There’s an art to making a catchy pop song in an odd time signature — “odd” meaning something other than the vastly popular 4/4 and 3/4 (“waltz time”) meters. Despite the overwhelming popularity of those two meters, if a great song has time changes that flow naturally, no reason it can’t top the charts.
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (1959) was the pioneer, a huge hit in 5/4 time (counted “ONE-two-three-ONE two” — listen for the kick drum on those “ones”).
The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” shifts from 4/4 to 3/4 (or 6/8) in the turnaround (the phrase “Strawberry Fields Forever”), with a possible bar of 7 thrown in…
Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans” (1971) is in 4/4, but adds in a bar of 2/4 — that little hiccup — after every other measure in the chorus:
Marie Marie la voodoo veau
She’ll put a spell on you (hiccup)
The Beatles went crazy in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” — you can hear 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, maybe 9/8, 10/8, — all over the place. But the time changes are abrupt and jarring — they’re meant to be — and anyway, the song wasn’t a hit single.
In Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Burt Bacharach sneaks in a 2/2 bar in the middle of the 4/4 verse, and a 3/4 bar in the middle of the chorus. The b-side of that record is “(Theme from) Valley of the Dolls,” which sounds Bacharachian, but was written by the husband-and-wife team of André and Dory Previn. Both songs were million-sellers; together they’re one of pop music’s biggest-selling double-sided hits.
I’ve seen musicologist types claim “Valley” is “in 17/4” — so what? Musicians count time in chunks that feel right and make sense. And there are a lot of chunks in this song! The verse changes time sig every measure: 4/4 + 3/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 + 5/4. (Yes, that adds up to 17 beats per verse.) Like this:
When did I get, (4 beats)
where did I (3 beats)
How was I (2 beats)
caught in this (3 beats)
game? (5 beats)
When will I know, (4 beats)
where will I (3 beats)
How will I (2 beats)
think of my (3 beats)
name? (5 beats)
If the songwriters set up this elaborate scheme just to show off their skill, it probably wouldn’t have worked. But the “incomplete” 3-beat and two-beat measures reflect the halting, fragmented nature of the lyrics.
Gotta get off, gonna get
Have to get off from this ride
Gotta get hold, gonna get
Need to get hold of my pride
Starting with the second verse, a soft eighth-note percussion sound (hi-hat? shaker?) supplies a subtle, steady breadcrumb trail through the changes. And the chorus (“Is this a dream…?”) settles down to an alternating four bars of 4/4 and four bars of 3/4 — solid footing compared to the verse.
The bass player’s role in this song can’t be underestimated. It’s mostly an ostinato part (repeating the same note under chord changes). And it’s sparse. With such a complex time scheme, the bass can’t possibly form a steady, unvarying pulse throughout, but it alternates between pulsing and putting a foot down on those off-the-path stepping stones in a way that provides a smooth — but not boring – passage.
“Valley” had all the ingredients of a huge hit: a great singer at the top of her game, a gorgeous melody, an inviting arrangement, and most of all the haunting, soulful lyric by Dory Previn — look her up. She had a rough life; she wrote of vulnerability and uncertainty bordering on despair from a fragile place deep within.