How to actually play in odd time signatures

Take a look at my time signatures topic on Haby Academy:
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Playing in odd time signatures can be intimidating, so today I intend to give you a key that you can acquire when you're playing in these odd meters to make it much easier to stay within the timing!

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5:15 Haby Academy.
6:05 13/8.
8:06 15/8.
9:27 1.
11:40 Think the time signature!

How to actually play in odd time signatures

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42 Comments

    1. Also, I’ve heard people count 15/8 as if it were like 5/4 time, but for these examples, it’s probably better to show it the way you brought it up

    2. I appreciate that you need to a make a living so no hate for accepting a sponsor: but …… I knew as soon as i heard that phrase “free to “””download”””” it was gonna be some hot garbage. Yes, free to “download” (what app isn’t?) but not to use, overly woke-y, topics, and your time signatures ciurse is nowhere to be found.

    3. What time is “Schisim” by Tool? I always assumed it was a 5/8 and 7/8 alternating back and forth…. what do you think?

  1. I think the point is: Feel the rhythm instead of analyzing it intellectually!

    As an example, although the song “Getting Better” by The Beatles is (as I think) in a simple 4/4 beat, Ringo has added a tricky cymbal beat in the verses:
    If you count “one | two | three, and | four”, it comes on the “and”. Quite easy thing doing it this way – but try and tell at which position the beat comes if you divide the bar into 16th!
    I think it is the 11th, but I am still not sure. – I just tried to reproduce the drum beat using MuseScore; at first I thought that is rather the 12th of 16/16th; but listening to thee original again, I am back at the 11th of 16 /16th … or you could also say the 6th of 8/8th.

    1. That’s probably why “Feel” players mostly play in 4/4, play pentatonic scales and jam over cowboy chords. “Feel” is an excuse. If you know how to fret a chord or play in key you already have analyzed music and know some sort of theory. I don’t understand this pushback against learning the language of music. It’s like painting strictly in black and white and never learning about color.

    2. Yes, I’ve only recently realized that rhythm is very similar to harmony in this way: the theory is method of analyzing and educating, but it is not necessarily the natural language when playing or creating. I’ve seen instances of world music described as 17/8 (or some such) but that is just a “code” of sorts, acting as a shorthand for a more natural scheme.

    3. ​​@@alexanderwilliamson7431So true. I was fortunate enough to know a member of the Wrecking Crew, and am still in touch with his widow due to my friendship with her nephew. The only musician I’m aware of in the Wrecking Crew who was not a trained musician, apart from having great feel, was Glen Campbell. He had to rely a lot on Carol Kaye, bass guitarist, to know what to do.

    4. @@avijatsinharoy8944 “Life would be dull with only 4/4 to listen to”- a nerd

  2. I highly recommend looking at the album “Tale of a Cruel World” by DM Dokuro; they have used a wide range of time signatures in it (5/4, 11/4, 13/4 and 7/8). There’s some fascinating work in their structuring too. My top pick from it is “Blood Coagulant”

    (edit 1): “Octivarium” by Dream Theatre is another song that used many crazy time signatures, all compacted into a 24 minute progressive, orchestral rock piece! Also it used 7/16.

    (edit 2): There’s just so much I know that I can’t help but talk about: The soundtrack for act II in the game “ULTRAKILL” used some odd time signatures too. Not as odd, but occasions of 5/4 and 7/8 (Dancer of the Darkness, He is the Light in my Darkness, Death Odyssey).

    (edit 3): Last edit I swear: The piece “Ganondorf Battle” plays in the mind-warping 23/16 time; have fun with that!

    1. DM Dokuro’s music is tight. I think him (generally) as a cross between Jazz Fusion and Prog Metal.

  3. As a prog musician, I absolutely love odd time signatures. One of my old band’s songs had a main riff in 11/8. It was essentially 7/8 (as shown in this video) followed by 2/4.

    The piece at the end is in 13/8.

  4. The piece at the end is in 13/8!

    I think my favorite odd meters are 7/4 and 7/8, especially when the pattern is 4+3. Our brains love 4/4 so much that it can be unexpected and jarring when a measure of what we thought was 4/4 ends prematurely, and this can be used to great effect. I currently have a video game idea where the plot revolves around a group of middle schoolers mourning and processing the premature death of a classmate, and have the idea of said classmate’s theme being in 7/4. The way our ears find the 4+3 version of 7/4 “cut short” reflects the untimely end to a young life.

  5. Playing with note value groupings in top heavy time signatures is very creative and quite fun. Love the video! Much gratitude to you.

  6. Lovely as always, David.

    11/8 is my favorite signature, and I’m the furthest possible thing from a skilled musician. Not only do I sometimes hear it as 3-3-3-2 as you demonstrated (which reminds me of “Right in Two” by Tool), but often I just cheat by alternating bars of 6/8 and 5/8 in rhythms I already know. Eventually, 11/8 began to feel “normal” to me.

    My next goal is to figure out how to treat time signatures with large “numerators” _without_ using my usual cheat of smashing together two smaller rhythms (something more akin to your “if 12/8 was an odd time signature” video!).

