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A Guide to Understanding Complex

Time Signatures
Posted on May 19, 2012 by joelfromjoelsguitarlesssons No Comments

[Note: this post is LONG. While you can read it in one sitting, I would recommend
reading one section, taking a break to wrap your head around the concept, and
then returning to read the next section. I go through a number of different
concepts all related to complex time signatures, and it can be a lot to handle at
Like many areas of music, time signatures are taught on the first pages of a
beginners handbook, and then never addressed again (or never in the depth
necessary to really understand them). This is unfortunate, because its one area
that requires familiarity with music to really wrap your head around them.
Adding to this confusion is the fact that very few popular bands and songs use
non-traditional or complex time signatures at all. The vast majority of songs on
the radio are all in the more basic time signatures, like 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. Because
of this, its very, very easy as a young guitarist to learn songs and never have to
question the timing element. But while its true that more basic time signatures
are easier to feel, that doesnt mean that it is hard to grasp the more complex
ones. You just have to know where to start.
With this in mind, I wanted to talk about how to get comfortable with complex
time signatures.
Time signatures a definition
Lets go back to the very beginning when discussing time signatures (if youre
already familiar with mechanics of time signatures, you can skip to the next
section). A time signature is a set of two numbers, with one placed over another.
They are shown at the beginning of a piece:

The number on top (in this case, 6), signifies how many beats are in a measure.
The number on the bottom (in this case, 8 ) signifies what type of note gets the
beat. The options are all in multiples of 2:

1 a whole note
2 a half note
4 a quarter note
8 an eighth note
16 a sixteenth note
32 a thirty-second note
and so on.
Hidden in this note on the bottom (the 8 in the above example) are a few hidden
pieces of information for the reader:
1) The higher the number, the faster the feel
2) Time signatures with a 4 on the bottom denote a strong pulse with each beat
(think four on the floor)
3) Time signatures with an 8 on the bottom typically denote a triplet feel for all
or most of the measure (6/8, 12/8)
Time signatures offer a general road map for the piece, letting the reader
understand what rules to obey when playing the song. Once they know these
rules, they can judge how the piece should sound.
Lets see this in action with time signatures youve heard before, like 4/4 and 6/8.
4/4 using the above logic, we can see that since the number on top is a 4, there
are 4 beats in a measure. Also, since the bottom number is also a 4, we know
that a quarter note gets the pulse. Also, looking at the above hidden cues, you
can see that there is probably a strong pulse on each individual beat. So the time
signature 4/4 at the beginning of a measure signifies this:

6/8 since the number on top is a 6, we know that there are 6 beats in a
measure, and since the number on the bottom is an 8, we know that a quarter
note gets the beat. Also, looking at the hidden cues in the note on the bottom,
we know that there is a triplet feel to this measure. This means that seeing the
time signature 6/8 signifies a measure that looks like this:

By breaking down time signatures by looking at what the numbers on top and
bottom represent, you can get a sense of the pulse of the song.
Well thats boring. How can we spice this up?
Okay, now that we know how to read time signatures, its important to go a step
deeper. The above ways to break up the measures are the most square ones you
can use, but its not the only way to cut the cake. The main guideline here is the
number of beats per measure anything else you do in that measure is up to
you. When I say number of beats per measure, I mean:
4/4 4 quarter notes per measure, or 8 eighth notes per measure, or 16
sixteenth notes per measure:

6/8 2 dotted-quarter notes per measure, or 6 eighth notes per measure, or 12

sixteenth notes per measure:

By subdividing these total note counts into sets that dont quite line up the
beats, you can create syncopation.
Definition: Syncopation a syncopated feel is a feel that goes against the
natural beat of a measure. For instance, if a measure has a beat every 2 eighth
notes, and you play a pattern with accents every 3 eighth notes, youll be
playing a syncopated feel.
To see your options, take your measure, and divide it evenly with any small
denomination (eighth or sixteenths work great). For example, lets look at a
sample measure of 4/4, listed as 8 eighth notes with even accents:

Now all you have to do is decide how you want to subdivide it. For example, you
can divide it as 3 + 3 + 2 beats:

By using a smaller denomination (in this case, sixteenth notes), you have even
more options. For instance, we can subdivide a measure of 4/4 as 5 + 5 + 3 + 3

As you can see, your options are vast.

