Will on Unusual Time Signatures

Will on Unusual Time Signatures


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Most pop songs today come packaged in the standard 4/4 format, and you may see the occasional 3/4. There are a few exceptions; Outkast's “Hey Ya” springs to mind, emulating an 11/4 backbeat. The reason for such standardised timings? It works, it works really well. 4/4 is such a simple and robust timing, and 3/4's natural momentum lends itself well to the ballads and romance songs. Step outside of the mainstream and into the classical and progressive (ironically) styles, and crazy number combinations become a much more common sight.
My first foray into the wonderful world of odd time signatures began when my brother played me “Hell's Kitchen” by Dream Theatre. Since then, “The Dance of Eternity” has become a small side project of mine, with 128 time changes in just over 6 minutes, and one day, I'd like to be able to play through the song. Think of it as a personal musical marathon, albeit only 6 minutes long. It's an ugly numerical affair, but also an interesting and exciting listen. However, I can't help but feel that Dream Theatre made it this complex because they could. Don't get me wrong, this is the type of band that have every right to show off their abilities as musicians, but there was always the choice for something a little more subdued, something a little more 4/4.
There seems to be a belief amongst some people that wacky timings and technical flourishes come at the expense of the feeling and vibe of a song. I disagree, such things can be used to compliment the music. Take Meshuggah's hyper-aggressive sound, which is characterised largely around polyrhythms. It would sound stale without these. Artists such as Plini, Animals as Leaders and Tesseract are able to fuse uncommon rhythms together and come up with material that sounds more than a robot hammering out the Enigma code, and some of this stuff sounds like it has genuine emotion behind it.
Playing in unusual time signatures can be uncomfortable and terrifyingly disorientating (if you mess up, its not so easy to drop back into the 'time pocket'), but practice and familiarity can go a long way. Perhaps those of us who grew up listening to The Official UK Top 40 Singles Chart are at a slight disadvantage here, since we've all had our comfort zone rooted 4/4, whereas countries such as Greek and Turkey commonly write their dances in uneven time signatures. I would implore anyone who is unfamiliar with such things, or anything in music, to learn/write/improvise a piece in a peculiar timing. As a musician, it will make your solo playing, improvisation and your whole approach to song-writing better.

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