Friday, November 19, 2010

Fun with Odd Musical Meters


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This little demo by Dweezil Zappa reminds me of experiments I have done trying to learn to write in odd musical meters ... like ....

This pleasant ditty, which is the theme to a goofy song I wrote for a growly pirate voice who is supposed to be Satan but also Chuck Woolery, is counted in sevens to confuse Bob Barker, who is a straight 5/8 game show host.

Odd meter has two meanings. Odd in the sense of different or unusual; and in the sense of the count being an odd, rather than an even number.

My little system depends on a belief that people discern rhythm by strong and weak beats and we generally assume that the first beat, like the capital letter at the first word of a sentence, tells us when the sentence starts and the next capital letter tells us the previous sentence has ended and a new one has begun. We mentally accent on the one because it tells us where each new grouping starts and thereby keeps things from dissolving into 1/1 (which means either 'no accents' or 'all accents' which in music means the same thing). Which is why writing

INALLCAPITALLETTERSWITHOUTSPACING

is not very enjoyable.

Or we can use an atomic analogy wherein the electron, proton and neutron of musical meters are the numbers 2, 3 and 4; or for most purposes 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. (1/1 is pretty boring since every note is given the same accent); in the sense that any grouping bigger than 4 can be broken down into some combination of 2, 3 and 4.

For instance, 5/4 is a 2/4 + a 3/4; so it's counted out as 1,2,1,2,3 ... with the accent on the one, or as a 3/4 and a 2/4, counted out as 1,2,3,1,2 ...

A seven beat is just a 4/4 plus a 3/4 so it's counted 1,2,3,4,1,2,3 or 1,2,3,1,2,3,4 ... The verse portions of "Money" by Pink Floyd is in sevens. You can easily follow the bass line and see it's counted as a 4/4 plus a 3/4 (1,2,3,4,1,2,3 ...). In David Gilmour's guitar solos, the beat switches to a straight, driving 4/4 which creates a nice release from the tension knotted up in the 7/8 parts.

I usually think of a nine beat as a 5/4 plus a 4/4: 1,2,3,4,5,1,2,3,4 or a 4/4 plus a 5/4: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5 ...

Obviously, a 9 beat could be thought of as three 3/4 beats: 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3 but that just dissolves back into a straight 3/4 beat because each 1 is accented the same amount.

An eleven beat could be a 6/8 plus a 5/8: 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3,4,5 .... remembering that a 6/8 beat is two 3/4s (1,2,3,1,2,3) with the second 1 accented slightly less than the first to keep it from dissolving back into straight 3/4. "House of the Rising Sun" is a well known song in 6/8. I like 6/8 because it has an "old-timey" sound (partly because not many people waltz these days).

In this little live 1978 ditty with Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Arthur Barrow (bass) and L. Shankar (electric violin), Frank Zappa teaches the crowd how to clap along with a song in 13/8, which here is a group of 5/8 and 4/4 (1,2,1,2,3,1,2,3,4) with the back 4/4 taking the same amount of time to count as the front 5/8:



So how you group your 2s and 3s and 4s into 5s, 7s, 9s and 11s etc. determines where the accents fall; and it's the accents that tell the listener you're playing in something other than 1/1.

One pitfall of Dweezil's method of counting a seven beat in the video is that unlike the words one, two, three, four, five and six, the word seven has two syllables. If you mentally or verbally count out the numbers to play a seven beat that second syllable in the word 'seven' screws you up and pushes you into an eight count, which pushes you right back into 4/4, which is what you're trying to stay away from.

You could count out in French, where the numbers 1-7 all have one syllable, or say "sev..." instead of "seven." This helps keep you on track of one syllable = one beat. But usually I just count 1,2,3,4,1,2,3 which forces me to accent on the ones and preserves the 'atomic structure' of the 7 beat as a 4/4 grouped with a 3/4.

Anyways, this is how I ended up making sense playing and writing stuff in odd meters. I don't use them that often but they are fun to mess around with and make you think of music and rhythm through a different lens. It's useful for guitarists and keyboardists who tend to be obsessed with pitch and harmony and give far less attention to the creative use of rhythm and meter.

To my ear, pieces that stay in an odd meter the whole time tend to get grating, almost because the human mind (well at least my mind), desperately 'wants' the beat to come in at even intervals and odd meters defeat this expectation, either by coming in one beat too early or one beat too late (odd meters suggest a polyrhythm depending how far you want to push them). But they are fun to use as spice in the punch bowl, just as it's fun to play something highly chromatic for a bit, do an odd key modulation, or to slow down and speed up a tempo or get louder and softer. Anything to create tension and release and surprise in a composition is a worthwhile tool to have around so long as you don't let it call attention to itself and make it sound like you're just showing off, which is no fun for anyone.

sOr ToFw RitINGl ike tHIS.

I have to tip my hat to metal, esp. since the mid 1980s, because they have messed more with odd meter composition than any other form of popular music, in part because they know their audience is not intending to dance to the stuff and demand a constant droning 4/4.

One reason odd meters are interesting and understandable to me is from taking a lot of poetry classes in college and having to study and write stuff in all types of rhythmic structures, iambic pentameter, hexameter etc. Thinking and learning and playing in 4/4 is like thinking all poems and songs are supposed to sound like limericks.
The mp3 song file above, "Happy in 7/8," is mindnumbingly simple in that the drums tell you it is two 3/4 phrases with the last held on the keyboard for one extra beat (1,2,3,1,2,3,4); and for this reason it still has a strong waltz feel to it. A better way to think of it is as 6/8 with one extra beat added at the end of the grouping. The piano solo part is basically 6/8.

If you really want to get weird with odd meters you can get a MIDI sequencer and a keyboard and just type in odd numbered groupings of notes and make your keyboard play them and see what they sound like. This lets you hear the final product quickly without having to drill your hands into not screwing up. As in all musical composition, sometimes the result is worth keeping and sometimes it is best erased.

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