Songwriting and Time Signatures: Time to Branch Out

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Peter Gabriel - "Don't Give Up"The time signature you use determines the patterns of strong beats and weak beats in your songwriting – or vice versa! This usually happens without us giving it much of a thought. The vast majority of music from pop song genres use a 4/4 time signature. That is to say, they alternate back and forth between strong beats and weak beats: STRONG – weak – STRONG – weak, etc. That accounts for easily 95% or more of the songs on the Billboard charts. If you’ve never given time signatures much consideration before, you might be missing out on an opportunity to create something that stands out from most of the other songs being written today.

Of songs that don’t use the typical 4/4 meter, songs in 3/4 are the most common. So that you can hear the difference, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” features a verse in 3/4 time, switching to 4/4 time for the chorus.

Other well known songs in 3/4 time: Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up“; The Eagles’ “Take it to the Limit“; and of course the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game“.

It’s relatively easy to convert a song that’s in 4/4 time into 3/4. Because 3/4 is usually STRONG – weak – weak… it usually means that you’re going to try to shorten up part of each 4/4 bar to properly convert it.  Here’s what “Hey Jude” might have sounded like in 3/4 time. [Opens in a new browser window] In general, you can use your instincts and you should come up with something that works.

As you can hear, converting a song from 4/4 to 3/4 will change the feel of a song, and that’s probably why you’d do it. You can also hear, if you listen to “Hey Jude” in 3/4, that a lot of the “punch” of the 4/4 time signature is dissipated – another reason to use 3/4, if you’re looking to soften the production of your song.

If you’re looking for something a bit more outside the norms of traditional song meters, you might want to experiment with 5 beats per measure (5/4 or 5/8). Here’s an example that clearly demonstrates it: “Everything’s All Right” from “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Or perhaps a song in 7: “Money” from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”.

When you convert a song from 4/4 to something else, you’ll still keep beat number 1 of each bar the same. So in your original 4/4 song, try counting 1-2-3-4 throughout your song. Then, when you convert it to, say, 3/4, the result should allow you to count 1-2-3 throughout, with all the ‘1’ counts of the 4/4 version lining up with the ‘1’ counts of the 3/4 version.

And as done by The Beatles and many other groups, there’s no reason you can’t switch time signatures in mid-stream. All in all, unexpected time signatures is a way of introducing something innovative to your song, and can help you achieve the mood and feel you’ve been looking for.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: Your Finished Song Missing Something? Try These Quick Ideas | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

  2. Hey Gary,

    Love the blog.

    Had something I wanted to get your opinion on regarding time signatures. I teach music theory to post-graduates and get into time signatures at a pretty hefty depth.

    Now, it always goes quite well until we hit compound signatures. I like to bring in examples and play them to show them the difference between something that is 3/4 versus 6/8 or 12/8 versus just a swing feel in 4/4.

    I brought this up as I just got some tracks to mix of a cover of “House of he Rising Sun” and the artist has it as 185bpm 3/4. I’d have put the tempo at a third of that and at 6/8 or 12/8.

    What do you we as the determining factors in ferreting out the time signature of a song that has a triplet feel?

    Cheers, Dave

    • Hi Dave:

      First, just a bit of background (which you likely already know): Simple time signatures are, as the name implies, the most straightforward, since the top number will tell you the number of beats and the bottom number will tell you the type of note that gets the beat. Simple time signatures always have a beat that subdivides into 2 parts (1 quarter divides into 2 8ths, for example).

      Compound time signatures (any time signature in which the top number is evenly divisible by 3 (except for 3/4)) are different. You take the top number, divide it by 3, and that’s the number of beats in every bar. Every beat in a compound time signature will be dotted, and subdivides into 3 parts (1 dotted quarter divides into 3 8ths, for example). So a song in 6/8 has 2 beats in every bar. The reason for the distinction between simple and compound is that there is no number that represents ‘dotted quarter note’. Since there isn’t, compound time signatures do the next best thing: they tell you how many beat subdivisions are in each bar: in 6/8 time, there are 6 subdivisions, grouped in 3s. That grouping in 3s gives the impression of the ‘swing’, or ‘triplet’ feel.

      When determining a time signature, it should always start by tapping your foot wherever you feel the beat happening. If the person who sent you the tracks to “House of the Rising Sun” did that, he’d notice that he’s tapping his foot roughly once every second or so, while being aware of (‘feeling’) 3 subdivisions between each foot tap. That’s the indicator of compound time. He’d then notice that he’s thinking in alternating strong beats and weak beats, which means either 6/8 (2 beats: STRONG/weak), or 12/8 (4 beats: STRONG/weak, strong/weak). So either of those would work better than 3/4. 3/4 technically works, but it implies that he’s expecting us to tap our foot 3 times per second, which would be highly unlikely.

      I hope that helps!

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