When I first tried to get my head around a tune in 7/8, I was mystified.  The tune was Bulgarian and, whilst the music sounded amazing, the notes made no sense to me – having been over-exposed to 4/4 for all my life.  The rhythm was driving and exciting, but where was the beat?

After much mental effort, I realised that the key to understanding this rhythm was to split it up into chunks that I could understand, namely 3s and 4s.

To explain, take the time signature 6/8.  Each bar is made up of 6 quaver beats, or two chunks of three (the emphasised beats shown in bold):

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

This will make sense to anyone who has played a jig, (or knows the song Nellie the Elephant)

But in 7/8, there will be another quaver beat

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3

There are two groups of beats, but now one has four beats, while the other has three.  The example above could be described as 4+3.  Alternatively, the bar could be split up as 3+4 and counted as follows:

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

Another way of looking at it:

Example 1 in 6/8

Example 2 in 7/8 – 4+3

Example 3 in 7/8 – 3+4

Extending this idea to other unusual rhythms:

9/8 is not unusual to our ears as the rhythm of slip-jigs:

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3

But, in East European music, it can be split up like this:

1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3

11/8 could be split into 4+3+4:

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

So, the secret is to split the bars into smaller, manageable chunks.  It’ll still take some getting used to, if you’re new to this, but it’s well worth the effort!

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