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The Number of the Beat

October 9, 2012
Now, what foot did I start with?

Mathematics and music are supposedly complementary studies. Given that numbers and I have never mixed well – I only recently discovered that spreadsheets don’t come with pillowcases – the painful conclusion is that I am less musical than I would wish. Probably semi-“musicate” at best. But since listening to Animals, a track from the new Muse album The 2nd Law, I have begun to rally. It’s in 5/4 or 5/8 time. (It’s also too new to give a music link to.) And I spotted it: clever me.

5 and 7 are irregular numbers in music. You really have to concentrate to keep the beat. You can’t dance to them without finishing on the wrong foot, and they aren’t always easy to sing along to. Take Everything’s All Right (from Jesus Christ Superstar): also 5/4. Or Pink Floyd’s Money – 7 beats to the bar (except for the middle section which rolls back into 4). If you know those two you can get by because you’ve got words. But Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 is trickier (admit it). It shares a rhythm and little else with Everything’s All Right, but that rhythm is so distinctive that people have insisted that they are the same piece.

Since the overwhelming mass of music is written in 2-, 3- or 4- time or multiples thereof, departure from those bases is instantly unsettling. It’s a technique designed to generate interest: interrupt the rhythm and wake the people up.

There are many songs and other pieces in 5- or 7- time, I’m sure (OK, I checked), and a whole load more written in other irregular tempos (“tempi”? – maybe). Including the Stranglers’ biggest hit Golden Brown, which either is in 13/4, or has an extra beat in every fourth bar in the intro and between the verses. I am sure that its uneven rhythm is part of what makes it so memorable.

Speaking of the Stranglers, their thirteenth album, Coup de Grace, was a  casualty when I needed to make my room on my ipod for The 2nd Law. (Apparently I’m not allowed to keep buying new ipods.) This caused me a pang of guilt. I’ve grown up with the Stranglers, own everything of theirs; but however disloyal it is say, Coup de Grace is not strong. Mainly awful, in fact.

What it comes down to is that they weren’t paying attention, even to  the extent of including a song with the same name as one on their previous album (Written in Red). The song(s) in question is (are) Miss You, and the mistakes on the later song were (1) to give it that name, and (2) to record it at all: it’s dreadful. 13 proved to be an unlucky number for the audience…

13- time is the basis for most of the Genesis track Turn it on Again. That is one that you can sing along to. And what about the amazing Mars from Holst’s Planets suite? The Bringer of War, indeed, suggesting clouds of dust being whipped up by the inexorable advance of a Roman army, the sense of menace somehow heightened by the strident 5-beat bar.

Just try jiving to that.


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  1. You have saved me from buying the new Stranglers album for Daniel! By the way, travel pillows work quite well when grappling with spreadsheets- excel-ent news.

    • Thanks for the comment – and the tip. It will come in very handy when I’m in Visio-therapy…

      Don’t be put off the new album – Giants – which isn’t bad. And by curious coincidence also includes a track with a complicated rhythm: Lowlands.

      Coup de Grace is a few years old now (and best forgotten). But they have had recorded far better music since: Norfolk Coast and Suite XVI.

  2. Impressed by the post but even more impressed that you can count to 13!!

    • I’m married to a science teacher. Well she says she’s a science teacher – could be anything for all I know. “Don’t know much about history. Don’t know much biology….”

  3. This is so great! Asymmetric meter is one of my favorite things. (: There’s something so intriguing about it that just makes you want to listen – like you said, makes the music more memorable. My favorite examples from my own repertoire are the “Andante” from Robert Muczynski’s Quintet for Winds ( and “Cupidone Bleue” from Jean Francaix’s L’Horloge de Flore oboe concerto (

    • Thanks very much for that! I don’t know either of those pieces – at least I don’t think I know them. I’m going online in a moment to check!

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