Alternating Time Signatures, or One Big Meter?

Posted on September 24, 2023

 alternating time signatures

My triplets and sextuplets post has become one of the more popular things I’ve done, so here’s another post comparing different ways of counting and notating music. 

In my last transcription, I talked about how I tend to dislike long time signatures and would prefer to use changing meters. But when do you know for sure when a measure has become too long?

Let’s start the discussion with one one of the most famous odd meter tunes of all time: Pink Floyd’s “Money”. While the band has conflictingly said the main riff is in 7/8 and 7/4, most of the internet is in agreement that 7/4 is the best way to count it, although some people still insist it’s in 7/8, which I think is wrong for reasons I don’t want to get into today.* 

The reason I bring “Money” up is because I did find a transcription that uses alternating meter, 4/4 + 3/4:

(Sorry for the low quality — I can’t quite remember where I found the PDF, so there’s no telling what generation scan it is.)

I suppose 4/4 + 3/4 is a fine way of counting the song, although I would be more inclined to use alternating meter if there was a chord change at the 3/4 bar, and if Nick Mason used more of a waltz feel to end the phrase (e.g. kick • snare • snare, instead of kick • snare • kick).

To contrast with “Money”, here’s another song with verses lasting seven beats: “Funtimes In Babylon” by Father John Misty. However, this song I think is best counted as alternating between 3/4 and 4/4:

The original recording doesn’t have a drum kit, but I added the groove that’s played in this old live video

Both the chords and the drums clearly show that there are two phrases here. Using one measure of 7/4 is awkward to me because we would seem to have a downbeat in the middle of the measure:

Also note that the backbeats shift to odd–numbered beats halfway through the bar, which is another headache. Moreover, there’s a clear waltz feel to the first three beats, so alternating time signatures is the move here.

I might as well bring up another Father John Misty track, “Only Son of a Ladiesman”. The verses on this one last ten beats long, but using 10/4 is quite awkward. Again, you have apparent downbeats within the bar, so using 4/4 + 2/4 + 4/4 is probably better. Another option could be alternating between 6/4 and 4/4 — that way, it might be easier to count the verses as two-measure phrases instead of three.

Here are some other examples of songs best counted in an alternating meter that come to mind:

  • “Swimming” by Maple Glider — verses are 3/4 + 4/4 with the chorus in 4/4.
  • “Can I Believe You” by Fleet Foxes — mostly 5/4 + 4/4 with interludes and ensemble hits in 4/4.
  • “Knocked Down” by The War On Drugs — the chorus lyrics are sung over 3/4 + 4/4, while the rest is in 4/4.
  • “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron — entirely alternates between 9/8 and 12/8, essentially a 3 + 4 feel.
  • “The First Circle” by Pat Metheny — the head of the tune alternates between 12/8 and 10/8 with some dense partitioning. Otherwise, there are movements in 12/8 and 4/4 (the latter could even be counted as 8/8)

When alternating between shorter time signatures, it can be acceptable to just combine them. Back in my concert band days, I played a tune alternating between 6/8 and 2/4, counted as 3 + 3 + 2 + 2. It probably would have been fine to use 5/4, since that follows a common 5/4 rhythm (10/8 could also have been an option).

There are still reasons to use 7/4, or even 9/4. But getting above 10/4 is pushing it, and I struggle to justify anything longer than 12/4. As is the case with music, you have to consider what will be easiest: one giant measure or constantly changing meters.

Going back to classic rock, some people think the main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” is in 15/8, but I think alternating between 4/4 and 7/8 is the more reasonable approach: 

As you can see, the phrases of the guitar riff clearly start at the downbeat of each bar, rather than the middle of a giant measure. The verses are also entirely in 4/4, so it makes more sense to structure things around a quarter note pulse. Lastly, I highly doubt Bonham counted to 15 for each two–bar phrase. 

While we’re at it, another “Zeppelin–ism” can be heard in the track “Friends” off of the third album. It’s mostly in 4/4, with the occasional phrase lasting 11 notes, which I’ve variously seen as 11/4, 11/8, or 22/8.

You could just keep it in 4/4 with a 3/4 turnaround (the phrase in question starts with the accents):

Since the accents follow a dotted quarter note pattern, my first thought was to count that phrase in 3/4 with a 2/4 turnaround, or perhaps 6/4 and 5/4. You have a few different options, but 11? I’m not sure I get the urge to add up all the beats just because one is missing (or because one has been added).

I ran into this issue when I picked apart “Cafo” the other year, which has a section with phrases lasting 13 quarter notes. I was tempted to use 13/4 because it would be fun, but it does make for a heinously long measure. I settled on 4/4 + 4/4 + 5/4.

Finding the “correct” time signature is tough to ascertain unless you know for sure how the original artist counted the song in question. And to that end, you might get some surprising, borderline inscrutable answers. 

Music theory YouTuber David Bennet has a long–running line of videos called “Songs that use ____”, where he often looks at odd time signatures. He’s gone through things like 5/4, 7/4, and 9/4 (plus the appropriate 8th note varieties), so now he’s getting into ridiculous territory like 19/8. 

One of the songs profiled in the 19/8 video is Chicago’s “Introduction”, which has an ensemble thing in 19/8. Personally, I have never counted the song in 19/8; I think combinations of 6/8 and 7/8 are easier, or even two bars of 4/4 with a 3/8 turnaround. 

