How many times do you open up your song and keep the BPM at its default (usually 120 BPM in most DAWs) and keep the song in the tried and tested 4/4 time signature? Put your hands up, I know I’m guilty of this. Using different BPMs will probably change the way you compose, but what I find really interesting is trying out different time signatures or meters in my music productions. Using these different meters can add a different flavor to your songs. I’m not saying you have to go all experimental with different time signatures throughout a song, turning it possibly into something not listenable. But throwing in one or two can really spice up your productions. Let’s take a look at some things you can try out.
Tip 1–Moving Away from 4/4
Let’s go over some quick music theory here before diving in. Music subdivisions can be broken down into bars and beats. Beats being the finer resolution of the two. You get further musical subdivisions, but let’s stick to these two. Time signatures are written in a X/Y format. The X being the bar representation, and the Y being the beats representation. You can think of the beat as a pulse or measure. A good example is when you’re counting along while you play an instrument, for example: "1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &…" And this gives you an indication of what the time signature is of a song. The 1,2,3,4 are the quarter notes within a bar, and the ‘&’ the 8th notes. So with a 4/4 there will be 4 quarter note beats within a bar. If you want to understand these musical measures in more depth, take a look at Gregg Fine’s tutorial on Music Rhythm. So now after that quick and very simple crash course, let’s take a look at a different time signature.
Here are 4 quarter notes within a bar with a 4/4 Time signature.
Tip 2–Try Out 3/4
The ¾, or better known to some as a waltz is 3 beats within a bar. Now even though a waltz is very characteristic of old music from the 19th century, you can incorporate a ¾ into any style of music.
Let’s say you’ve written a very simple chord progression in 4/4 containing C, F, Dm, G and you play 4 beats of each chord.
Change the time signature of your song to 3/4. I’m doing this in Logic so I’ll open up the Global Tracks to show the Time Signature, and click on it and change it to 3/4. If you're not too sure on how to change the time signature in another DAW, take a look at the manual and how they explain to do it.
Try it out now with 3 beats of each chord. Instantly it changes up the way you play the song and chord progression. Amazing how a simple thing like this can change up your production, and imagine this within the context of a production. The way you compose for your drums, bass and other instruments will also change as well, giving your song a very different feel.
Try it out with an EDM track, or maybe a strummed country-style guitar song. See what a difference the new signature has on the song.
And you don’t have to use 3/4 the whole time in your song, you can mix it up, and often it works better this way. Play your verse and chorus in 4/4 and when it hits the bridge break it down to a 3/4 and then bring it back to a 4/4 for your last chorus.
Tip 3 – Combining Meters
Another way of working with different time signatures is by combining them. Let’s say you want to combine a 4/4 and a ¾ then this gives your second bar an unfinished feel. This unstable-ness of the section keeps the listener on their seat waiting for the next stable section, which could be your chorus that brings it back to the stable 4/4.
Try this out and see how it sounds. It can sound a bit progressive and different, but sometimes it can be just what you need for a section in your song.
To hear these new time signatures you need to listen out for the accents of the beat. And the best way to get familiar with this is by listening to how your metronome or click sounds in your DAW when you change the time signature. The 1st beat will be accented and then the rest of the beats in the bar will be unaccented. Try this out with 3/4, or even a 5/4 and 7/4 and hear the accented and unaccented clicks with the metronome.
Tip 4 – Mixed Meters
Or you can use mixed meters with different instruments within a song. One way I like to work with this is when the drums play one time signature while the other instruments play another. For example let’s say the drums play a straight 4/4, while the bass and synths play a 3/4. Try this out. Program in quite a simple kick and snare pattern with a straight 4/4 timing.
Now write in your bass and synths over a 3/4 time signature. Then listen back and hear how it sounds like the beat turns around. Sometimes the kick is on the first beat of the bar, then other times the snare is on the first beat of the beat. A great way to add some differentiation within your song.
Go in and try out some different time signatures/meters in your music productions. They’re a great way of giving a section in your song a different feel and direction. I find they work especially well in bridge/middle 8 sections, and the combined meters can work really well in verses to make them feel a bit unfinished, and then when you hit the chorus with a 4/4 it will feel more stable and stronger than the verse. Songwriting is all about creating these different dynamics between sections, so use these suggestions as ways to bring different dynamics to your songs.
For further songwriting tutorials check out the following: