Friday, January 25, 2013

Odd Meter: Theory of Ethos

Welcome to week two of Theory of Ethos.  This time we’re talking about meter.  First some introductions, and then next week we’ll take a look at a Doctrine song and how we think when we’re playing in crazy meters.

Odd Meter.  If you know Doctrine of Ethos’ music, you know we love odd meter, but how on earth does a rock band manage four people playing in strange timings?  What is odd meter?  

Well, first, let’s take a look at what meter is in general and what not-odd meter looks like.

Meter is the rhythmic organization of music.  If you’ve ever danced, or even tapped your foot or clapped along with a song, then you have felt the rhythmic cycles that make up most of western music.  

The musical term for the most common meter is 4/4 (voiced “four four”).  The top number means there are four pulses in each cycle.  The bottom number means a quarter note gets one pulse when it is written down.  I’m assuming you know what a quarter note is, but if you don’t all that is important right now is that they are typically divided into halves or quarters (eighth notes and sixteenth notes).  Other divisions are possible but less common.   

So what does 4/4 look and sound like?  Well, a typical rock drum pattern might go something like this:

Also, don’t forget to click on the noteflight link to hear the examples played.  Play button is in the lower left hand corner.

Notice how the snare and bass drum emphasizes the four pulses.  Musicians call these “beats.”  So there are four beats in a measure of 4/4, and these beats are divided in half by the cymbal.  

So then, what makes a meter “odd”?  Well, odd means two different things.  The qualitative odd - “weird,” “unusual” - and the mathematical odd - not divisible by 2.  Both of these definitions are related to what odd meter is.  

Meter that is divisible by 2 seems more familiar to us.  By “divisible by two,” I mean both that the pulses are a multiple of 2 and that the divisions of the pulse are by 2 (quarter notes into eighth or sixteenth notes).  Changing one of these makes slightly more uncomfortable groupings; changing both leaves the realm of “normal” to western music.  

Let’s look at them one at a time:
Change the top number to 3.  ¾.  Now there are three quarter notes to a measure. 

This is often called “waltz time,” as it is the meter that you dance a waltz to.  You’re much more likely to find it in dance music of old, but it finds its way into western popular music where it lends a slightly unusual air to rock or pop music.  

Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker

“.45” by Shinedown

Ok, what if we change the divisions instead of the number of pulses?  4 pulses divided in half is eight notes - the eight cymbal hits in the 4/4 pattern above.  4 pulses divided into thirds is twelve notes - the twelve cymbal hits in the 12/8 example below.

To me, 12/8 feels much more comfortable than ¾, though neither is terribly unsettling.  Having the familiar number of pulses feels more natural than the odd number of pulses in ¾.  Though, now, it is the divisions of the pulse that are odd - into threes instead of twos.  

12/8 is all over the blues, often found in ballads or sped up in shuffles.  
“Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 5 is in 12/8, but it might be a little difficult to discern the pulses.

The opening of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata (Beethoven’s Sonata quasia una fantasia in C# minor) illustrates the divisions much clearer, though his original score is in 4/4!  It could also be written in 12/8, and you should immediately hear the “ONE two three” in each pulse.

So now what’s left is to see what happens if we change both the division and the number of beats.  

Same as 12/8 - if we divide three pulses into three notes, we have nine cymbal hits.

Ride of the Valkyries (which got famous when it was used in the Apocalypse Now soundtrack) is in 9/8

As is Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

More recently, “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens

So...what happens if a measure isn’t always divided into two or three? What if we mix them up?  Make sure to come back next week and find out.  

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Joe, Corey, and myself all have lessons available through Star Music.  Send me a message or call Star Music at 843 448 2819 for more details.  

Blake Graham exclusively uses (and is not endorsed by):
Carvin Guitars
Line 6
Jim Dunlop

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