Time Signatures in Electronic music

but that should scare folks right? or excite us due to the unexplored terrain

whether your drum is acoustic of some kind of roland/sampler, most drummers focus on becoming physically adept at producing coherent complexity…thru spontaneous coordination of limbs and digits or multiple tape layers

I’m coming around to believe that it would be better to divorce the performative gestures and necessity for a direct physical approach . my lifelong distrust of automation blinded me to this until recently


I’m wholeheartedly in agreement. (Which is why I’ve got that “Touch Sensors” thread going.)

I think a huge factor is how Electronic music has become commercialized and merged into pop culture through it’s development. A lot of different factors contribute to this but the main one I see is that computer technology has allowed anyone with a computer to make music. While this ideally would result in a diverse scope of music that explores the multitude of capabilities the computer provides, it seems that the opposite has happened, with huge amounts of simpler and often very similar music being written. I think this is due to a general lack of wanting to develop as a musician (in the context of musicianship as a whole), the steep learning curve and effort that advanced musicality has/demands, and a overpowering desire for instant gratification in socially being praised for making music that is liked. As @glia pointed out all these factors play into one another heavily which further reinforce their individual growth and collective. Note that I am speaking specifically on EDM culture, which i believe is relevant because it makes up the majority of Electronic music seen in today’s culture.
I believe big reason why many people get into making Electronic music is due to the fact that anyone has the potential to achieve a degree of stardom, without having to learn the tactile skill of playing of an instrument. With the subconscious desire to become prestigious through their music, people are pushed to make music that is commonly liked and to value commercial success over skill development. This results in people producing music that lacks certain degree of creative expression and does not explore outside certain creative guidelines. There is a huge group psychology centered around “EDM” genres, which automatically limits the musician to a very narrow scope of structural and sonic parameters predetermined by all of the music already categorized under that genre label. This is also why the website Soundcloud exploded in the way that it did, it provided means for the average EDM artist to put out their music and gain a following, bypassing the need for a label and often attracting labels attention, if it was a genre and style of music that successfully captured what was popular at that given time. The focus became centered around the acclaim one could get through their music and not on exploring music as a creative medium. Of course there are exceptions, generally small, often academic communities or ones that center around a common interest of creative exploration, the Monome community being a prime example of this.
Another huge reason why the majority of Electronic music does not push the limits of compositional possibilities is because it takes a lot of time and is difficult to have a mastery of. This reinforces the drive to stick with genres, and takes away from the instant gratification that the majority of people are really looking to satisfy. If someone wants to become famous and play shows for crowds of people, why would they spend the time learning to compose with complex time signatures or complex modal structure if they can achieve their desire of fame with significantly simpler music that will probably be more widely accepted. In acoustic music, the musician has to learn to play their instrument. Just that in of itself will eliminate people who do not want to put in the effort to learn music, and sets a higher bar of musical knowledge needed to become successful.
The root of all this boils down to people wanting social recognition. Throughout pop culture that has often been the driving element that has shaped how mainstream music has developed. Now with computers and the accessibility to make electronic music this is far easier to achieve for the everyday person.
I am sure that I am coming off incredibly cynical, and I am somewhat cynical of EDM culture. Being 20 I grew up during and witnessed the process of Electronic music surging into the mainstream pop culture during my teen youth. I experienced and began my personal musical growth in the startings of what is now the EDM culture that we see today, so i believe i understand the psychology present in it. It has taken me a long time to push against the mentalities that I adopted, but all of the positive artistic growth that I have undergone is because I recognized and rejected the shortcomings presented by that culture.


I feel like it’s a bit reductionist to say that EDM is representative of the majority of “electronic music”. I think really what has happened is electronic music has permeated nearly every other genre at this point. Listen to any pop, R&B, even country track today and you’ll find it’s filled with synthesized sounds. Nearly every band has a Microkorg, Nord, or Moog on stage. Virtually all recordings are done with DAWs and have a plethora of computer-based effects added to them. Music in every genre incorporates sequenced elements.

