three beats for measure, counted “1-2-3, 1-2-3” with the emphasis on “1.” This is also called “Waltz Time” because it lends itself to the steps in most waltzes. Consider the song “I Me Mine” by the Beatles (George Harrison) from the album “Let It Be.”   This tune, in fact, has both “3/4” time and “4/4” time. The first part of the song that starts with “All I can hear, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine” is in Waltz time. In fact, except for the word “All,” which is held for three beats, the subsequent measures are one word per beat. The second part of the song that brings in the distorted guitars is in “4/4” time and chants “I me me mine,” again one word per beat.

Related: “George Harrison Quits the Beatles”

Some other modern songs in Waltz Time include:

  • “Murder By Numbers” by The Police
  • “Breaking the Girl” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin
  • “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix
  • “Holiday” by Weezer

But there are other time signatures that are even rarer. For example, “Take 5” by Dave Brubeck is a classic jazz instrumental in 5/4 time. It’s an odd time signature that is counted “1-2-3-4-5” in each measure, with the emphasis on beats 1 and 4. It’s a song that is both odd and pleasant and so unique that it can be recognized simply by the drum intro. Want to hear something more modern in “5/4”? Check out “Eden” by Hozier, a beautiful song that glides along on air because of the interesting time signature.

Other familiar songs in “5/4” time include:

  • The “Mission Impossible” theme
  • “My Wave” by Soundgarden
  • “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull

The kings of messing with time signatures were The Beatles. Their song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is an odd one to listen to because it includes many changes in time signature. It flows from “4/4” to “5/5” to “9/8” to “10/8,” to name a few. It was really just an exercise to see how many time signature changes could be crammed into a single song, not that it made it more appealing—just distinct.

Other songs you will recognize but may not have thought about their signature include:

  • “Electric Feel” by MGMT is in “6/4” time, with six beats per measure. You may not know the song by name, but I’m sure you’ve heard it.   Count to six over and over, and those are the beats in the song.
  • “Money” by Pink Floyd is in “7/4” time. Again, this means you can count “1-2-3-4-5-6-7” before it repeats with the next seven beats. Once again, the unique signature makes it stick in your head.
  • “Tom Sawyer” by Rush is in 7/8 time. All three members of Rush were trained music experts, so I’m sure it was no accident that the song used this time signature.

Varying time signatures allows an artist to create something that is interesting and unique, but your brain may struggle to identify exactly why that’s so. The next time you hear a song that catches your ear, try counting the beats and see if it has an uncommon time signature.  You’ll never listen to your favorite tracks again in quite the same way!

-Will Wills

Photo Credit: David Gilmour (L) and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd perform onstage at ‘Live 8 London’ in Hyde Park on July 2, 2005, in London, England.  (Photo by Dave Hogan/Live 8 via Getty Images)

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About

Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

7 comments on “It’s About Time: Uncommon Song Time Signatures in Rock Music

  1. Avatar
    Peter Morra

    “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” may include several time signature changes but I never heard of 5/5. Please explain and tell me where it’s heard in the song. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      John Dempsey

      There is no such thing as 5/5 as there is no “one-fifth” note. Probably meant 5/4.

  2. Avatar
    John Dempsey

    “I, Me, Mine” is, in fact, in 6/8.

  3. Avatar
    John Dempsey

    And “Murder by Numbers” is in 12/8. 6/8 is pretty easily mistaken for 3/4
    , but 12/8 is much closer to 4/4 than 3/4. Don’t mean to be a pest but…

  4. Avatar
    Tony Nowikowski

    While they’re not especially well-known (at least outside of Canada) I’m amused that Broken Social Scene actually have a song on their eponymous 2005 album named “7/4 (Shoreline)”, and yes, it is in 7/4 time.

  5. Avatar

    Wow, you guys caught some pretty blatant mistakes on my part. Sorry about that! Correct on 5/5 – definitely a typo – 5/4. There is no “fifth” note! Also, correct – Murder by Numbers is 12/8 – not a pest at all. I actually counted that song out and but just now downloaded the sheet music to be sure.

    And “I Me Mine” is 6/8 – correct, though the two time signatures sound very similar. The way they are different is with respect to how many notes in each bar. Also, a song in 3/4 at 60bpm, is the same as 6/8 at 120bpm. Technically and literally, “I Me Mine” is “6/8” and counted “ONE two three four five six” rather than if it were in ¾ it would be counted “ONE two three FOUR five six”. In any case, I recall a film of Harrison playing this song and John/Yoko Waltzing to it.

    Thank you for calling these out – I will do better, two, three…

  6. Avatar
    GuccizBud

    ≈ Every Rush song 🙂

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