Counting the beat: 6 tunes with unusual timing

March 24, 2021

Sarah Jackson

Graphics by Torsten Strokirch

What is it about those songs? You know the ones I mean. They grab your attention, seem a little jarring, or a bit quirky. You’re not quite sure why they appeal but they do.

It could be that they have an unusual time signature.

Time signature? What’s that? I hear you ask. The simplest explanation is that it’s the tempo or beat behind a song. Most music has predictable timing. A waltz is set at 3/4 and most popular music has a 4/4 or 6/8 timing. Using a non-standard time signature is a way to make a tune stand out from the rest.

Need an example? Here are six to get you started:

  1. Take Five Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

I’m sure that you would be familiar with Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, as it is widely used in movies and TV shows. Brubeck is often considered the master of the odd time signature. Take Five, with its nifty 5/4 timing, is from Time Out, a whole album of jazz tracks dedicated to unusual time signatures.

  1. Money Pink Floyd (1973)

Pink Floyd utilised the odd time signature effect in a number of their releases, but Money, from the album The Dark Side of the Moon, is probably the most famous example. The 7/4 timing is obvious in the tape-loop sounds of the ringing cash register, the jingling of coins, and the pithy bass line playing throughout.

  1. Golden Brown The Stranglers’ (1981)

The Stranglers’ Golden Brown, from their 1981 album La folie, combines a repeated 13/8 pattern with sections of standard time to create a hypnotic and engaging song.

The use of an unusual time signature has made this track one of the most memorable hits of the 80s.

  1. Spoonman Soundgarden (1994)

Legend has it that Soundgarden guitarist, Kim Thayil, wasn’t aware that this song had an odd time signature until after they wrote it. It was declareda happy accident. Spoonman, from the Superunknown album, keeps a standard time during the chorus and shifts to a 7/4 beat in the verses. In many musical quarters, the catchy time signature has been credited with the song’s commercial success.

  1. It’s Oh So Quiet Bjork (1995)

The timing of a tune doesn’t have to shift from a regular beat to an irregular one for it to be interesting. Artists can mix up segments of regular timing within a piece to create dramatic effect. You can’t go past It’s Oh So Quiet by Bjork, from the album Post as an example of this. Bjork demonstrates how a mash-up of a traditional waltz (Und jetzt ist es still, by Hans Lang and Erich Meder) and a flashy Broadway-style number can create an entertaining and memorable track.

  1. Hey Ya Outkast (2003)

Hey Ya by Outkast is a classic example of how modern artists are adapting the odd time signature concept to their tunes. Hey Ya, from their album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, with its catchy melody and clever lyrics, features a 11/4 time signature. The video is well worth a look just for the fabulous use of vibrant block colours.

The list of tunes with non-standard time signatures spans all styles of music. So, next time you hear a track that grabs your attention, listen carefully, it might have an odd time signature.