A note about these subdivisions by playing with subdivisions, you can create
and release tension in a measure by just using the rhythm. This will free up
options melodically and harmonically and give you a new way to build a song.
Play around with this to see exactly what you can create.
2s and 3s revisited
Alright, now you understand syncopation. At this point, I need to talk a little
deeper about subdividing rhythms in 2s and 3s.
To understand complex time signatures (and by understand, I mean be able to
feel these rhythms in your bones, not just figure them out when breaking them
down), you need to know one law: all music can be broken down into 2 and 3
beat rhythms. This is the case no matter what. This isnt just a reference to how
4/4, 6/8, etc. are naturally divided into sets of 2s and 3s. All rhythms, no matter
how complex, will naturally fall into sets of 2s and 3s. Here is the idea in action:
5 beats = 2 + 3 beats, or 3 + 2 beats
7 beats = 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or 2 + 3 + 2 beats, or 3 + 2 + 2 beats
8 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, or 3 + 3 + 2 beats, or 3 + 2 + 3 beats, or 2 + 3 +
3 beats
9 beats = 3 + 3 + 3 beats, or 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or 3 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
11 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or = 3 + 3 + 3 +2 beats, etc.
15 beats = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 beats, or = 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 beats, or 3
+ 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
31 beats = 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 beats, etc.
Anytime you have a set of beats in a measure, it can always be reduced this way.
Further, it will always be reduced this way your ear will not feel 5 independent
beats. It just wont. Your ear will always subdivide a 5 note pattern as 2 + 3, or 3
+ 2, based on what is happening (listen to anything in 5/4 or 7/8 and youll see

this in practice as soon as your ear and mind grasp the pattern, itll naturally
fall into sets of 2s and 3s).
To understand this, pick up your guitar or a keyboard, and play 5 random notes in
a row. It doesnt have to be complex at all you can just play 5 notes ascending
in a row. Now do whatever you can to make it sound like 5 even notes, without
them naturally subdividing into 2 and 3, or 3 and 2. For example:
Try playing all notes on one string, so you dont have to choose playing 2 notes
on one, or 3 on another.
Try playing all notes with only one finger (play the 5th fret, slide up to the 6th,
slide up to the 7th, etc.), so you dont have to choose how to play 5 notes with 6
Try playing it with every note getting the same emphasis if you start hearing
any accents, play them in a way to de-emphasize those notes.
Howd it go? Didnt work, did it. Your brain will always look for patterns and ways
to subdivide it into the most manageable parts, and this will always be with 2s
and 3s.
Youve talked for 3 pages now. Get to the point.
Alright, so now you understand why everything is 2s and 3s. The next step is to
use these as building blocks on their own, rather than as pieces of a smaller
puzzle. Before, we were taking set designations and splitting them in groups of
2s and 3s (for example, 4/4 has 8 beats to subdivide). Now, lets remove those
This will make more sense if you see it in action. For starters, take the below
measure of 4/4, already subdivided into 3 + 3 + 2 beats:

Now, arbitrarily, add on 2 eighth notes to the measure at the end:

You just created a measure of 5/4, or 10/8. Now lets add another 3 eighth notes:

You just created a measure of 13/8 (or 26/16). Now, lets remove a set of 2 eighth
notes from the middle:

Now we have a measure of 11/8. You can add and remove sets of 2s and 3s to
your hearts content.
This is the freedom that using different signatures allows you can chop up and
move around what is happening rhythmically to fit your needs.
So how do I work on this?
The next step to understanding time signatures is to experiment on your own.
You now have the basic building blocks for how they work, now you need to get
comfortable with using them.
Like with most areas of music, the first step should be to find songs that are in
abnormal time signatures, and listen to them. A lot. Here are a few popular
examples of rock songs that are either all or in part in abnormal time signatures:
Peter Gabriel, Solsbury Hill 7/4
Tool, Vicarious 5/4
Tool, Jambi 9/8
Soundgarden, Spoonman 7/4
Soundgarden, Fell on Black Days 6/4
Soundgarden, The Day I Tried to Live 4/4 and 7/8, alternating
(note the entire Soundgarden album Superunknown is a lesson on how to use
time signatures)
Alice in Chains, Them Bones, 7/4
Deftones, Diamond Eyes verse in 6/8, chorus in 11/8
When listening to these, start by just counting out the patterns, and then looking
for the sets of 2s and 3s. Look for how the bands find ways to use these time
signatures to make the songs more interesting, rather than just use them as

