COUNTING ODD TIME SIGNATURES/NASHVILLE 7/8

Since 2010, I’ve been a full time resident of Nashville, Tennessee. When I was a 14 year old budding guitarist who was a full on Dream Theater nut, I fantasized about one day going to the famed Berklee School of Music and, of course, subsequently dropping out of Berklee to start a band and make it big. In the end, I guess I didn’t stray too far from this vision. The only differences were that I may have oversold myself on what exactly making it meant and the location it was to take place. My folks moved to South Carolina from Connecticut while I was still in high school and all of a sudden Berklee faded out of my field of view and was replaced by Belmont University. I focused on music and getting through high school and was jettisoned to Nashville after high school.

I studied Commercial Guitar with world class teachers at Belmont for two years and my time spent there learning was invaluable. Since then I stayed in town and fully came into my own as a person here. I found love, built valuable relationships both personal and professional, and most importantly, struggled. I played shows at rock clubs where there were more people on stage than in the crowd, tours where breaking even was a pipedream, and sessions that never left hard drives.

Because of these things, I have a true affection for this city and it’s quirks. One of my favorite things about this town is an oddball pack of ducks and general fowl that congregate at the pond at Shelby Park. It includes various ducks, geese, a few stray pheasants who got lost, and two roosters who definitely got lost. The roosters were rescued before the cold snap hit so they technically are not longer residents.

Nashville has a strong musical identity that’s filled to the brim with its own quirks and I’m going to let you in on a few of them. There’s an anecdote that gets repeated by the players who play for the patrons at various honky tonks around town which says that there are three ways to play a song: the right way, the wrong way, and the Broadway. There’s a whole system of writing music that originated here; Nashville Numbers is essential knowledge for players that have aspirations of being top side musicians or session aces. In Nashville, the craft of the song is treasured celebrated more than most other things. It’s also one of those towns that has the aura of a place like Hollywood in that people come here to chase dreams and that leaves the sprinkles of lingering inspiration all over the town and it’s people, and inspiration has a long shelf life.

My favorite Nashville quirks is the famed Nashville 7/8. Odd time signatures have a tendency to rear their heads in various types of popular music and stumbling over an odd time signature while playing with other musicians has the potential to be catastrophic. The Nashville 7/8 emulates a player still cutting their teeth on music trying to count a bar of 7/8 “one two three four five six sev en”, resulting in 8 beats due to the word seven having two syllables. Let’s take a look at the correct way to count a bar of 7/8 and how to approach odd time signatures.

There are two components to a time signature. The first number is the number of beats in a measure. A bar of 4/4 time would have four beats, a bar of 7/8 time would have seven beats, so on and so forth. The second number is the type of note that gets the beat. A bar of 4/4 time has a quarter note getting the beat, a bar of 7/8 time has an eighth note get the beat. Since two eighth notes make up a quarter note, time signatures where the 8th note gets the beats require more notes to fill up the same amount of time as a measure where the quarter note gets the beat, which also means that you can use time signatures that use the 8th or even 16th note to get the beat and have measures that stop and begin in between where a quarter note would normally hit in 4/4 time.

This is a useful compositional tool, but when exploring odd time signatures, don’t fall into the trap of using odd time signatures for the sake of using odd time signatures. It should be a natural part of the flow of the music and a result of something resonating with you. Ultimately, you want to use odd time signatures because whatever you are hearing and trying to get out of you when you are creating exists in that time. If you are playing progressive music, you may find more use for odd time signatures as a tool of expression and may be writing music to where odd time signatures are a natural part of what comes out. If you’re writing music geared towards more of a commercial audience, a bar of an odd time signature created by the removal of a quarter or 8th note from a bar might just be the trick to make that repeated chorus really stick out. Listen for these elements when you listen to the music that inspires you and take note of how it’s used in the song. Is it a part of the hook? Is it a repeated rhythm in an odd time signature that either builds up or stays in a relentless groove? Is it a slight variation in only the last verse of the song?

Lets wrap up by talking about counting odd time signatures. I had the pleasure of catching the legendary SLEEP at the Cannery Ballroom and their opener was a group called Pinkish Black (check them out here: https://pinkishblack.bandcamp.com/). Pinkish Black are a duo fronted by a sure ringer for prog guru Steven Wilson playing a variety of keyboards and synthesizers while singing while the drummer blurred the lines between John Bonham and Elvin Jones as only a doom metal drummer with progressive leanings can do. One thing that stuck out to me was their use of time signatures. It was pretty funny watching a bunch of folks ready to follow the smoke toward riff filled land try to headbang in odd time signatures. There’s a simple way to count odd time signatures; the trick is to break things down into groupings of 2’s and 3’s. No matter how big the number is, it can be broken down into 2’s and 3’s. Let’s dissect an example.

Changes by Yes features a repeating motif of a bar of 7/8 followed by a bar of 10/8. If I’m listening to a song and hear an odd time signature, I immediate start counting how many note groupings of two I have. If I end up with an extra note, then odds are there’s a grouping of three. From there, I listen to the phrasing of the notes and think of what makes sense rhythmically. Be careful not to rely entirely on the placement of the snare or bass drum within the beat the drummer is playing. Listen to a few bars of Changes and try to count along with this pattern:

|1 2 1 2 1 2 3 | 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3|

Changes starts with four eighth which translates into two subdivisions of two, and the rest of the bar fills up with a count of three. The next measure repeats the first measure and adds another three beats. Once you can lock into the rhythm, it’s easy to feel the groove inherent to the song. It’s important to note that there isn’t always only one correct way to feel a groove of an odd time signature. Two people can listen to a bar of odd time and feel it two different ways, but still be hearing it in time and ultimately together.

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