by Tim Johnson
I’ve always been fascinated by music written in unusual rhythms and metres. Right from earliest childhood I was very much a counter, an enthusiast of number, and one of my instinctive reactions to music is to count the beats. So I love those rare times when the beats don’t add up as you expect – in the usual twos, threes, fours, sixes, eights.
Two of the first classical pieces I got to know include movements in quintuple time – Mars (Philharmonia Orchestra – The Planets, Op. 32: 1. Mars, the Bringer of War (Allegro) from Holst’s Planets and the second movement (Herbert von Karajan – Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1987 – Remaster): II. Allegro con grazia) of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony both have five beats to the bar. And I was delighted to discover Dave Brubeck’s smooth, friendly time-bending jazz – Blue Rondo a la Turk (Dave Brubeck – Blue Rondo à la Turk), Take Five (Dave Brubeck – Take Five)
I think this fascination with number and desire for the dance to be unsquare is at the heart of it, and is something that divides both musicians and listeners, almost as if by brain-wiring. There are composers and songwriters for whom playing around with metre is the most natural thing in the world, and there are those who simply aren’t interested, and go on to write a lifetime of great music in 4/4.
And I think that cuts across all types of music. There have certainly been genres and periods in history when complexity with time was fashionable – psychedelia, prog rock and much of the twentieth century in classical music. But that experimentation is mostly about disruption, disorder, complexity, rather than actually setting down a regular rhythm in an unusual metre that is intended to be heard and felt. Though some 20th century composers like Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen really did have a taste and a talent for bold funky rhythmic eccentricity, it’s consistently been extremely rare – even in modern classical – to hear a proper tune in say 5, 7 or 11 beats.
In some ways it seems most surprising to find these strange metres in pop music, where we expect technical simplicity. But of course in every genre you find the whole range of human personality, just expressed in different ways. I’m interested in those occasional songs that break the mould and surprise us. We might hear them on the radio, in a shop, in a bar or club; we might even try to dance to them. We might be half-consciously puzzled, we might sort of feel something strange is going on, we might trip over our feet – or we might not even notice. As I said, I think receptiveness to this varies very much between individuals.
So I’ve listed ten songs that are all in one way or another metrically odd, dating from the sixties to the present day. Most of them I consider great songs. Several have had me counting furiously over the years, but having figured them out, I’m always left enjoying the slippery strangeness of their rock, bounce and swing.
1. Golden Brown – The Stranglers [http://www.stranglers.net/]
This mysterious harpsichord-led ballad which reached no. 2 in the charts in 1982 is utterly unique and timeless. The introduction and interludes have a seven-beat off-waltz pattern that contributes to a potent sense of the surreal.
2. Say a Little Prayer – Burt Bacharach [http://bacharachonline.com/]
Originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967 but now probably better known in the darker version by Aretha Franklin, this song starts off straightforwardly but switches to a puzzling 11 beat pattern in the chorus.
Bacharach had quite a taste for odd metres and phrasing – try also Promises, Promises [Burt Bacharach – Promises, Promises] and the very unstable Anyone Who Had A Heart [Cilla Black – Anyone Who Had A Heart].
3. Here Comes The Sun – The Beatles (George Harrison) [http://www.georgeharrison.com/]
1969 was apparently a difficult year for George: according to wikipedia, he was not only arrested for marijuana possession but also had his tonsils removed. But this song is incomparably sweet, and its unusual rhythms come from an interest in Indian music rather than any dark expression. Bridge passages are in 6/8 + 6/8 + 2/4, and the middle ‘eight’ repeats a twisty 4/4 + 7/8 + 11/8.
4. Money – Pink Floyd [http://www.pinkfloyd.com/]
At the height of prog rock in 1973 quite a few bands were experimenting with time signatures, but this Roger Waters song is unusual for its strikingly bold bass riff in a very clear 7/4 rhythm. (I’ve always assumed this was the inspiration for the Are You Being Served? theme, but I’m not so sure after researching it today.)
5. Everything in its Right Place – Radiohead [http://radiohead.com/]
This song from 1999 is one of many by Radiohead using an unconventional metre – others include Paranoid Android (Radiohead – Paranoid Android) (sections in 7/8), Pyramid Song, Morning Bell [Radiohead – Morning Bell](another very slippery 5/4), 2+2=5 (7/8), Go to Sleep, and 15 Step (a banging 5/4). It features a highly syncopated keyboard riff that divides five beats into slippery semiquaver patterns with a dark dissonant harmony.
For me Radiohead stand out among pop bands for being experimental with a real expressive purpose – not just in rhythm, but also texture and harmony. I wrote a few weeks ago about their taste for the ondes martenot [http://mangofantasy.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/musical-inventions-part-1/].
6. All You Need Is Love – The Beatles (John Lennon) [www.johnlennon.com/]
More Beatles, this time from John Lennon in 1967, with the most famous piece of music ever written in septuple time. John had a habit of dropping and adding beats to mix up the rhythmic flow of his songs – Strawberry Fields Forever, Good Morning, Good Morning, Across the Universe – but in this case there’s a real 7/8 rhythm in the verse sections. This song could just as easily have been written in 4/4, and I wonder if it was a last minute decision to chop off the final half beat to increase the energy.
7. Mission Impossible theme – Lalo Schifrin [http://www.schifrin.com/]
One of the fattest tunes ever written in quintuple time, this has a swagger and perhaps a hint of a broken tango. There’s an virile energy appropriate to its purpose that comes from having to stop and shake your head twice at the end of every bar.
8. American Dream – Jakatta [http://www.zrecords.ltd.uk/artists/Joey+Negro/1]
Although dance music is all about rhythm, and the best producers have spent the last quarter century dividing up time with astonishing innovation and refinement, almost nothing departs from a fundamental 4/4. I guess the reason for this is simply mixing – DJs have to be able to blend one tracks into the next – as you don’t really need 4/4 to dance (at least I don’t). So the best I can find by way of ‘unusual’ metre in dance music is this 2000 track in 6/4 by Dave Lee aka Joey Negro aka Jakatta.
The play of twos and threes against each other is ubiquitous in dance, but American Dream is distinctive in what it does with this. Dance music typically ‘resolves’ rhythmically to phrases of 2, 4 or 8 four-beat bars (e.g. by having a 3 + 3 + 2 pattern). This doesn’t – it is fundamentally triple. I’d be interested to know if this affects how people respond to it on the dancefloor.
9. Living in the Past – Jethro Tull [http://www.j-tull.com/]
Back to the late sixties for one final tune in quintuple time. This is a folky example that uses the same 3+3+2+2 pattern as Mission Impossible. There’s a lot of folk music that plays around with metre, and it’s been hugely influential in classical music.
With music in five I often find myself wondering if it is basically 4/4 plus one, or triple time minus one. The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is definitely a disturbed waltz with a missing beat. A pure quintuple rhythm (if it is possible) would perhaps feel like neither of those things.
10. Moon – Björk [http://bjork.com/]
And finally, right up to the present day with this delicate harp-led track from Biophilia (2011). Many songs on the album use experimental rhythms (and experimental everything), and this one combines 4 and 5 beat bars into phrases of 17, inspired (in none-too-obvious ways) by lunar cycles.
“As the lukewarm hands of the gods
Came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls”
Does anyone have any other songs to add to the list?!
Tim is a mobile technology specialist living in London who also sings, dances and makes things. He has recently started a blog – mangofantasy.wordpress.com – which explores music, art and more through the prism of his life.