Emma’s ‘Dream Phone’ – 3/4
As a starting point for examining alternative time signatures in dance music, let’s begin with E.m.m.a’s 2012 track ‘Dream Phone’, which is in 3/4 time. It’s a great example of a 3/4 beat as it’s an easy track to count along to, following the beat as “1-2-3-1-2-3″ rather than the “1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4″ count you’d use for a 4/4 track.
In an interview with Dummy last year, E.m.m.a explained that the track was her attempt to “change the world with a 3/4 tune shoehorned in a kind of post-dubstep [style]”, tripping up a few DJs in the process. Although the track was written in 3/4, it’s worth noting that there are a number of sections from around the 0:50 mark onwards where the timing would more easily be understood as 6/8. 3/4 and 6/8 are closely related, so the distinction is quite subtle, but this is pertinent for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a reminder that time signature isn’t just defined by the setting in your DAW or sequencer, but the timing of the notes you play; just because your project’s set to 3/4 (or 4/4, or anything else) doesn’t mean you can’t play melodies in other time signatures.
Secondly, timing is about the listener’s perception just as much as it’s about the writer’s intention (in fact, you could argue that the writer’s intention doesn’t actually matter in most contexts, but the listener’s perception is always critical). Part of the reason ‘Dream Phone’ works so well as a twist on the familiar devices and motifs of dubstep and grime is that it doesn’t sound completely alien, despite its uncommon time signature. You can still follow the groove easily without worrying about counting beats or figuring out time signatures. The first time Keysound’s Dusk and Blackdown played it on Rinse FM, they didn’t realise it was in 3/4 until they had trouble mixing out of it.
Thirdly, as we discussed in our previous Passing Notes feature on polyrhythms, using multiple time signatures for different elements of a track can also work very effectively for creating unique grooves and rhythms. In the case of 3/4 and 6/8 it’s a very small difference, but it’s also possible to mix and match very different time signatures for more complex polyrhythms. (For a further example of a related idea, take a look at our recent Breakdown feature on Lukid’s ‘USSR’, in which the synth line implies 3/4 before resolving back into 4/4.)
We’ll come back to a second example of this kind of ambiguity later in an Actress track, but first let’s consider some more examples of non-4/4 time signatures.
Kenton Slash Demon’s ‘Ore’ – 6/8
As we noted earlier, 6/8 time is very closely related to 3/4 but with a slightly different feel. We can hear a great example of a 6/8 time signature in ‘Ore’ by Kenton Slash Demon.
The part starting at 0:21 is a perfect example of a 6/8 beat, with the bassline (in yellow in the piano roll below) landing on the quavers and the kick (red) and snare (blue) emphasising every first and fourth quaver:
Here’s a simplified version of that section:
The subsequent change to 4/4 timing at 1:10 also makes the impact of this section all the more powerful.