Most pop songs feature measures of two, three or four beats, arranged into phrases of two, four, or eight measures. Irregular meters, which include meters like 5/8 and 7/4, can be tricky to play, but can provide interesting new colors to add to your songwriting palette. Also, many pop songs use unusual phrase lengths of three or five bars, or go further afield.
Most commonly used time signatures, such as 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, belong to a category known as simple meters. Meters with a top number of 6, 9 or 12 feature beats that are typically divided into three parts rather than two, and are known as compound meters. Compound meters in particular can be difficult to notate, but you probably already understood them, either explicitly or implicitly, and could play in them before you started reading this site. They essentially boil down to two, three, or four beats per measure, with a dotted note getting the beat. (Meters with a top note of six are typically felt as two beats to the bar; meters with a top note of nine have three beats, while meters with a top note of 12 have four.)
Irregular meters, otherwise known as asymmetrical meters, are perhaps more difficult. In irregular meters, beats do not divide evenly into groups of two, three or four. The most common irregular meters feature a top number of 5 or 7. Examples include 5/8, 5/4, 7/8 and 7/4.
You might find these irregular meters to be of limited use in writing pop or rock songs. After all, both pop and rock derive from dance music, if they aren’t dance music themselves, and nothing kills a party like rhythms that are hard to dance to.
Irregular meters can be useful, however, as alternatives to more typical meters like 4/4 or 3/4. So let’s discuss how to think about them.
It’s hard to play in meters like 5/8 or 7/4. Fortunately, irregular meters can typically be broken into simpler patterns. For example, a rhythm in 5/8 will usually be felt as three eighth notes plus two eighth notes (ONE two three FOUR five) …
… or as two eighth notes plus three eighth notes (ONE two THREE four five).
We can see a three-plus-two pattern clearly in the basic groove of Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five,” one of the most famous songs in 5/4.
The bassist on the recording also plays on one and four, emphasizing that those are the important beats.
The three-plus-two pattern is probably the most common one for songs in five, as we see from this passage of Cream’s “White Room.”
7/4 and 7/8 time signatures are also usually grouped in twos and threes – 2+2+3, 2+3+2 and 3+2+2 are all possibilities. In pop music, the most common is probably 2+2+3, because we effectively feel it as a measure of four plus a measure of three. So if we see a piece in 7/4 that seems to emphasize the first, third and fifth beats, here’s how we might think about it.
An iconic example of 7/4 is Pink Floyd’s “Money,” which clearly presents as two plus two plus three (or just four plus three). Here’s the opening bass line.
We hear the first four beats, which seem “normal” to us because so many pop songs are in 4/4, and then three more beats that present themselves as another measure of four but with the last beat snipped off.
The main riff of Soundgarden’s “Outshined” is also in 7/4.
From looking, it’s perhaps less obvious than it was in “Money” that “Outshined” is in 2+2+3, or 4+3, but the basic drum pattern makes the meter perfectly clear. The drums begin with a rock pattern that clearly seems like a measure of 4/4, then add what seems to be another measure of four that gets cut off before reaching its conclusion. (The patterns vary slightly from bar to bar, but remain essentially the same throughout the verse.)
Look at the snare drum, which is notated with the stems facing up. There are dependable snare drum hits on the second, fourth and sixth beats of the measure, which are expected. (It’s typical in rock music for there to be snare on every other beat.) In the last beat, however, the pattern seems to be compressed, with the snare instead striking on the offbeat.
Of course, asymmetrical time signatures in 5 and 7 are not the only options, and we’re free to get as weird as we like. There are several lists online of pop songs in unusual time signatures. (The best of these, as of 2018, is on the Evil Jam.) The possibilities are numerous. The opening of the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown”, for example, begins in 13/8 (or, depending on how we would notate it, three measures of 3/8 plus a measure of 4/8).
Write a verse in 5/4 or 7/4, using the same grouping of beats (3+2, 2+3, 2+2+3, etc.) in each measure.
Manipulating Phrase Lengths
As we’ve seen, we frequently think of measures of seven as also being four plus three, and in practice, measures of seven often feel like two measures of four beats each, but with the last beat cut off. We can cut beats from or add beats to larger chunks of music, too. The idea of taking a segment of music of regular length – eight beats, or 16, or 32 – and manipulating it can have interesting implications.
A phrase is a unit of music that feels complete, like a coherent thought. Many authors (such as Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker, in Music in Theory and Practice) have suggested the phrase ends in something resembling a punctuation mark. That punctuation mark might be a period, or a question mark, or a semicolon, but regardless, the phrase possesses a sense of coherence, much like a series of words that ends in punctuation of some type.
