The vast majority of popular songs are written in a 4/4 time signature, and – to a lesser extent – in other even signatures, like e.g. 8/8, 2/4 or 6/4. We are used to these rhythms, they are easy going and such structures sound pleasant to our ears.
One odd time signature is also quite widespread, the 3/4, as it is the typical waltz-rhythm which finds its application throughout popular music as well.
Measures which do not fit the usual duple or triple categories are called complex or unusual signatures. Classical music and some traditional folk songs, like e.g. in Macedonia and Bulgaria, sometimes use complex measures, but in this article I shall stay within the framework of popular music from the 50s till the 90s, else it will lead too far.
One of the most notable musicians who was specialising in complex time signatures was the jazz legend Dave Brubeck. In the late 50s and early 60s he made the masses aware of the appeal of unusual measures, with successful songs like ‘Take Five’ written in 5/4, or ‘Unsquare Dance’ in 7/4.
In the 70s, the era of progressive rock, complex time signatures had a Golden Age with groups like Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull. Perhaps the most known song with an unusual measure is ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd from their 1973 album The Dark Side of The Moon, written in 7/4.
Another renowned prog rock band is – considering time signatures – even more intriguing, namely Genesis. Already under the leadership of Peter Gabriel the band plays with rhythms, as showcased with the infamous ‘Apocalypse in 9/8’, a part of the musical-like track ‘Supper’s ready’ off their 1972 album Foxtrot.
After Gabriel’s departure from Genesis in 1975, drummer Phil Collins takes on the role of the group’s frontman. The song ‘Dance on a Volcano’ off the first Genesis-album with Collins as the singer, A Trick of a Tail from 1976, is one of the best examples for a complex measure, it is mainly written in 7/8.
In the meantime, Peter Gabriel starts working on his solo career. Gabriel surprises with his debut single ‘Solsbury Hill’ from 1977, which in contrary to his complex avantgarde work with Genesis is quite accessible. However, the pop costume of the song is deceiving, as it is almost entirely written in 7/8.
Now with Kate Bush we have come full circle, as she had been discovered and supported by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and will later become good friends with Peter Gabriel. Her first single ‘Wuthering Heights’ in which the then 18-years-old sings about the Emily Bronte-novel by the same name is an outstanding piece, not as much because of complex time signatures but rather due to an ingenious composition of the chorus.
Most of new wave songs are written in 4/4. However, there are also some exceptions. Blondie’s well-known disco song ‘Heart of Glass’ from 1979 “breaks” the rhythm deliberately in the interlude after the second chorus with a 7/8 measure. It plays with the expectations of the dancer who realises at this point that something’s amiss.
Also film soundtracks like to play with odd time signatures. A good example for a 5/4 measure is John Carpenter’s ‘Main Theme’ to the horror film Halloween. Here the time signature intends to make the listener feel uneasy.
In the beginning of the 80s, Genesis have turned their back on their progressive rock roots in favour of a more accessible pop sound, indicated by a Phil Collins without beard. But the experimentation seems to lie in their blood. The song ‘Turn it on again’ sounds simple but it isn’t, as it is written in 13/8.
Another famous representative for a 13/8 signature is ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers from 1982. It seems to follow a common waltz scheme but in the intro and the interludes an extra measure makes it 6/8 alternating with 7/8 – in sum 13.
Progressive rockers Rush are known for their experimental approach to music. In their 1982 single ‘Subdivisions’ the Canadians brilliantly combine 8/8 time signatures with 7/8.
A very intriguing track in a complex time signature is the ‘Main Theme’ to the 1984 film Terminator. It is written in 13/16 which is even among the unusual meters an unusual one.
Industrial is next to jazz and progressive rock another very suitable genre for unusual time signatures. Therefore, last but not least, I would like to mention one song from the 90s, namely ‘The Becoming’ by Nine Inch Nails. It is written in a 13/8 measure. The project around multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor is known for their complex rhythms.
These are some of my favourite songs which are written in rather unusual time signatures. There are many other bands worth mentioning in this regard, from progressive metal over post-rock to metalcore. Tool, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Radiohead are just a few groups who are notorious for their experiments with rhythms.
With a few exceptions like ‘Nick the Stripper’ by The Birthday Party or ‘Gun Fury’ by The Damned, unusual time signatures are rather uncommon in post-punk, goth rock, or darkwave. If you are a musician in one of these kinds of music, perhaps I could inspire you to try something new and unusual!
Here’s an example for a darkwave song in 7/4, ‘Liberate’ by The Stave Church.