A time signature is not something that gets a lot of attention when we think of pop songs, and truth be told, it’s possible to write great music without giving it much thought.
Most songs are either in 4/4 time or some other arrangement of strong-beat/weak-beat meter. As you begin the songwriting process, you’ll likely start strumming a basic backing rhythm without being overtly aware of which time signature has been chosen. Just as we use nouns and verbs without being aware of it, we write songs that use time signatures, and we’re not usually alert to our metrical choices.
But you can create music that’s unique by playing around with the time signature. First you’ll want to get a clear view of what time signature your song is using, and if you don’t know how to figure that out, do the following steps:
1. Sing your song and tap your hand on your lap. That will give you the basic beat.
2. Focus on strong and weak beats. This is usually subtle, so don’t be surprised if it takes some time to figure it out. As you sing, you’ll notice that some beats feel stronger than others, and it’s going to be an alternating pattern of strong beats and weak beats. You’ll either notice:
- STRONG-weak-STRONG-weak (think of practically any current pop song), in which case your song is probably in 4/4 time. Other time signatures, like 2/4, 2/2, 4/2, and so on, are possible, but they all do the same thing: they alternate back and forth between strong and weak beats, so they’re all equivalent for the purposes of this exercise.
- STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG-weak-weak. If it’s a slow pattern, like “Mull of Kintyre” (McCartney), you’re in 3/4 time. If it’s a faster pattern, like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game“, you’re in 6/8 time. But in any case, the important part of this experiment is noticing the one strong beat followed by two weak ones.
More than 95% of songs will be in 4/4 time, so let’s assume that that’s true of your song as well. So what can you do to play around with the time signature? Try these ideas:
- Reorganize the song to be in a new time signature. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was originally done in 3/4 time, without success. Moving it to the 4/4 version that we all know brought it to life. It can be tricky to do this, but what you’ll want to do is play through the progression, and assuming your song is in 4/4, modifying the S-w-S-w pattern to S-w-w-S-w-w… Once you’ve got that working, sing the melody to fit the new pattern. If your old version was 2 beats on each chord (S-w), you’ll likely change that to elongate the weak beat to include two weak beats (Sww). That will indicate to you how to modify the melody.
- Change the time signature of only a few selected bars. This idea of changing time signatures for a short section has a pleasantly jarring effect, as you’ll notice in Lennon & McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out“, where the 4/4 time signature changes to 3/4 during the bridge section.
- Use a complex time signature. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is in 7/4, as is Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” In these kinds of complex signatures, you can decide how you’re going to arrange the strong and weak beats. In “Money”, it comes across as S-w-S-w-S-w-w, while in “Solsbury Hill” it sounds more like S-w-w-S-w-S-w.
No matter what you decide to do, keep in mind that playing around with the time signature is very noticeable, even if listeners don’t know exactly what you just did. So doing the same modification in several songs can come across as being a bit trite.
And one other good decision that doesn’t require changing time signature is to use syncopation, which displaces strong beats and weak beats without actually changing the meter. It sounds as if changes have been made, by virtue of the changing patterns of strong and weak beats.
In “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say”, from “Jesus Christ Superstar”, the line “I have to know/I have to know, my Lord” uses the following arrangement of strong and weak beats: SwwSwwSw, sounding like a couple of 3/8 bars followed by a short 2/8. But in fact, the entire line stays in 4/4.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter