Lost Meter: Radiohead, “How to Disappear Completely” (2000)

In a curious way demonstrated by Radiohead in “How to Disappear Completely,” one can feel free of metrical constraint for an entire song while somehow rocking along all the while.  After an initial 30 seconds of gentle guitar strumming that gives us just the vaguest feeling of a pulse, our attention is taken over by bass notes that seem to wander beyond any normal expectation of the end of a measure.

“How To Disappear Completely” 1

It is, in fact, a repeating figure of eight notes, but we count it out to sixteen because not until then does a chord change convince us that a real turn is happening.  Sixteen is too large a number to feel like any particular number.  We can’t call it an odd meter, because sixteen is an even multiple of two or four or eight.  There is no provocation of oddness within the line—just a spaciness because of its length.  But the pulse of the guitar has actually been in 12/8, that is, a sequence of four triplets, and this 12/8 is brought to the foreground when the drums come in around 2:15.

“How To Disappear Completely” 2

Now it is easier to recognize these superimposed patterns:             [spacing is correct on homepage]

Bass notes in 8/4: 1…..2…..3…..4…..5…..6…..7…..8…..

Guitar in 12/8: …….1…&…&..2…&..&..3…&..&..4…&…&..

The relation of 8 to 12 (or 16 to 24) isn’t necessarily odd.  In a different song, 8 to 12 could be played out forthrightly as a nice two-under-three polyrhythm (clap your hands ONE-two-ONE-two-ONE-two-ONE-two and go DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-da-da over that).  But in this song—or I should say, this track—the polyrhythm has been working on us disappearingly.[1]

In “Pyramid Song,” in contrast, Radiohead tortures us with misdirections of meter.  The piano chords always seem to be hesitating, deferring resolution, and although a certain pattern definitely repeats, its turnaround moments are disguised by early starts or protracted endings.  If “How to Disappear Completely” was a spacy reverie, “Pyramid Song” is like being at a mysterious party where people you don’t know are constantly whispering at you, tugging at your attention.

“Pyramid Song”

This is what one complete trip through the pattern involves:[2]

Beats: ……………1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10..11..12..13..14..15..16

Piano chords:   I……I……II…… III…III….III…….II…….II……….. I………I..

(second time: ……………………………………………………………………..II…….II )

Beats:   ………. 17..18..19..20.21.22.23.24.25.26.27.28.29.30.31.32.

Piano chords:  I……….I…….VII……VII….VII…..II……II…..II………II…..II..

(alternate:  ………………………………………………………………….I……….I…….I.. )

(The I chord is an F-sharp, the II is a G, the III is an A, and the VII is an E.)

Two rhythms are alternating.  The dominant rhythm is a syncopated 2-on-3 feel, the piano striking twice every three beats, as we see in beats 1 through 4, 6 through 12, 14 though 20, and 22 through 28, but at then at two halfway points (beats 4/20 and 12/28) there’s a two-full-beat duration, 33% longer than what you’ve been led to expect, a difference that is distinctly felt but not easy to judge.

Notice how, near the end of the first time through the first 16-beat pattern, the returning I chords fool you into thinking the turnaround starts at 14.  The II chords you hear there the second time through are more metrically honest, prolonging the end of the unit rather than starting the next unit too early.

Rhythm pundits have pointed out that this song is written in the wholly ordinary time signature of 4/4.[3]  Yeah, and it’s written on ordinary paper, too.


[1] It’s the recorded version on Kid A that does this best.  In live performances I’ve seen on youtube there’s less mystery about the meter.

[2]  I’ve written it with beats on quarter notes because it’s important to see where the implied beats are, but if you want to count it out in eighth notes, the pattern that repeats every 8 quarter-notes is 3/3/4/3/3 (ONE two three ONE two three ONE two three four ONE two three ONE two three).

[3] For various views of the meter see this Songfacts page.  See also this thread.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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