Making Sense of Odd Times

June 14, 2024 4 min read

Making Sense of Odd Times

Back in 2000, when I was studying music at Carleton University, I had the good fortune to attend a masterclass with double bassist and jazz legend Dave Holland (known for his work with Gateway, Miles Davis, and his own ensembles). He discussed his approaches to improvisation and crafting lines, including the concept of Gamala Taki.

Gamala Taki, devised by Karl Berger as a means of using groups of syllables to represent groups of time, was used by Holland as a method of creating rhythmically interesting lines by breaking down phrases into groups of three beats (“Gamala”) and two beats (“Taki”). So a bar of 4/4, thinking in eighth notes, can become four groups of two (Taki-Taki-Taki-Taki), or two groups of three and one of two, in different orders (Taki-Gamala-Gamala, Gamela-Taki-Gamela, or Gamela-Gamela-Taki).

The concept also unlocked the secret to counting odd times.

Time Signatures in a Nutshell

A time signature gives you two bits of information. In 4/4, the first number tells you the number of beats in each measure (four, in this case), and the second tells you which note is valued as a beat (here, a quarter note).

Therefore, in 6/8 time, the bar has six beats, with the eighth note being the beat.

In most Western music, we’re used to dealing with counts of three, four, or six beats, all of which can be counted relatively easily. It’s when we get into some different ones (seven, nine, eleven... heck, even Dream Theater’s “The Alien,” which won a Grammy, has passages in 17/16!) that we may need a different way of counting, especially if the tempo is quick.

Breaking Things Down

Any odd time can be broken down into groups of two and three for easy counting. The best way to determine the groupings is by where the strongest downbeats are felt. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the rhythm and accents of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.”

Note: We are looking strictly at the rhythm. The melody has not been transcribed for copyright reasons. However, if you cue up the song and follow along, where the accents fall will be evident.

The song itself is in 9/8 (which is a mouthful to count at the quick tempo). Rhythmically, with the accents, the first four bars would look like this:

Now, if we look closely at where the accents fall, we can quickly see how this can be regrouped, count-wise, into bits of two and three. The first bar has accents at every other eighth note (mostly), so we can think of these in two, with the last accented bit as a group of three.

The fourth bar of the passage has accents on every three notes so that we can group this into three groups for easier counting.

So now, what were bars of nine can be thought of as 2+2+2+3 (or Taki-Taki-Taki-Gamala) for the first three bars, and 3+3+3 (Gamala-Gamala-Gamala) for the last bar:

Thinking of odd times this way gives you a feel for the accents and a simpler count than trying to count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 (which “7” may throw things off, being a two-syllable word, if you’re not careful).

The applications can be found all over the realm of popular music. For example:

The Allman Brothers intro to “Whipping Post” is in 11/8 but can be counted as 3-3-3-2 (or Gamala-Gamala-Gamala-Taki).

”Money” by Pink Floyd is in 7/4 but can be counted as 2-2-3 (Taki-Taki-Gamala).

The “Mission Impossible” theme is in 5/4 for the most part, with accents falling on the eighth notes. If we look at the eighth-note rhythm, they can be counted as 3-3-2-2 (Gamala-Gamala-Taki-Taki) based on the accents.

”Schism” by Tool is an exciting example. The times in the primary riff alternate between 5/8 and 7/8, which may not be the most fun to count. If we go by where the downbeats on the snare fall, the bar of 5/8 is 2-3, while the bar of 7/8 is 2-2-3, so the whole two-bar passage can be seen as 2-3-2-2-3 (Taki-Gamala-Taki-Taki-Gamala).

Cue up the songs listed and try to count along. Start with a “standard” count and then the breakdowns to see which is easier. Even better, go listen to your favourite songs with odd times and see how they can be broken down. The more you apply this concept, the easier it gets to count.

Do you have a favourite song in an odd-time signature? Did you manage to figure out the groupings? Let us know in the comments! In the meantime, happy counting!

By Kevin Daoust -

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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