    Cheers for all the inspiration.

  7. One of my favorite things to do with odd time signatures is count the amount of ways you can divide it into a combination of simple and compound beats. For example, 11/8 has 9 ways it divides:

    5 where there’s 1 compound beat

    3 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 2
    2 – 3 – 2 – 2 – 2
    2 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 2
    2 – 2 – 2 – 3 – 2
    2 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 3

    and 4 where there’s 1 simple beat

    3 – 3 – 3 – 2
    3 – 3 – 2 – 3
    3 – 2 – 3 – 3
    2 – 3 – 3 – 3

    13/8 has 16 ways it divides, which I won’t write down here. It’s a really fascinating mathematical problem to calculate how many ways you can divide meters this way. There’s a sequence in the OEIS, A182097, that documents the number of these ways. It’s a fun exercise to write out all the ways you can divide these meters these ways.

  8. This was really eye opening and really helpful for my own compositions thank you so much!! EDIT: For your own composition at the end my guess would be 13/8.

  9. I think the optimal usage of odd meter is when you can’t tell that the song is in an odd meter, so that there are no weird extra beats in the bar, more like that long long short approach you took on the 5/8 beat

    1. Exactly! I love Pink Floyd’s Money for this reason. You really need to count it to realize that it’s in 7:4.

  10. Thanks for a brilliant explanation! Actually 5/4, 7/8 and 9/8 are very common in Greek music, so they are easy to grasp here even for non-musicians.

  11. I didn’t know about the Morse code bit in Mission Impossible. What a clever little device that also makes the piece so recognizable.

  12. I love odd time signatures and would love to see more videos on them. I think King Gizzard is doing some really interesting things with timing. Also with polyrhythm and polymeter. I’d love to see you do more videos on polymeter and polyrhythm, as well as odd time signatures.

  13. I really love hearing how my favorite prog bands treat odd meter (Rush, Crown Lands, Genesis, etc) but then I equally love hearing simplistic renditions like Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, or Eleven by Primus. I think odd meters can scare off “normal songwriters” thinking that they’re for prog nerds like me 😛 but you can very easily make them feel and sound very regular, and honestly they can groove SUPER hard! Starting off with anything over 4 is a great way to internalize the sense of odd meter, then you can run all the way down the rabbit hole of writing anything over 8 or 16. Thanks for making this video, it’s really refreshing to see a simpler take on what can seem to be a mammoth subject.

    1. Solsbury Hill is one of my very favorite “odd meter” songs because of how well the sense of urgency of the beat matches the moment of the song. It’s a song that grooves, but doesn’t have time to wait around for the formality of the eighth beat.
      Simple, but so effective.

  14. A couple people have mentioned doing 9/8 as 3 triples. A classic example is “Beautiful Dreamer,” which could have been done in 6/8, but the song would’ve felt hurried. It’s like waltz within a waltz.

    Also, for an adventure in odd meters: “Tarkus” (ELP).

    1. As a church musician, when I think of 9/8 the first song I think of is Blessed Assurance, which also plays it as three sets of triples.

  15. For me, the key is to understanding and mentally “accepting” the odd time signatures is that every other measure is syncopated to the previous measure. So since the first measure starts on the downbeat of 1, the second measure is syncopated, and starts on the relative upbeat. The measures alternate in syncopation throughout. Measure 1 downbeat. Measure 2 upbeat. Measure 3 downbeat. Measure 4 upbeat, and so-on. Makes it feel more normal.

  16. As a guitarist I love how much more freeing the piano can be to create songs on the fly, by thinking of melodies at the same time as you figure out chords, voicing, rhythms, etc. The guitar can also be used for that, of course, but not so effortlessly.

    1. Good point. This is why I love my looper. I can throw down a rhythm and then start trying out leads and motifs over the top. Still not as spontaneous as being able to play independent notes on both hands ha

  17. You managed to play these in such a smooth way that they don’t sound as herky-jerky as I’d typically expect. Your trick with how your arranging the beats is awesome! To answer your question, I think I’m counting 13/8 for your closing example. As a counterpoint to this video, now show us how you can make normal time signatures sound odd. It’s amazing what can be done by placing emphasis on beats you wouldn’t typically do in 4/4

    1. Meshuggah is definitely the oddest form of 4/4, I’d say.
      Lots of polyrhythms.

  18. There’s a thing at the beginning of this video that you don’t mention in words, but which shows how well you’ve practiced the skill you’re trying to teach here: you speak in a normal voice while playing the 5-beat rhythm. This would be quite impossible to do if you weren’t feeling the pulse of the rhythm rather than counting it in your head.
    Got my attention. This is exactly the kind of ease I always want in my own playing.

  19. As a classically-trained musician, I don’t have any issues playing in odd meters. In fact, I’ve always kind of gravitated toward more complex pieces because they’re typically more interesting to play (though of course, there’s definitely a place for slower, more melodic music, too). The piece at the end is in 13/8.

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