Then, start trying to create some of these patterns yourself. Here are a few ways
to develop comfort:
Take a chord progression, and find a way to arpeggiate it with 5, 7, 9, or 11
notes. Play the entire chord progression, but by using these arpeggio patterns.
Pick a set of 2 and 3 beat patterns, like we did above. Now take a chord
progression, and only play notes on the beginning of the 2 and 3 beat patterns.
Take riffs and patterns youve already created, and find ways to add notes to
the end in a musical way. For instance, take a riff, and just dont play the last
note, but play everything else the same. Or add one note on the end.
Over time, youll start being able to feel these patterns more and more easily,
until these become second nature. It just takes time.
Finally, there are a few stylistic elements to keep in mind.
Its time to start paying attention to accents
Now that you see how time signatures can work, we need to talk to how you can
apply these when writing your songs. And while the options are endless, there
are a few points that need to be made, the first of which is that accents are
about to become a real issue.
One part of having popular music often written in the same time signatures is
you become accustomed to certain feels. You might not notice in a rhythmically
complex song, the drummer will be going out of his way to hit the ride every
quarter note, and the snare on every beat 3 of a measure. As one instrument
becomes more a-rhythmic, another will become more square, in an effort to keep
the song grounded. You dont need to pay attention to how all of the different
parts work together to keep the feel steady.
If youre going to start playing with these, you have to start paying attention.
Heres the reason: all of the conventions you know are about to go out the
window, as soon as you change up the number of beats. While Im no drummer
and dont want to pretend to discuss the finer points of keeping a song grounded,
there are basically two levels you need to keep in mind:
Level 1 viewing the piece on a measure by measure basis (i.e.: looking at it as
measures of 5/4, 7/8, etc.)
Level 2 viewing it based on the makeup of 2s and 3s.

These are not mutually exclusive in fact, they should be used together,
because the more you can guide the listener where you want, the more impactful
your music can be. What this means is that youll need a set of cues to happen
at set points to act as guideposts for the listener.
So, in English, that means the following example. Lets imagine you have a piece
in 5/4, with a pattern of eighth notes playing 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 beats. Here are ways
you could ground it:
Have a drummer hit the ride symbol ever quarter note/two eighth notes, and
the snare on every 4th quarter note of the measure (beat 4 of 5). The base drum
plays on the first beat of every 3 + 3 + 2 +2 section (hit, rest, rest, hit, rest, rest,
hit, rest, hit, rest, repeat).
Have the bassist play a note on the first note of every 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 pattern.
Have everyone else play a more complex but distinguishable rhythm, that
repeats every ten notes (the bass player accents the 3 + 3 + 2 + 2, whereas
everyone else accents the 5/4 by playing a pattern that repeats).
Have the guitarist hold chords for the entire 5/4 measure, and hit the chord on
every first beat. Everyone else can play the 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 pattern.
Have everyone play complex patterns using the 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 pattern, with the
only thing signifying the 5/4 measure be the drummer hitting the crash on every
beat 1.
The concept is only that you need something strong happening in a set pattern
of notes. The above are all ways that will really guide the listener to where you
want. You should by all means experiment however, and see which of these
elements you can remove, while still keeping the listener grounded.
Less complexity is more
Theres another element that you need to keep in mind now, and its of overall
complexity. When youre playing in 4/4, 6/8, etc., things go by certain familiar
patterns. Even if the patterns are heavily syncopated, its still easy for our ears
to find and grasp onto these patterns to find the structure.
This happens with more than just rhythm. When listening to music, the ear will
grasp onto a wide variety of different elements the chords and typical
cadences, melodies and typical movements, even typical instrumentation,
sounds, and effects. These elements follow the same rules and logic from song to
song, and as listeners, weve learned to find these rules.
By changing up the rhythm and playing outside of basic time signatures, you are
in effect breaking these rules. Any patterns in these time signatures are going to
be much more foreign to the listeners ears, which means that its going to be
much, much easier for them to feel lost, and they are going to be searching for

an anchor to keep them grounded so they can find other patterns in melody,
harmony, etc.. Youve taken away their North Star, so they will want a compass.
Now, do you have to give them anchors? No, by no means you can be as
creatively atonal, a-rhythmic, abrasive or atmospheric as you want. But the
listeners ear will be searching for any ropes or anchors to ground them.
So if they want an anchor, how can you give it to them?
The easiest way is to take less risks in the other areas. When picking chords,
dont take any large risks. When playing melodies, making your note choices
square. When choosing effects, dont use this as a time to make your guitar
sound like its screaming.
Again, like everything, it will take practice to figure out how much grounding you
need to give the listener. Just keep in mind when youre writing that it is a factor
that needs to be considered.
In conclusion
Now you have a new tool in your arsenal. Again, the only way to get comfortable
with this is to try it out, a lot. So break out a metronome and start coming up
with riffs!