Working With Odd Meters

If you are a fan of Dream Theater, Symphony X, George Bellas or even Gyorgy Ligeti you are likely familiar with what odd meters sound like already (whether you knew it or not). Granted many, many artists implement odd meters, those are just the first few I though of.

"But Dallas, what is an odd meter... and who the hell is Gyorgy Ligeti?"

First of all, look up Ligeti. He's an incredible composer with a decidedly unique style (that's a story for another day). But getting back to the point, odd meters are meters that contain both simple and compound beats (more on this later).

As humans we are (for whatever reason) conditioned to understand 4/4 and even 3/4 meters quite easily - almost instinctively. Most everything you hear is one of those 2 meters. But there's a lot more out there that you can experiment and have great fun with! So let's get started.

Odd Meters Aren't Hard

Odd meters are a great way to show how much better you are at counting than everyone else. OK, I'm kidding but they're really not as hard as you might think. I've always said that if you can count to 6 and you know your alphabet from A-G, you can be a killer musician.

Earlier I said that mentioned that odd meters are meters that contain both simple and compound beats. What does this mean? It's easy - simple beats can be broken down into 2 notes, compound beats can be broken down into 3 notes). Therefore we can amend my previous statement: You don't even have to be able to count to 6. If you can count to 3, you can play in any meter you can dream up. Let's see how that works...

Odd Meter Example: 7/8

Let me preface this by saying that this is not an article on understanding time signatures, so I won't go too in-depth on that topic. Moving right along:

John Petrucci loves 7/8. That's good enough for me to love it and it should be good enough for you to love it too! 7/8 has the ability to sound very "off" and cool which a lot of people love. This is because it is an odd number over 8. If we simplify 8 to 4 then by that ratio we get 3.5/4 (this meter obviously doesn't exist so we say 7/8). But when you think about it as 3.5/4 you can better understand why this meter sounds truly odd. Imagine yourself headbanging to your favorite Metallica song. When you head goes down, the song is playing a downbeat. So you bob your head to "1-2-3-4". However if you try headbanging to 7/8 your head will switch to bobbing up on the downbeat, every other measure. This makes for some interesting headbanging to say the least... most people end up looking like they are seizing.

So back to discussing the combinations of simple and compound beats in 7/8. We know that simple is 2 and compound is 3 so now we have to do some math. In how many ways can you combine 2 and 3 to get 7?

  • 2-2-3
  • 2-3-2
  • 3-2-2

But you don't have to just use 2's and 3's:

  • 4-3
  • 3-4
  • 5-2
  • 2-5
  • 3-3-1
  • 1-3-1
  • 6-1

You see how quickly this expands into virtually limitless possibilities for you to create music with. One thing you will want to avoid is counting "1-2-3-4-5-6-7". This is because the word "seven" has 2 syllables which make it much harder to count (especially if you're playing at a faster tempo). This is why you should stick to counting different variations of 1-6.

You can do this for any meter you can dream up, by the way. If 7/8 is just too conventional for you try some of these out:

  • 5/8
  • 3/16
  • 15/16
  • 9/8
  • 23/8
  • 1,012/64

The last one is a little out there... I bet George Bellas has used it though. The point is, any meter you can think of! Have fun with it and experiment.

I encourage all of you to work in odd meters for at least a small portion of your practice sessions from now on. Work on getting used to being able to not just count these meters but feel them. If you are stuck counting "1-2-3-1-2-1-2-3-4" all the time you are likely not focusing on the most important part: the music. Count until you're comfortable enough to stop counting.

I realize this article covers some pretty advanced stuff that may be difficult to understand but always remember, I'm here for you! If you have any questions, need some help, or just want to talk I'm always available. Please don't hesitate to reach out.

Also note, some of these examples are much better heard than shown. If you're at all interested in learning more about this, I'd be more than happy to help you!

Dallas Dwight is an instrumental guitarist who composes original songs in a style that blends technical prowess with a strong sense of melody. You can get more free guitar articles at his web site.

Beyond playing guitar, Dallas is an avid composer, producer, songwriter and full-time gear junkie.

Dallas Dwight