Having an appreciation for time signatures is useful for playing every instrument (both melodic and rhythmic) — but how do you decide what kind of rhythm/time signature you’ll use? You could ask this question another way… How do you decide which shirt to wear in the morning?
It all depends on the mood you’re going for and in some cases, the style or tradition of music you’re playing or making.
Let’s take a look at the 12/8 time signature in the context of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ by Tears For Fears, available to play in Melodics this week for premium subscribers.
The rhythm of the song gives it a shuffling feel, like you’re tumbling through it. It’s got a feel somewhere in-between the steady pulse of a four to the floor beat, and the triplet feel of 6/8.
Have you heard that shuffle rhythm before elsewhere?
It can also be known as the “Purdie Shuffle” (exemplified by Bernard Purdie in Steely Dan’s ‘Home At Last‘, or John Bonham in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain‘) in drum circles, but you’ve likely heard it frequently in all sorts of contemporary songs.
How about ‘Hold The Line’ by Toto, ‘Higher Ground’ by Stevie Wonder, ‘Lost in Yesterday’ by Tame Impala, ‘Sweet Escape‘ by Gwen Stefani, or ‘bury a friend‘ by Billie Eilish? What’s important is they all have this same shuffling “triplet feel” or sound, which you can get a natural feel for by listening to this playlist.
That sound can be a creative choice to evoke a certain mood, but often it’s related to making music in a particular style. As well as pop music, this rhythm is also used heavily in doo-wop, blues and jazz – so it can be used in some cases to reference or imitate those styles as well.
Now you know what it sounds like, what actually is 12/8?
As a more uncommon time signature, 12/8 might look and sound intimidating — but don’t worry there’s nothing weird, “irregular” or “odd” about it! You can easily think of 12/8 time as basically using triplets within the context of a regular 4/4 rhythm. Here’s how:
12/8 means there are 12 1/8th note beats in each bar.
But what you can’t immediately see from reading the time signature is that those 12 beats are organized into four groups of three 1/8th notes. The four groupings is what gives it the familiar pulse of 4/4 but with the “triplet” feel of 6/8. It’s like a buy one get one free deal for time signatures.
With 12 beats to choose from, there’s a world of opportunity when it comes to deciding which beats the chord changes occur on. With the intro of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ the first synth chord (A/D) is on the “1” beat — and the second chord (G/D) jumps in a little early on the “2-and-a” beat, imparting a slightly urgent feel to the intro groove.
If you’d like more context around the sound and feel of triplets (outside of 12/8) — you can often hear triplets in the syncopated, staccato vocals of Bone Thugs n Harmony, Three 6 Mafia, and Migos, which really helps to give them their distinctive flows.
For standard subscribers, make your goal this week to understand time signatures and how to play songs in 2/4, ¾, 4/4 and 6/8.
Melodics’ ‘Time Signatures’ course (for Keys and Drums) is a great starting point to structure your practice around, and if you’re a drummer you’ll be super prepared to dive into ‘Shuffle Grooves’ just in time for when ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ drops this week.