Musical phrases usually consist of an even number of measures – typically four, but perhaps two or eight. A typical phrase, then, might include 16 beats if it’s in 4/4, or 12 if it’s in 3/4. The phrases in the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” are characteristic.
After four straightforward measures of 4/4, the vocal melody comes to a sort of resting point, and another vocal melody begins at the start of the next four-measure cycle.
In classical music, there are a variety of more technical factors in determining what constitutes a phrase and what does not. We don’t need to worry about those here. Vocal melodies in pop music frequently can be broken into small chunks of one or two measures. For the purposes of learning to write songs, there isn’t much value in worrying too much about whether these small chunks represent full phrases or not. The important thing to remember is that phrases will typically be of even, predictable lengths – until we start messing with them.
One obvious way to do so is to use phrases of three measures, or five, rather than the typical four. The Pixies’ “Tame,” for example, uses three-measure phrases. The verse of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” features phrases in five measures of 4/4.
The phrases in “Eleanor Rigby” would have sounded fine as four-bar phrases with the last measure omitted – try singing the verse to yourself. But the Beatles tack on the extra “lives in a dream” as an extra measure at the end, extending what might have been a four-measure phrase to five measures.
Write a verse with five-measure phrases, changing chords on the downbeat of each measure.
We can also manipulate phrase lengths by writing phrases with unusual numbers of beats, rather than entire measures. When we do so, we might create measures that relate closely to irregular meter.
The instrumental bridge of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” while probably best notated in measures of four and three rather than in seven, demonstrates this principle. Here’s the vocal melody preceding the bridge.
Syncopations aside, this seems straightforward enough – the song has a relatively simple groove in 4/4. Beginning in the bridge, though, here’s what happens.
It’s essentially the same melody, but now the last beat of every second measure is absent. The effect is like a skipping record player.
Many adventurous pop songs contain oddly proportioned phrases. The verses of Radiohead’s “Vegetable” consist of phrases containing two measures of 4/4 and one measure of 2/4. The beginning of their song “You” features phrases consisting of three measures of 6/8 and one of 5/8, as if the last eighth note of the phrase were simply omitted. The first phrase of the chorus of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” has 12 beats that could be divided into measures in any number of weird ways, the most compelling of which might be 5/4, then 5/4, then 2/4. The second phrase has 14 beats and could be divided into 5/4, 5/4 and 4/4. These songs all feel a little strange, but they don’t feel gratuitously experimental; they feel like far more than the sums of their odd time signatures.
These sorts of odd phrase lengths are by no means confined to songs in the alternative genre, however. The first line of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” features a phrase consisting of one bar of 4/4, followed by a bar of 2/4 and finally a bar of 4/4. The phrases in the verse of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” have two bars of 3/4 followed by a measure of 4/4. The verses in Tim McGraw’s “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” feature alternating measures of 3/4 and 4/4 and don’t feel the least bit odd. Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” is mostly in 4/4 but features a single very effective measure of 3/4 right before it modulates, cutting just one phrase short right before its big moment.
One of the most famous recent songs to feature unusual phrase lengths is OutKast’s “Hey Ya!,” which features phrases consisting of three measures of 4/4, then one measure of 2/4, then two more measures of 4/4.
The first four measures of the phrase feel like a four-measure unit with the last measure truncated. That’s strange, but try singing it with the fourth measure expanded to 4/4 – you can sing “know” and “for” as half notes, rather than quarter notes. Now the phrase feels artificially long, and much of the catchiness of the song is gone. “Hey Ya!” is catchy because of its rhythmic weirdness, not despite it.
Irregular meters and unusual phrase lengths can be extremely effective, as several of these songs demonstrate. Former Pixies singer Frank Black once told Guitar Player that his advice for songwriters was to “take your basic song that has four sides and lop off one corner.”
That advice might not work for everyone. Lopping off too many beats or measures risks making your song difficult to follow. You might also find that your more adventurous attempts to manipulate phrase lengths (and measure lengths) work best in verses, rather than choruses, because choruses are intended to be catchy. It’s no accident that some of the songs mentioned in the last few pages, like “Outshined” and “Heart of Glass,” feature choruses in simple meter and with standard phrase lengths. But “Hey Ya!,” which retains its unusual phrase structure throughout, suggests that more idiosyncratic approaches can be just as catchy as more straightforward ones.
Next Chapter: Setting Lyrics