Today we’re going to talk about unusual time signatures. We’re going to look at some of the weird counting patterns you might come across, and how to approach them and “feel them out”.
This is the second part of a video series about strong and weak beats – if you missed the first one, check it out.
We’re going to look at how to count unusual time signatures, and figure out where the strong and weak beats are. We’ll also listen to some musical examples so you can hear how they sound.
So let’s get started!
Unusual Time Signatures: Weird to Very Weird
There are some extremely weird time signatures out there, like “mixed” time signatures, where the time signature is constantly alternating. Or “irrational meter”, where the bottom number isn’t an actual type of beat (something like 10 or 24, hence the name irrational).
Today, we won’t be looking at the extremely unusual ones. We’ll just look at the moderately unusual time signatures.
In the last video, we discussed “simple time” – which is basically what you’ll see in 95% of music – stuff like 4/4 and ¾.
We’ve also lightly discussed “compound time”. Common time usually manifests as 6/8. Basically it means that the main beat unit, instead of being a quarter or 8th note, becomes a dotted quarter note. This means that each beat gets a triple pulse.
Today we’ll look at some less common examples of compound time, such as 9/8 and 12/8.
Additionally, we’ll be looking at “complex time signatures”. The most common of these are 5/4 and 5/8, and 7/4 and 7/8. These time signatures are very strange when you first give them a whirl, and take some getting used to.
Unusual time signatures: 9/8
So first up – 9/8.
9/8 isn’t a hugely unusual time signature, and it’s pretty easy to understand and feel.
We’ll start by looking at the bottom number. The bottom number always tells us the type of beat. “8” stands for “8th” notes.
Since 9/8 is “compound” meter, it means that we divide the beat into groups of three 8th notes.
The top number, “9”, means there are going to be nine 8th notes per bar. If we separate those into groups of 3, we end up with three groups of three 8th notes.
Each one of those groups is the counting equivalent of a dotted quarter note – the hallmark of compound time.
An example of how you would count in 9/8 time is shown in the image above.
Before listening to an example of 9/8, let’s talk about where the strong and weak beats are. The biggest, strongest beat in this meter is, of course, the first one. That first beat needs to be strong enough that we don’t get lost in the sea of 8th notes. It needs to be there to anchor us into the piece.
The medium beats would fall on each start of three 8th notes, and the weak beats are everything else.
S – w – w – M – w – w – M – w -w
9/8 Time: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach
A famous Baroque example of 9/8 time signature is Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach. There’s a constant flow of 8th notes, which you can see are grouped in threes.
Let’s take a listen to how it sounds. Note that this is a piano solo recording, so the sheet music you see is slightly different than what’s being played.
Unusual Time Signatures: 12/8
12/8 is another compound time signature. The 8th note beat is still divided into groups of 3. However, this time it has four groups of three. (3 x 4 = 12).
Here’s how the grouping would work, and how you would count in 12/8 time:
It’s actually very similar to 6/8 – if you added 6/8 with 6/8, you’d end up with 12/8. Yay for basic math!
The strong and weak beats are similar to 9/8: you lead off with a strong beat (as with every time signature), and then the first note of every following grouping is a medium beat. The in-between notes are weak beats.
S – w – w – M – w – w – M – w – w – M – w – w
12/8 Time: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, 2nd Movement
This time signature can be found in jigs (The Irish Washerwoman is a famous one), as well as some slow blues songs. But we’re going to look at a Classical example today.
A great example of a Classical piece with this slightly unusual time signature is Beethoven’s Pastoral (6th) Symphony, in the second movement. Try to count in 12’s, and listen for the start of each bar, and how much heavier it feels than the other beats.
Unusual Time Signatures: 5/4 and 5/8
5/4 or 5/8, aka “quintuple meter”, is probably the most common of the complex time signatures. It’s still one of the more unusual time signature – but it’s the most familiar of the weird ones.
There are two ways that the strong and weak beats in 5/4 (or 5/8) can be divided, it just depends on the song in question.
1 2 3 4 5
S w w M w
1 2 3 4 5
S w M w w
I’d say the first division is more common, but you’ll probably come across both at some point.
Counting in 5/4 and 5/8 is very easy. It’s just like counting in 4/4, but with an extra beat.
Here’s a very tiny piano excerpt so you can see the division of beats. The top one is S – w – w – M – w, as you’ll see by looking at where the chord change happens.
In the bottom one, the rhythm grouping is clearly S – w – w- M – w. And the only difference in 5/8 counting (instead of 5/4) is that our main beat is now the 8th note.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: 2nd Movement in 5/4 (Limping Waltz)
A good example of a Modern symphony (turn of the 20th Century) in 5/4 is by Tchaikovksy. It’s the second movement from his Sixth Symphony.
The nickname of this movement is “The Limping Waltz”, because that’s the sort of sound 5/4 can have. It almost makes it to that sixth beat, which would complete the waltz pattern, but since it cuts off at 5 and returns to beat 1, it has a limping sound.
Unusual Time Signatures: 7/4 and 7/8
Septuple meter, or a meter where there are seven beats per bar, are rare enough that you might only come across them a few times. They’re not so rare, however, that you’ll never see them unless you’re a crazy music nerd.
It was very rare in Classical European music before the 20th Century, but could be observed sometimes in folk music and Eastern music.
You have a couple options for strong and weak beat placement in septuple time. 2+2+3 and 3+2+2 are the most common groupings (with 2+2+3 the more common of the two).
Counting in 2+2+3 would look like this:
S – w – M – w – M – w – w
I love this example of 7/4 counting, since it uses words to convey the accents and feel of 7/4, kind of like what I did in the musical fruit episode.
Here’s how the other pattern, 3+2+2, would look like in 7/8 time:
Brahms Trio No. 3: 3/4 + 2/4 + 2/4 (=7/4)
There are some pieces that are entirely in sevens, such as Charles Alkan’s Impromptu op. 32, no. 8, and Brahms’ Variations, op. 21 no. 2, but they’re not common enough pieces that I was able to find a good recording for you (NOTE: This is for the video only. There are plenty of good ones on YouTube). Do check them out if you’re curious.
What I was able to find was a trio by Brahms. It’s the Trio No. 3 for piano, violin and cello, op. 101, and the “A” section is in 7/4. Of course, composers generally didn’t write a 7/4 time signature then – instead, he wrote a recurring “3/4 + 2/4 + 2/4”. Which, if you can do basic math, adds up to 7/4.
Since Brahms wrote it this way, we know right away where our strong and weak beats are.
The nice thing about this piece is that it moves slowly enough, and steadily enough, that it’s fairly easy to follow while counting the beat. Brahms does this so well that, even though it’s a more unnatural and unfamiliar rhythm, if you don’t look for it, it flows just as seamlessly as 4/4.
That’s all for today’s video on unusual time signatures. I hope you’ve enjoyed this musical tour, and that you’ve learned something along the way. Until next time!