When it comes to time signatures, 4/4 reigns supreme. Turn on the radio, or press shuffle on Spotify, and the music you hear will most likely be in 4/4. Of course, time signatures like 3/4 and 6/8 are also common, but they're used far less frequently than 4/4.
Consisting of 4 beats steady beats per bar, 4/4 provides a stable rhythm that can easily be split up into subdivisions, which is the reason it's used most commonly in popular music. However, there are instances where more irregular time signatures have been used.
In this article, we've put together a list of songs that use unusual time signatures. Some you may already know, some may come as a surprise. Hopefully, all will teach you something new about time signatures.
1. Outkast – Hey Ya Time Signature
Our first track is the Outkast song Hey Ya. This track has been debated a lot online recently, but if you weren't aware of it, the proclaimed time signature of this popular Hip Hop track will shock you.
At first listen you'll presume this song is in 4/4, however, many believe that it's actually in 11/4.
Yes, that's right, 11/4!
Believe it or not, it's possible to count along with this track to both the verses and chorus in 11/4 when you tap at around 80 beats per minute. However, we think that Hey Ya being in 11/4 is not completely accurate and we'll explain why.
First of all, when you consider the vibe and overall energy of the track, 80bpm seems way too slow. This is because by counting to 80bpm you're actually in half time and… really the track should be thought of as having a bpm of 160. There's even a count-in at the very start of the song, which is definitely not at 80bpm!
Secondly, when you count to it in 11/4 there's a very strong emphasis on beat 8, which makes it sound like a new bar should start here.
You could then argue that Hey Ya alternates between a bar of 7/4 and a bar of 4/4, which is a little closer to the truth than the 11/4 argument, but not completely.
Finally, it's 11/4… no one writes in 11/4. Nothing popular has ever been written in 11/4 and hopefully, it never will. We hope that alone will be enough evidence for you but let's debunk this myth fully.
So what's really going on here?
Hey Ya actually uses alternating time signatures, which means the time signature changes between a set number of bars (this can be per bar or per multiple numbers of bars).
In Hey Ya, the time signature alternates between 3 bars of 4/4, then one bar of 2/4, then two more bars of 4/4, and this pattern repeats throughout the entire track. This might seem unnecessarily complex and you might wonder why the whole track wasn't just played completely in 4/4, but having the 2/4 does make it sense in terms of the overall momentum of the track.
Adding those extra two beats in the 2/4 bar to make it 4/4 would make the track feel like it's come to pause and seriously affect the momentum of a, fun, highly energetic track. To completely illustrate our point, listen to this version of the song where someone's put it completely in 4/4 and you'll see what we mean. You'll agree, it's disturbing.
So, that's the time signature of Hey Ya cleared up and if you ever hear someone claim a song to be in something like 11/4, 13/8, or 19/4, remember to completely ignore them and realise that it's probably just using alternating time signatures.
2. MGMT – Electric Feel
The next track will be looking at is Electric Feel by MGMT. This one is far more straightforward to understand than Hey Ya, but there is still debate to be had on exactly what time signature it's in.
Some say that this song is in the time signature of 6/4. This is just like 4/4, except it has two extra beats per bar. It's not an odd time signature either, like 5/4 or 7/8. 6/4 is quite rare to hear in popular songs and, because of this, we sometimes perceive 6/4 as a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 2/4 (with the 2/4 bar making the momentum of the song suddenly increase).
On the other hand, others think this song is 3/4, with the one bar of 6 beats being two separate bars of 3 beats. Both counting in 3 and 6 to this song works. This is because 1 bar of 3/4 + two bars of 6/4 = the same amount of time, but how do we know which time signature is right?
Well, it mostly depends on which beats have the strongest emphasis.
Beat 1 in any time signature will always have a strong emphasis, but when it comes to deciding between 3/4 and 6/4, we need to focus on beat 4. If beat 4 has an emphasis that's as strong as beat 1, then we can say that a new bar is starting on this beat, making it beat 1 rather than beat 4 and telling us that we're in 3/4. However, if the emphasis isn't as strong here, then we can say it's the fourth beat in a bar of 6/4.
Electric Feel's time signature is in 6/4. The fourth beat isn't strong enough to suggest a new bar. Plus, if you listen to the phrasing of the vocals in both the verse and chorus, it fits much more nicely into a bar of 6/4 than 3/4.
We can see why people say that it's in 3/4 and don't think there's anything wrong with counting to this song in 3, rather than 6 if that makes more sense to you.
One final point to make about this track is that although the majority of it is in 6/4, the instrumental section towards the end switches to 4/4. So, remember that in your songwriting you can have full sections that are in different time signatures to the rest of your track.
3. I Say A Little Prayer – Burt Bacharach, Hal David
The next song on the list is an older one, but it's one you'll recognise and its use of time signatures will surprise you. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and made famous by both Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, the chorus of the song has been claimed to be using a time signature of 11/4!
Now, if you remember back to what we said about Hey Ya, then hopefully you're already thinking “Hey, this can't be in 11/4! It must be using alternating time signatures”, and you'd be exactly right. Let's take a look at the chorus and see how alternating time signatures are being used.
Like Hey Ya, it is possible to count it in 11/4, but what we really have here is a bar of 4/4, a bar of 3/4, and then another bar of 4/4, which repeats 3 times before a final 3 bars of 4/4.
Again, the reason for this shorter bar is to keep the momentum going. If you try to sing the chorus but in 4/4, at the end of the 3 bars there'll be about a beat and a half where everything seems to stop and it feels very unnatural, which is why the 3/4 bar is needed.
