In my first odd meter post, I talked about some of the ways you can approach learning how to play better in 5/4 time. In this follow-up, I want to take some of those ideas and apply them to the challenge of improvising in 7/4 time.
Here’s a review of my perspective on odd-meter playing:
We spend so much time playing jazz standards in 3/4 and 4/4, so why bother with odd meters?
Well, as many of you have probably noticed, odd meters are becoming more and more common in modern music, especially within the contexts of modern jazz and classical styles. There is also a rich tradition of odd-meter jazz music stretching back at least to Don Ellis and farther back to Dave Brubeck and Max Roach.
I have become aware of the recent profusion of odd-meter music from personal experience, and I can attest that the majority of my original compositions employ odd meters and/or odd/irregular rhythmic phrasing.
How can you practice odd meters effectively and efficiently?
The goal when practicing and playing using odd meters is to make them feel as natural and easy as the more common, basic triple and duple meters. Playing in meters based on groupings of five, seven, eleven, thirteen, etc. is easier than it may seem at first because all odd meters can be subdivided into groupings of the more familiar patterns. In other words, you can break down odd meters into smaller segments based on groupings of two and three.
For example, 7/4 time can be broken down into a four-plus-three (4 + 3) or two-plus-two-plus-three (2 + 2 + 3) quarter-note pattern (i.e. a 4/4 bar followed by a 3/4 bar) or vice versa.
You can break 7/4 down even further and think of it as two 7/8 measures for every one 7/4 bar, and you can break down the two component 7/8 bars into a 2 +2 + 3 or 3 + 2 + 2 eighth-note pattern – or any combination of 4 groupings of 2 eighth-notes plus 2 groupings of 3 eighth-notes.
Following this logic, there are a multitude of ways you can break down any odd meter into more manageable and common rhythmic patterns, which will help you digest and conceptualize them more readily.
Here are some 7/4 rhythmic independence exercises to get you started. Try tapping the bottom line rhythm with your foot and clapping the top line (first with a metronome set to 7/4 time, then eventually without a metronome).
Take these various odd-meter rhythmic patterns one at a time and repeat them over and over again by tapping or clapping them. After you get more comfortable with the rhythms, trying improvising freely or over a jazz standard playing only one rhythmic set at a time until you become comfortable enough with it to start varying it.
Eventually, make it your goal to be able to play with the same amount of freedom and creativity in odd meters that you have in duple and triple meters. Accordingly, it is important to gradually move away from playing the repetitive rhythmic patterns over odd meters and to begin to play with more natural, free, varied, and unpredictable rhythmic phrasing (e.g. with “over the barline” phrasing).
Here’s an example of a blues in 7/4 with a different repetitive rhythmic subdivision (or a “odd-time clave,” as I think of it) used every 1-2 bars (the melody is a bit boring and repetitive, but it helps to simplify the melody with an exercise like this so you can focus purely on rhythmic concerns).
Put these elements to practice and you’ll start to see results. Playing in 7 is not easy and at first it will feel difficult. But over time it will start to feel more natural.