However, there is a video of drummer Danny Seraphine explaining that section, and he does say it’s in 19/8 time. 19/8 is still a clunky way of counting it, but if the members of the band want to make their life more difficult, that’s their prerogative. 

David Brings up 19/4 in his video, before promptly conceding that 19/4 is best counted as 4/4 + 4/4 + 5/4. I agree, which makes me wonder when we would ever conclude that a song uses a 19/4 time signature. Again, the only exception is finding an interview where the artist says “Yep, this is 19/4!” At that point, the conversion shifts to “For heaven’s sake, why?!”

With an 8th note–based time signature, you can get away with slightly longer bars than with quarter notes, since 8th notes are often grouped together more so than quarters. There’s still a limit, and anything above 15/8 is pushing the boundaries of reason. 

In a video about 17/8 time, David brings up the verses to “I Should Live In Salt” by the National, but I think this is a poor justification of 17/8. 

For one, the way he notated the verses is quite unreadable:

I mean no disrespect to David here. It’s just that… well, despite being an accomplished and knowledgeable musician, David often uses some harebrained beaming, grouping large numbers of notes together and obfuscating the beat. 

It could be that he uses MuseScore’s default beaming, which has always been terrible for most odd meters and is a pain to manually adjust; this has shown no signs of improving over the years since reverb plugins have become the apparent priority these days.

He provides an alternate engraving using combinations of 4/8 and 5/8, but this isn’t much better to me:

When I first heard “I Should Live In Salt”, I knew pretty quickly that the verses alternate between 9/8 and 4/4. Here’s my take, tweaking the rhythms to make them more accurate (in my opinion anyway):

I also added the chords and the drum groove copied from the latter verses, since the first verse has no drums. Once more the drums and the harmony show we have two clear phrases, one lasting nine 8th notes, the other eight 8th notes. 

Much like “The Ocean”, there are sections of “I Should Live In Salt” entirely in 4/4, so again we should maintain a 4/4 feel with the occasional extra note, rather than giant measures of 17/8. 

Now 15/8 can be a bit more reasonable. Certainly not with “The Ocean”, and when it comes to syncopated partitionings, using something 6/8 + 9/8 might be easiest. But there is one legitimate use of 15/8: 12/8 time plus an extra beat — essentially a 5/4 feel.

My go–to example has long been the Snarky Puppy tune “Outlier”, which I always thought was in 15/8. However, I’ve seen sheet music that uses 3/4, but this is weird to me because Larnell Lewis’ backbeats come on beat 1, as such:

15/8 actually makes more sense to me:

There is an official transcription, but there’s no preview so I have to pay $15 to know how the band counted it. No dice there. I did find a bootleg PDF that uses 3/4, but I honestly don't know if it’s the official score or an amateur one.

Of course, 15/8 brings up new problems; just 12/8 can be a pain to make look nice, and if you have a busy measure, your system might look quite cramped with 15/8. However, with 3/4 you can put line breaks in the middle of a phrase. That’s another issue with lengthy time signatures I suppose. Maybe alternating between 6/8 and 9/8 would be the move for “Outlier”. That way, counting the backbeats is still sensible without stuffed systems.

Edit: I’ve since found this webpage from saxophonist Bob Reynolds who states that the song is in 3/4. So there you go — 15/8 is probably useless.

The ceiling continues to grow with 16th note time signatures, often because these can get so gnarly that there’s no easy way out. 

For example, Plini’s song “Sunhead” is in 29/16, counted as 7 + 7 + 8 + 7. In this case, you either have one big measure or have to deal with quick, repeated time signature changes between 7/16 and 8/16. One big measure is probably easiest, considering the groove is essentially a half–time 4/4 feel with some devious trickery. The solo section alternates between 29/16 and 31/16 (the latter counted as 7 + 7 + 8 + 9), so the only practical way to keep track of the phrases is to use big time signatures. All the while, God help you if you try to count one enormous measure of 60/16. 

My big gripe with giant meters is that they seem to miss the point of why we even use measures in music. Measures and time signatures don’t exist objectively the way pitches do — rather, we use them to help manage a song, breaking up a tune into smaller rhythmic chunks. When a measure is so long that an entire chord progression fits into it, that appears to defeat the point of even using one. 

Here’s another previous transcription of mine: “Rock is Too Heavy”. There’s a movement with two bars of 4/4 and one bar of 7/8 to each phrase. Is it suddenly in 23/8 just because one of the measures is missing an 8th note? Consider a song like “Little Wing”, which is mostly in 4/4 with the occasional bar of 2/4. Do I need to add up all the beats and use one bar of 34/4? 

I always try to go for the simple interpretation when I pick a song apart. As I said earlier, there’s a balance to consider: large meters versus constantly changing ones. But the choice is clear if I’m considering wacky stuff like 19/8. 

Now, as far as how you should actually notate alternating meter… maybe that’s a conversation for another day. 

Edit (September 28): I think David might be trolling me — he just shared a video called “This song is in 256/16 time”. Of course, there’s more to it than that, so watch his video to get the full story. I’ll tell you what, some of these coincidences are uncanny...

* Alright, if you must know, counting “Money” in 7/8 is odd to me because backbeats land on 8th note off beats, giving the tune a double time feel which it certainly doesn’t have. The 4/4 sections have the same issue unless you also want to change tempo every time you change time signatures. 

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