Odd Meters, 7/8 Anyone?
By Stewart Hendrickson

Recently some Irish musicians have been composing tunes in odd meters such as 7/8. One example of this is the "Road To Barga" (starts at about 1:47 on the video) by Cillian Vallely of the Irish band Lunasa.

After a bit of difficulty, I learned this tune, and like to play it on fiddle at jams (hear me play it). The response I get is very interesting. Guitar players want to play along, but they get thoroughly confused with the rhythm, hopelessly out of beat, or just plain give up.

When I explain that it is in 7/8 time they still can't get it. It's played as /123 12 12/ or in pulses of /P3 P2 P2/ where P3 is three beats and P2 two beats. Any Greek musician would have no trouble with this as it is the common Kalamatianos rhythm of the popular Greek line dance. But even my musician friends who are into drumming have difficulty beating out this rhythm. Listen to Cat Stevens' Ruby Love - it's the same 123 12 12 beat.

The best way to experience and learn these odd meters is not by counting, but by listening to the music and learning the dances. For example, the Greek Kalamantianos is characterized by three dance counts – long, short, short (P3, P2, P2). Listen to the pulses in the music and move your feet accordingly. After a while the rhythm will feel natural and you will “get it.” Another way is to just repeat the words "Jaffa cake choclate biscuit, jaffa cake choclate biscuit" to the music.

The Greeks have been playing music in 7/8 and other odd meters for hundreds (even thousands) of years, as have Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Balkan musicians. But Americans are only used to hearing and playing music in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. Even 3/4 or waltz time is difficult for some.

Time signatures define the pulse or timing of a musical piece. The upper number defines the number of beats in a measure while the lower number indicates the note which receives one beat.

Common meters are 2/4 and 4/4 where there are two or four beats to the measure and each quarter note gets one beat, and 3/4 with three beats to the measure. Some simple compound meters are 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8, which can be divided into two, three, or four groups of three beats respectively (each eighth-note receiving one beat). For example 6/8 is counted /123 123/ and is the common rhythm for an Irish jig, 9/8 is counted /123 123 123/ in a slip jig, and 12/8 is counted /123 123 123 123/ in a slide.

Odd meters are defined by complex signatures which do not divide easily into groups of two, three, or four beats. Some examples of odd meters would be 5/8, 7/8, and 11/8. These might be counted as /12 123/, /123 12 12/, or /123 123 123 12/ respectively. Each group of  beats represents a rhythmic pulse.

Igor Stravinsky was one of the first to introduce odd meters into western classical music in his “Firebird Suite” and “The Rite of Spring”. The jarring rhythms in particular were not well received by western ears. Stravinsky wrote of his 1913 premiere in Paris of “The Rite of Spring”: "At the performance, mild protests against the music could be heard, from the beginning. Then when the curtain opened ... the storm broke...I was unprepared for the explosion...I left the hall in a rage...I have never again been that angry."

Dave Brubeck shook up the jazz world in 1959 by his use of odd meters. Tired of hearing most jazz in common 4/4 time, he started to experiment in polyrhythms. After returning from a trip to Turkey in 1958, he produced an album of all original compositions in a variety of time signatures. This album “Time Out” was almost rejected by Columbia Records for its challenging use of unusual meters. But the third cut, “Take Five,” soon became the biggest-selling jazz single of all time. It is in 5/4 time with the following piano intro (see and hear it played by the Dave Brubeck Quartet):

It could also be signed as 10/8, in which case it would be counted /123 123 12 12/.

On the same album, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” has a time signature of 9/8 and is counted /12 12 12 123/ rather than the usual /123 123 123/. Another Brubeck composition “Eleven Four” is signed as 11/4 (naturally!) and counted /123 12 123 123/. Some of Brubeck’s best music is available on the two-CD remastered album “The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall” and “Time Further Out,” his follow-up to “Time Out.”

Math rock, a style of rock music that emerged in the late 1980s, frequently uses odd meters such as 7/8, 11/8, or 13/8, or features constantly changing meters based on various groupings of 2 and 3. Hear an example.

Then there’s Frank Zappa's "Toads of the Short Forest", where Frank says: On stage now, drummer A is playing in 7/8, drummer B is playing in 3/4, the organ player is in 5/8, the bass in 3/4, and the sax player is blowing his nose.

Listen to this tune, The Journey, composed and played by Debbie Scott in the Shetland Islands. It begins with a complex rhythm. The score is marked 4/4 time, but it could be written as 8/8 time in which alternating measures are counted /123 12 123/ and /12 12 12 12/ (first and second measures respectively). This gives a very pleasing rhythmic bounce to the tune.

A crooked tune is a musical piece with added or dropped beats, which disrupt the usual rhythm. Some "old-time" fiddle tunes are crooked; they sound quirky because this is the way an old player may have felt the tune - instinctively rather than technically correct (here's an example). A more formal crooked tune is the Zweifacher - a German or Bavarian dance which alternates between waltz and pivot turns. Watch a Zweifacher performance at Oktoberfest, and the German trad-band "Deitsch" playing the "Wirtshaus-Zwiefacher" (the musical score has measures in both 2/4 and 3/4 time).

Odd meters bring with them a whole new world of musical enjoyment and cultural understanding.

Stewart Hendrickson - revised from The Victory Review, Nov. 2006,