March 08, 2005

A-one, a-two, a-one two three four five

While I was working on my mix CD this weekend, I discovered that the Specials, in their not-especially-distinguished reunion lineup, recorded a version of "Take Five". Intrigued as to how they were going to manage to perform a ska version of a song in 5/4, I downloaded a copy. Turns out the way they did it was to change the time signature, stretching out a melody that used to take 5 beats into one that took 8 beats (by the use of long pauses). Really, now -- if you're going to do that, what's the point of even covering "Take Five"? (You can hear a short audio clip of it here; scroll down to track one.)

But they're not the only band to have smoothed the edges off a song in a quirky time signature. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton of U2 completely fucked up the "Mission: Impossible" theme -- also in 5/4, in its original incarnation -- when they recorded it for the movie adaptation of the TV show. They also managed to awkwardly shoehorn the urgent original composition into an lugubrious 4/4 dance number. Seriously, people: isn't the fact that pretty much everyone who has ever heard the theme to "Mission: Impossible" is able to hum it a testament to the fact that it is plenty accessible as it is? (Hear a sample -- including the exact moment when the music changes from catchy to crappy -- here.)

And then there's Erasure, who took Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" and de-7/8ed it, adding an extra beat -- a lot less blatant than adding three (especially to the untrained ear), but it still has a noticeably lame-ifying effect. (Song clip here.) Oh, it would all make me very sad if there weren't a new wave of prog-tinged alternative bands cropping up who like to drop the odd 15/16 chorus on people (as in the Dismemberment Plan's "Gyroscope") to cheer me up. Rose suggested making a mix CD of nothing but songs in weird time signatures. I like.

As for me, I much prefer taking songs that used to be in 4/4 and making them not be. Here's a link to a mash-up I made a while back of Madonna's "Frozen" over "Spice Rack", a multi-time-signatured instrumental by Wayne Horvitz's Zony Mash; it's called Ice Rack.

Posted by Francis at 03:24 PM | TrackBack

I have only the faintest idea what a key signature is in the first place, but I can kind of see what you mean about "Solsbury Hill".

Boiled in Lead's "Pontiaka" is in 13/8 time. I have no real sense of what that means, either, but I gather it's odd.

Posted by: Lance at March 8, 2005 08:40 PM

I think it'd be easier to take a 6/8 instrumental song and drop the 5th beat in every measure. That way you're already given a 3, and a feasible 2 with the stress on the right part.

Which is weird...I was just Wikipedia-ing weird time signatures yesterday. One drum and bass/IDM artist called Venetian Snares was specifically mentioned, who supposedly works with 5/4 and 7/4 times. (I checked two of the sites, and, and the samples are good, but the music's a little more intense than usual, and may be a bit harsh and off-putting to some.)

There's also Lamb's "Fear of Fours" album (where all songs are _not_ in 4/4, and track 4 is missing), and a bunch of stuff by Self. I'm sure there's more.

Posted by: Maelstrom at March 8, 2005 09:55 PM

At the end of Michigan football games, if they win, the Michigan Marching Band fires up an Oom-pa-pa version of the Victors in 3/4 (9/8?) time instead of the classic 4/4 for the march, but I'm sure that's not quite what you're looking for.

Posted by: Mark at March 8, 2005 11:20 PM

Don't forget Pink Floyd's "Money", in 7/4 (though it drops into 4/4 for the guitar jam in the middle).

Posted by: Fafner at March 9, 2005 01:24 AM

The craziest time signature pattern I've ever heard in a single song, though, goes to the old folk tune "Boys of Bedlam". Far as I can make it out, the measures consist of: 5/4, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 6/4, 2/4, repeat. Totally wacknuts. Mp3 on request.

Posted by: Fafner at March 9, 2005 01:33 AM

Yeah, I'd love to hear an MP3 of that. Send it to f[underscore]heaney[at]yahoo[dot]com. As for "Money", you've reminded me that it's a good example of an oddly time-signatured song which I have heard covered extremely well. The Squirrels do a version of it on "The Not-So-Bright Side of the Moon" (which contains covers of every song from the entire original Pink Floyd album, each done in a different style) -- they merge it with "Money (That's What I Want)", but stay in the time signature of the original Pink Floyd song. Highly entertaining. Perhaps I can reciprocate by sending an MP3 of that to you?

Posted by: Francis at March 9, 2005 07:47 AM

Remind me to lend you some of my Don Ellis recordings. 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 33....

Posted by: Jon at March 9, 2005 08:51 AM

First-time caller, long-time listener, etc., et al., ad...something or other.