You might be wondering why the 3/4 bar comes in between the two 4/4 bars, rather than at the start or the end. Again, it comes down to which beats have the strongest emphasis.
To explain this, here are the lyrics from the first three bars of the chorus with the words that land on the emphasised beats in bold:
Forever, and ever, You'll stay in my heart and I will love you
Listen to the chorus and you'll hear these words landing on the stronger beats. The word ‘ever' lands on beat 1 of the first 4/4 bar, and the word ‘stay' lands on beat 1 of the following bar. In this bar, we can only count 3 beats before the next emphasised beat comes with the word ‘stay' and sounds like the start of a new bar, which is why the 3/4 bar is in the middle.
Another interesting point about the chorus of this song is the use of three-bar phrases.
Normally, sections of a song are constructed of 4, 8, or 16 bars but this shows that you can break that rule to great effect. It works and it sounds good, and one of the best pieces of advice we've ever got about songwriting is: if it sounds good then it is good. So don't be afraid to break some of the ‘musical rules' from time to time.
4. Wonder Woman's Theme – Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL
Time for a quick visit to the world of film music where will be taking a look at the theme for Wonder Woman, composed by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. The theme first appeared in ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and then became the main musical for both ‘Wonder Woman' (2017) and ‘Wonder Woman 1984' (2020).
Unlike the previous entries in our list, this one is truly in an odd time signature.
Take a listen and you'll hear that it's 7/8! This means that there are 7 quavers (8th notes) per bar and the odd number of beats gives the music a very unbalanced and abrupt feel. Unusual time signatures like 7/8, 7/4, 5/8, and 5/4 are used frequently in film music, especially in action cues, as they add tons of tension and help keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Another way to think of 7/8 is to hear it as 3 crotchets (quarter notes) plus 1 quaver, which is equal in time to 7 quavers, and you can count as 1-2-3-a. You can hear this rhythm in the drum pattern to the theme as it accents these beats.
Take a listen to the track again and listen to that pattern in the drums. We've also notated the rhythm for you below.
In film music, it's common for melodic and harmonic ideas to represent characters, objects, and ideas. However, time signatures and rhythms can also be used in the same way.
Check out this track from ‘Wonder Woman 1984', from around the 0:36 mark, and listen out again for both the 7/8 signature as well as the 1-2-3-a rhythm in both the melody and the drums.
Compared to the darker and edgier main Wonder Woman theme, this track is far more optimistic and uplifting, yet both are unified by the same time signature and use of rhythm, showing that unusual time signatures and rhythmic ideas can be cleverly used to represent a character within a film.
5. America – Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim
The final entry in our list is America – West Side Story (musical), which was composed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Musical theatre may not be something we cover often here, but we just had to include this song as the way it uses time signatures is extremely clever and unique.
America uses a technique called mixed meter, which means that a different time signature is used per bar. This is similar to the alternating time signatures we looked at earlier, but America takes it one step further.
In this song, each bar alternates between 6/8 and 3/4, however, it's also changing between a compound meter with a feeling of two beats and a simple meter with a feeling of 3 beats.
But what exactly does that mean?
First, let's start by defining the difference between simple and compound meters.
In a simple meter each beat is subdivided into two, whereas, in a compound meter, each beat is subdivided into three. The time signature 6/8 is an example of a compound meter as it consists of 2 beats per bar which are subdivided into 3 eight notes.
So, one bar of 6/8 can be counted as – “One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six” (with the two beats landing on the one and the four).
On the other hand, 3/4 is an example of a simple meter because it has 3 beats per bar, which can be subdivided into two eight notes.
Therefore, one bar of 3/4 can be counted as – “One-and-Two-and-Three-and” (with the beats landing on the one, two, and three).
This means that to count along to America, you'll need to count in 6/8:
- 1st bar (6/8) – “One-Two-Three-Four -Five-Six”
- 2nd bar (3/4) – “One-and-Two-and-Three-and”
This pattern alternates all the way through. Take a listen to the track from 0:53 and try counting along this way so you can hear how it sounds.
Conclusion and More Songs That Use Irregular Time Signatures
So that's 5 songs of varying genres that either uses irregular time signatures or use time signatures in an unusual way.
We've looked at alternating time signatures and how they can affect the momentum of a track by removing any unnecessary pauses, odd time signatures like 7/8 and why they give the music an abrupt and tense feel, and how mixed meters can be used to give the rhythm of your music a unique feel.
We also talked about the difference between similar time signatures like 3/4 and 6/4 and how we can determine our time signatures through the strength of the emphasis on each beat, as well as how time signatures can be used in film music to represent characters, objects and ideas.
As a final task to test your knowledge, take a listen to the extra tracks we found that use irregular meters and see if you can work out the time signature of each one.
- Pink Floyd – Money
- Radiohead – 15 Step
- Lalo Schifrin – Mission Impossible Theme
- Two Door Cinema Club – Do You Want It All
- Taylor Swift – Closure
- The Beatles – All You Need Is Love (verse only)
- Dave Brubeck – Take Five
- Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
- Sting – Seven Days
- Tool – Schism
Adam is a TV & Film composer who is an avid music theorist. He plays the Guitar and Piano to an expert level, with over 10 years of experience and classical lessons under his belt. He heads most of the Orchestral Library Review Content and Music Theory Tutorial content on our site. Give Adam any task related to chords, scales, progressions, and composition, and he'll return an absolutely stellar result. Adam is also a Songwriting graduate from BIMM Institute.