In preparation for a lecture this week, I was considering examples of popular music that use time signatures other than 4/4 or 3/4. As you will see in the Facebook responses below – the vast majority of responses where either examples of music from a while back – or music that was not intended for ‘chart consumption’. So – my question is why? Have the charts become more formulaic, has the use of computer technology in the songwriting process simply resulted in less experimentation with metre, is it down to (lack of musicianship), or is this type of experiment now confined to album sales only? If not – what other reasons are there? Have we seen an end time signature experimentation in main stream pop music.
For those that are interested – I have put a Spotify playlist of some great compound time signature examples – time to confuse your brain….
An interesting post! Rather than a lack of musicianship, I suspect odd time metres are the result of two things; first an increase in compound time comes from an improvement in musicianship. Listen to the blues men from the 30s to the 50s – by and large these were unschooled musicians. Whilst the blues is thought of as a rock solid 12 bar form, the number of 11 bar and 13 bar blues they produced is noticeable. Champion Jack Dupree is one particular example – listen to him on Live At Montreux (with the great King Curtis) and you will hear a rhythm section trying to keep up as he chops off and adds bars. Chuck Berry is another example. He would often tour solo with pick up bands at many dates and you had to be on your toes to accompany him.
The second part of this which links to some of the first is a case of form vs emotion. In some cases artists don’t allow form to get in the way of their emotional songwriting flow. You have cited Nick Drake via your Spotify list. The classic case here is Joni Mitchell, whose songs go through time signatures like she went through…well I’ll let you complete that. What is interesting here is a difference in emphasis, a sense if metre and flow vs specific repeated time. Joni’s Music certainly flows. Another example is Steely Dan who will periodically throw in bars of 2/4 into a 4/4 piece. But that doesn’t stop the flow. Yes, some musicians consciously use 7/8, 9/8 etc, but in some cases the flow and emotion of the piece comes first. And strangely, so long as the song is good, irregular time doesn’t seem to be a problem.
What changed this? I think two things; the focus on dancing (and disco) and the increasingly search for a hit formula(e).
Thanks for the is thoughtful response Paul – I agree with the points you make about flow. There is a difference between ‘being clever’ and using the time signatures to actually keep the flow going.