Thursday, April 14, 2005

An odd time was had by all

I've been attending a drum circle with M----- these past few months, which has been fun.

One question I asked of the group's host was about odd time signatures.

All of the beats we had been playing have been in the usual even times. Mostly four, but lately in six, which has confused many people.

You probably don't realize it, but all of the music you like is rhythmically challenged.

Almost all of the music you would ever hear is in one of only a few very basic rhythmic signatures.

Just about every rock and pop song ever recorded is in 4/4 time.Four beats of one count per beat. Some punky things are in 2/4 time, or doubletime. Same thing, just faster.

The big rock 'n' roll revolution was a shift within the 4/4 beat, the transformation to a backbeat, or emphasis on beats 2 and 4 instead of beats 1 and 3.

If a movement as huge as Rock 'n' Roll could happen with merely a change in beat emphasis, what's possible with different beats altogether?

Waltzes and some western swing and country songs are in 3/4. Three counts per big beat. Doubletime to 6/4 for some alternacountry. And it's very different music, with a different industry behind it at the present time...

It's all still even, which is to say that there are an even number of beats per measure. When you're tapping out the rhythm, you'll count out an even number of beats before you repeat yourself.

Even with time in three most people hear dotted half notes, or a beat and a half, which is to say they hear a rhythm in two over top of the beat in three. Which is the basic waltz beat, which is a count of three against two. This is why a waltz is so hard to dance for most people, some folks hear a three, and some a two. If partners don't hear the same beat *ouch*

Most modern country is NOT in three, but in six, which allows a rock backbeat, and is thus EVEN.

Anyway, I'd asked about rhythms in five, the simplest truly odd time, which the drum leader hadn't heard about, so I thought I'd explore this.

I've been a fan of so-called progressive rock for a long time. These are rockers who play music more complicated than the usual three minute blues-based verse/chorus structures. Classic bands in the genre include Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, and so on... there are many, many, others.

Sometimes they got inspiration from other styles, like jazz or classical, but most often it was just a self-indulgent exercise in complexity. But sometimes truly wonderful music happened. Like anything, 95% was crap, but oh that other 5% ....

Anyway, one big exercise for a progressive rock band was to experiment with unusual time signatures.

In attempting to adapt these beats to hand drumming patterns, I must say that almost all of them sound very artificial when simplified to just right and left hands... they just stick an extra beat into an otherwise happy rhythym, which makes a beat with a hiccup. None of the odd beats felt natural or danceable or had swing or funk. They all felt like an otherwise natural beat with an extra bit of crap added artificially.

Which is probably because all the beats I've ever heard have been even. Of course that sounds natural... but then again...

Interestingly enough, one of the finest rhythms in five is a jazz rhythm from the early 50s. Dave Brubeck's "Take 5" is an excellent example of rhythmic fiveness which swings and feels natural, and adapts itself naturally to left/right hand drumming.

It's really fun, as it feels like a beat in four, with a "drag/scrape" beat, which if you hear the music and tap out, there will be one beat where you drag your hand across the table automatically as the other hand pauses briefly. It feels natural!

This is the best example of a beat in five I've discovered. Anyone out there have other examples?

M----- once challenged that there would never be good sex music composed in five.

I'm open to experimentation.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Sam said...

I recently figured out how Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" is in 4/4. I knew it was because I have the sheet music, but it never made sense so I just learned to play it with the recording. I'm quite proud of myself for this revelation. :-D

9:27 PM  
Blogger fatoudust said...

So how did you figure this out?

I'm curious. I seem to hear music and rhythm very differently from many other folks I've talked to about this, and I'm always interested to talk about what makes such things "click into focus" for other people.

1:10 AM  

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