The Danielson Famile's "Sing to the Singer" breaks out of a 4/4 section to a bridge that goes:

3/4 | 6/4 | 3/4 | 5/4 | 3/4 | 4/4 | 3/4 | 4/4

which leads into a repeating

||: 4/4 | 2/4 | 4/4 | 4/4 :||

bit, which ends up turning into 3/4 at the end.

Also, parts of their "Rallying the Dominoes" would best be described, time-signaturely, as irregular.

Also, Sufjan Stevens' GREETINGS FROM MICHIGAN: THE GREAT LAKES STATE has a number of 5/4 songs, most notably "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black."

Posted by: Matthew Prins at March 9, 2005 09:15 AM

I don't got rhythm, but I'm pretty sure the reason I have so much trouble singing along with Jim's Big Ego on their brilliant "Boogers" is because it's in 7/8.


Posted by: Vardibidian at March 9, 2005 09:46 AM

I'm pretty sure both "yawn yamw yawn" and "no sleeves" by les savy fav are in nonstandard time signatures, but I too am rhythmically impaired and could not tell you what exactly they are. they are both wonderful songs though.

Posted by: James at March 9, 2005 10:03 AM

Got a kick out of James' 'nonsstandard time signatures'. Where I grew up (Turkey), 5/4 and 9/8 are the standard, and 4/4 is taken to be so oatmeal. Boring as hell, but curiously satisfying at times. Remember that Brubeck was influenced by Turkish, Greek, African music. You guys listen to flamenco? Now there's music Westerners can't clap to.

Posted by: Murvet Enc at March 9, 2005 10:24 AM

heh, Mürvet--maybe I should come over and discuss the issue--I'm sitting in the UW psych building. I knew I recognized your name. in any case, point taken.

Just wait til turkey joins the EU though...

Posted by: James at March 9, 2005 01:49 PM

I've heard Noam Elkies play what he calls "the 50-second waltz"; Chopin's minute waltz transformed into 5/8 time by dropping the last half of the last beat of each measure. At first it just sounds like the Minute Waltz played really badly, until your brain relaxes enough to hear it in the new time signature.

The Western Wind cover of "I got Rhythym" proves they have a different sort of Rhythym than Gershwin; most of it is in 7/8.

Posted by: Andy at March 9, 2005 05:21 PM

A bunch of the music from Jesus Christ Superstar is in 5/4 or 7/4. You'd think I'd like it given that I love weird time signatures, but Webber manages to still leave me cold. Well, except for the one bit of music that isn't on any recording, Caiaphas and Annas before "Then We Are Decided", which is in fact very cool. That's probably why they left it off, sigh.

Posted by: Jade at March 18, 2005 05:18 PM

That's actually the only Lloyd Webber musical I like. (Which may have less to do with its musical worth and more to do with the fact that I saw it on Broadway when I was...holy shit, was I three years old??? I must have been, because that musical closed in 1973. I'm amazed I remember it as well as I do.) It is pretty cheesy, but it's catchy, too. I don't remember the Caiaphas/Annas bit, though. I wonder if anyone's got a live bootleg of it.

Posted by: Francis at March 18, 2005 05:29 PM

What about the Beatles' wonderful mangling of time signatures like on the bridge of She Said, She Said or Here Comes The Sun?

Posted by: Will at March 21, 2005 11:55 PM

You guys havent heard anything till you listen to Dance of Eternity by Dream Theater. Insanity

Posted by: Corey Wagner at November 26, 2005 11:09 PM

As far as I can tell, Solsbury Hill just switches from 4/4 to 3/4 every measure. confusing, but not as wacky as some songs.

Orchestral music can definitely be the wierdest. Samba songs are often in 13/8.

Posted by: tenorman at July 13, 2006 02:18 PM

The Dance of Eternity" by Dream Theater - incorporates an incredible amount of time signature changes (in order, each entry written once): 4/4, 7/8, 3/4, 13/16, 15/16, 17/16, 14/16, 5/4, 6/8, 2/4, 5/8, 11/4, 9/4, 7/16, 6/16, 5/16, 10/16, 9/8, 15/8, 12/16, 16/16 (3+3+3+3+2+2), 3/8.

:) great song

Posted by: Dave at November 14, 2006 04:01 PM

Oh yes, Dance of Eternity is great...pretty much any album from them can be counted on for some sexy sonic samplage...Gentle Giant is another great band incorporating some really Time Signatures, give some of their early stuff a listen.

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