Today I’m going to be showing you a simple hack for counting odd time signatures. The time signatures we’ll be looking at are specifically those with an 8th or 16th note denominator. So we’re talking 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, 7/16, 13/16 etc.

So if those kinds of musical numbers have always seemed crazy weird or really hard to count, this is the lesson for you!

Time Signature’s Explained

So when you look at a time signature, most people think of the top number (the numerator). That’s the number of beats in a bar.

4/4 is four beats in a bar, 5/4 is five beats in a bar. But the bottom number can be a little bit of a mystery for some.

Well, it’s actually really simple. It’s just the type of beat. Most of you will be familiar with quarter notes and 8th notes and 16th notes. Well that’s all there is to it.

4/4 is four quarter notes in a bar. 6/8 is six 8th note beats in a bar, 5/16 is five 16th notes in a bar. Easy. (see video for examples).

Odd Time Signature ‘Hack’

Counting those little 8th notes and 16th notes at speed can become tough and with odd time signatures you really don’t ever want to be counting that much anyway. It’s much better to build up a feel for odd time signatures just as you would 4/4.

So the tip is… you want to count half time.

Let’s take 7/8 as our time signature. We have 7 beats:

If we count a half time pulse of quarter notes while retaining the eight note divisions we find the following:

Finally, we can remove the upbeats or the ‘and’ beats:

This way of counting 7 might seem a little alien at first because you’re counting 4 beats as you would in 4/4. But we’re simply removing the final 8th note. This gives us a quick 8th note cutoff for our final ‘4’.

Counting 7/8

Now let’s try counting a really basic 7/8 drumbeat. This will test how you can keep your focus on that pulse and lock in. The count in is a single bar of 7/8.

7/8 Practice Track:

Advantages To This Method

By counting in half time we accomplish two things. We relax our counting and feel the pulse way easier. There are less beats to track and because it’s so much  more relaxed, we can count much faster tempos.

Applying The Bass

Let’s try applying that principle to a bass line. First let’s just try outlining our half time count in 7/8 with a single note. Start by counting the ‘and’ beats and then remove them:

7/8 Practice Track:

Anyone familiar with the song Subdivisions by Rush will instantly recognise this rhythm.

A Riff In 7/8

Now let’s add some more notes in there to create a riff.

7/8 Practice Track:

All The Other Odd Time Signatures!

So that’s 7/8 but how does this apply to other time signatures. Well this is where it gets really cool. If we take 5/8 as an example and apply the same method we find a 3 count.

Here is our count of 5:

Next we count our half time pulse while retaining the upbeats:

Finally we remove the upbeats to reveal our shortened count of 3:

Then as we work up through each odd time in turn (5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 etc.) we just add one to our main pulse each time.

  • 5/8 = 3
  • 7/8 = 4
  • 9/8 = 5
  • 11/8 = 6
  • 13/8 = 7
  • 15/8 = 8 (and so on)

Playing In 5/8

So let’s just try another example in 5/8. This time let’s try playing a single A note:

Practice Track:

Now let’s try a riff:

Adding Extra Notes

If you want to take this method a little further you can start to add in the 8th notes gradually as a way of building up your odd time vocabulary.

So if we take 7/8 as an example, the 8th notes are always going to be some combinations of twos and threes:

So we can progressively add these groupings into our original 7/8 riff:

7/8 Practice Track:

First Grouping:

Second Grouping:

Third Grouping:

Try mixing these groupings up in order to help develop your feel for the time.

Flower Punk

So finally let’s look at a great riff for practicing time changes with this method. This riff is from the song Flower Punk by Frank Zappa:

Practice Track:

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