My feeling is that the lack of diverse time signatures and scales is more to do with the cultural aspect of western music. It’s pretty easy to make music in time signatures other than the standard using electronic instruments, including X0X style sequencers, but to most people it will just sound “weird” because of the cultural context. Most people just generally prefer to listen to what they are familiar with, which is music in your typical 12-ET scales and common time.


Making relatable music for status (rather than artistic expression) certainly didn’t start with EDM. Narcissism has a long and storied history in western culture. But I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that it may have metastasized in EDM.


That being said, your average DJ is practically anonymous compared to, say, Jimmy Page. The emphasis on “the star” has significantly declined since the days of album oriented rock.

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2 clock dividers and 2 Roland 80’s sequencers and you could have a lot of fun… for less than the Buchla entry fee…


It is difficult to talk about because the conversation boarders dangerously on becoming a discussion of pure semantics and often breaks away from the original topic. However personally, I wouldn’t categorize Pop, R&B, or Country as electronic music. Having a synthesizer or other electronic instruments in a song is not what defines electronic music to me, by that standard all Rock and Roll using an electric guitar would fall under the genre of electronic music and that just seems inaccurate. Electronic music to me is also not defined by the use of a DAW nor the use of software effects.
It is definitely a grey area though, and I fully recognize this. Because I would not call a stylistically Classical composition, like a string quartet for example, which was made completely on the computer with software “electronic music”. But I would call Musique Concrete tape compositions, made by splicing tape together “electronic music”. So weird paradoxical situations occur where it is very difficult to pin point what exactly is “electronic music” and what isn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t use the term because of how ambiguous the definition is for me, but for lack of a better term it is what I default to.
I am sure there is a generational element that influences how I view the term “electronic music” as opposed to how you or others may view it.

And I definitely agree on the lack of diverse time signatures being present in Western Music dating back a long time. Though as time has progressed there are generally more prominent areas in western music that have composers breaking away from more conventional music structures, for example Math rock, MathMetal, and minimalist composers, but electronic music specifically EDM and all the various off shoots and/or sister genres seem to not have done this yet, maybe because it is a newer stye of music. So I was more specifically talking about some of the various factors that I believe have perpetuated this lack of branching out in “electronic music”.

Oh I definitely wasn’t saying the desire to use music to achieve “Stardom” started with EDM. I very much agree that as you said there is a long history of it in western music culture. In fact if that wasn’t the case I doubt EDM would have become what it is today. I more was addressing the question @glia proposed and stating that narcissism is a big factor that created EDM culture as we see it today, diverted attention away from exploring the scope of musical creativity, and that the lack of unconventional meter usage can be partly explained by this.

Definitely. There’s very few DJs who travel around and play massive arena shows as compared to superstar rock and pop acts.

Well, one reason genres like EDM don’t use a wider set of time signatures is because of the D… which is for Dance. I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty hard time dancing to 17/8 superimposed over 5/4. Maybe there’s people out there with complete top half / bottom half body coordination that can do it :slight_smile: I think this is the better answer than simply narcism. Not to say weird time signatures can’t work in dance music at all, we use them in techno productions all the time, but usually you need some kind of straight underlying pulse to keep moving.

This is a bit of a tired argument, but I never really liked the term Electronic Music either, because it’s kind of an empty descriptor. We don’t really talk about “guitar music” or “drum music” as a style. So is simply music where the electronic instrumentation itself is the focus? Or something else?


[quote=“kisielk, post:31, topic:3828, full:true”]
Well, one reason genres like EDM don’t use a wider set of time signatures is because of the D… which is for Dance.[/quote] Absolutely!

Going one further: Isn’t it the case that the majority of pop(ular) electronic music is predominately dance music? Even stuff at the listening end of the spectrum, re: IDM, is in response to dance music. (NOTE: “pop” electronic music as apposed to “academic” electronic music.)

[quote=“bwlb, post:23, topic:3828”]
Being 20 I grew up during and witnessed the process of Electronic music surging into the mainstream pop culture during my teen youth.
[/quote]Forgive me if I’m not reading your post correctly, but if you’re only 20, electronic music surged into mainstream pop culture long before you were a teen. I’m not a historian, nor was there for it, but the rave/dance-music scene was huge in England in the 80s (AFAIK).

