Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, February 24, 2004
# 11:39:00 AM:

On the five

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Most popular songs follow a straight beat. In musical terminology, what I mean is that almost all rock 'n' roll, R&B, hip-hop, country, adult contemporary, and even popular jazz tunes are in an even time signature: four or eight beats to the bar, so you can count "one two three four" steadily through the song.

Of the miniority of songs in odd time signatures, the huge majority are in 3/4, or "waltz" time ("one two three, one two three"). John Lennon was sometimes fond of waltz time when writing for the Beatles, for instance, with songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."

Very rare are the pop hits that are in truly strange time signatures. The most famous are probably Pink Floyd's "Money" (7/4) and Dave Brubeck's jazz monster hit "Take Five" (5/4). Some big acts made a point of using odd time regularly, including Soundgarden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis. (Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" was a strange hit for them because it wasn't in odd time.)

The most recent song in an odd time signature to top the charts is "Hey Ya!" by OutKast. Depending on how you count it, the song either goes through two bars of 8/8 time before turning through one bar of 6/8, or does five bars of 4/4 and then a bar of 2/4—or is in 22/8 (or 11/4) time. Funny thing is, you never notice it unless you're trying to count out the bars, which is the mark of genius songwriting.

I'd welcome any notes about other well-known songs in strange time signatures. I'm sure I've forgotten quite a few.


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