Song Doctor Blog
Read how to write better songs
Each song comes with its own rhythmic imprint of how many beats are in each bar. In music theory speak, this is called the time signature. In written music (sheet music or notated score), that gets popped at the front of the piece represented as something that looks like a fraction which indicates both the number of beats in each bar and the type of beats they are.
The most common time signature in Western music, particularly for popular or contemporary music is 4/4, which means 4 crotchets or ‘quarter’ notes in each bar or ‘measure’. It’s so common 4/4 is often referred to as common time or C.
A whopping 94% of pop songs are in 4/4 ( blame it on the blues) and that reign doesn’t look like ending particularly soon.
But like any rule of pop music, there are always exceptions and when the rule of common time is challenged, it makes the song stand out instantly. There are two main ways of doing this – one is to set the time signature of your song in an unusual (for pop) time signature like Pink Floyd’s Money which ticks along in a groovily unsettling 7/4.
The other way is to change part of the song into another time signature for a short while and that’s what I want to point out today. This is like changing the key of the song – it’s just as attention grabbing for the audience - and it also has a great musical theory handle. It’s called metric modulation when the songwriter changes the metre or ‘beat' of the song from one time signature to another within the song.
You’ll be completely aware of this when it happens - it will literally make you move differently and a cracker example of it is in Hozier’s Take Me To Church.
The song starts off in a lilting 3/4 for the verse but when it gets to the line
We were born sick – You heard them say it,
we jumped into one bar of 4/4 before switching or modulating back to 3/4 for the rest of the verse.
Further metric modulation happens at the chorus when the song rocks out in pop’s standardly glorious 4/4.
Now why do this mucking with the timing? Well, it’s a great lever to pull because it grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and says listen to this! That element of surprise can highlight a particular lyric line (which is what happens in the verse) or it can create real contrast between sections (which is what happens when we reach the song’s chorus).
Another example is in Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, where she jumps from 4/4 to a bar of 2/4 on the verse lyric
I hated you, I loved you too,
which snaps us to attention.
And in the chorus we jump bar by bar almost imperceptibly from 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 underneath the lyrics
Heathcliff It’s me I’m Cathy I’ve come home
and I’m so cold let me in your window.
These changes in metre allows the songwriter to manipulate the lyrics and melody to fit in as she wants creating a unique sounding song. There’s no having to wait for the end of the bar – no extra or unwanted space.
Metric modulation can be a really exciting way to make your song stand out. If this is something you think will work for your song, just make sure the time signature changes on the first beat of the bar and that once changed the metre stays in the new time signature from then on, until you switch back.
May you all have a great time working on this technique!