Back on topic: I saw these guys play a few months back and it was a great listen. (math rock) http://disks.bandcamp.com/album/we-were-human-beings

I wonder if much of this falls into the defaults bias , e.g. most daws and hardware, defaulting to 120bpm 4/4 C major… and with modular, the ‘default’ appears to be using clock dividers.

in all cases, you can move away from the default, but a default always creates a bias.
in contrast, there are some lots of fantastic tools these days to experiment in this area… e.g. Numerology on the Mac.

moving onwards though… any suggestions on how people should take a step towards using (other) time signatures creatively…
polymeter/polyrhythm for layering, switching time sigs during pieces, different time signatures.
seem to be the techniques discussed mainly here (might have missed some)

Ive enjoyed experimenting with these, though one difficultly I’ve found is keeping it clean/coherent… rather than sounding like a random set of rhythms thrown into a soup - any tips… or i just experiment more, until you build a familiarity with what seems to work together? (I guess this is mainly about polymeter/polyrhythm)

(Im currently doing this using sequencing, in the hope, once i can start to recognise/feel the rhythms, i can then move to trying to do this physical on a playing surface… as im rubbish at counting, though perhaps I should also practice this ;))


I find African music to be very helpful for exploring examples of polymeter, and polyrhythm. Something to keep in mind is that it is traditionally achieved in ensemble, so each individual player tends to have a fairly simple straight-ahead part, but the complexity comes through in the layering.

Pretty easy to achieve with multiple drum tracks in a DAW. But try recording the tracks with an instrument that uses your arms if you can.

When I got back from Cuba I became fascinated with Bata drumming, a Santeria style, after having seen master Bata drummer Gali there.

Short version with better audio

Long version

This PDF does a great job of breaking down some of the traditional Bata rhythms.

I find that curiosity about music around the world tends to pay off. Great way to get your mind off the “default” of “common” time.


Lunchtime reading sorted :slight_smile:

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It’s great that some devices like the René sequencer or the Squarp Pyramid are starting to get known. Polyrythms can be very hard to get into at first but it’s such an undercovered face of music, and a wonderful one.

Basically it’s all just about managing to see the rythm not as a whole, but as a mix of a lot of different pulses to be analysed separately, a whole different mindset.
(Still struggling with building a visual Euclidean Sequencer in Max/Pd by the way, if someone managed to build such a patch… )

I think the key, when writing an odd meter rythm, is always to have a constant pulse, like a snare or a hihat that would come every 2 beats, and it gets more easier to follow that way.


I would suggest to just do it. If you’re making sequenced music, there’s no performance ability aspect holding you back.

Changing time signatures is actually easier and more natural than it seems. One particular technique I like to utilize is to play the same phrase but drop or add additional beats. Another is to write two parts in different time signatures and then repeat them for the common multiple of duration.

Also, I can’t participate in this thread without dropping my favourite example of complex time signatures. It’s not strictly electronic music, but it’s definitely been a huge influence on my electronic music compositions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZbd7EL7kvQ


[quote=“kisielk, post:38, topic:3828”]
One particular technique I like to utilize is to play the same phrase but drop or add additional beats.
[/quote]this is remarkably simple advice that I neglected to mention!

anybody who hasn’t tried this yet is in for a treat…


This works particularly well if you combine the phrase and its dropped version in pairs to create the odd time. For example I really like to play something in 4/4 (8/8) followed immediately by the same phrase in 7/8, basically giving a broken 15/8 feel.

Another variation is to play a standard time phrase for a few measures and then for the end of the section repeat the first X (where X is usually odd, like 5 or 7) beats a few times for the transition to the next section. I think I picked up this technique from playing Tool covers on guitar :slight_smile:

The latter is super easy to achieve on most sequencers, just play a pattern for a while and then switch the pattern length to something shorter without changing anything else and let that run for a while.