Along with ‘why do major chords sound nice?’, I’d be interested to know what has led to 4/4, or ‘common time’, being far and away the most prevalent time signature in music. It’s so ubiquitous that I’d be willing to bet there are people who go through their entire lives without encountering a piece of music with a different metre. Is it something to do with the body’s rhythm – left foot, right foot, repeat? Nature or nurture? (Also, what about two-time? Too short a repeating unit, beyond marching music?) Common time is certainly the easiest time signature to dance to. And I’m not here to knock it – like everyone else, I listen to, and enjoy, a multitude of music in 4/4.
However, I do love it when artists stretch out and explore different time signatures. There hasn’t been a huge amount of it in popular music in recent years – at some stage, and for some reason, it seemed to become ‘uncool’ for musicians to display actual genuine musical ability, being pejoratively labeled “too clever” or “show offs” if they dared to. (This sentiment could also be applied to instrumental solos – although I might be alone in lamenting the death of the stirring guitar solo that once lit up the latter half of many a rock anthem.) We have become so accustomed to 4/4 (or perhaps it just comes so naturally to us?) that that part of a song’s structure is registered subconsciously and just ticks along unnoticed. This is what makes a different time signature so refreshing – suddenly the brain is engaged and can delight in grasping the new structure, like solving a puzzle; recognizing patterns and finding the groove. On top of that, the rhythms, melodies and phrases can sound more elegant, rather than stretched or squashed, as required, to fit the 4-beat straitjacket. 7/8, for example, reaches the next bar slightly quicker than expected, giving the song additional momentum, whereas 5/4 might stretch out a phrase, allowing it to linger. 3/4 , probably the alternative time signature of which people are most familiar, forces a completely different ‘stepping’ pattern – the waltz – and 6/8 gives delicious combinations of threes and twos, triplets and duplets. And that’s before getting on to 11s, 13s and 15s!
To celebrate the uncommon time signature, I plan on showcasing excellent tracks in as many different time signatures as I can find in my collection / on YouTube. Stay tuned!