Music education always & always looking forward.

Typical Rush Time Changes: Changing & Asymmetrical Compound Meter in Rush's "Tom Sawyer"

Lots of shifts from 7/8 to 4/4? What else would you expect from Rush?!


If you teach anything pertaining to popular music and your kids don't know anything about Rush, then what are you doing, anyway?  Rush is essential listening for theory-minded young musicians, and even more beneficially, their music is almost all PG-rated.  Their storied career together may be over, but their body of work is a gift to all of us.  

“Tom Sawyer” - Rush

Intro: Formed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1968, Rush has gained a huge cult following among rock fans for their complex compositions and skilled musicianship. Moving Pictures, on which “Tom Sawyer” appears, was the band’s most commercially successful album, reaching #1 in their native Canada and #3 on both the Billboard 200 Albums chart and the UK albums chart. The song charted at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart and #8 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in 1981. Due in great part to their massive influence and devoted fan base, as well as their musical achievements, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. The band had previously been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and won several Juno awards. “Tom Sawyer” is one of five Rush songs that appears in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Analysis: Almost always making use of changing meter and polyrhythms in most of the band's oeuvre, Rush's “Tom Sawyer” is no exception. Starting in 4/4 time with a basic drum beat in the background, after the first verse ends (:36 in this video recording), cross-rhythms appear in the drums and guitar, although the meter still fits into the confines of 4/4 time. As the song continues, greater rhythmic complexity can be heard in the drum part, expressed mostly on the ride cymbals. An extensive instrumental break is heard before the first statement of the chorus (:39), featuring many of the themes that will later be heard in commuted forms in the changing meter sections. The second verse is expressed, clearly in 4/4 with a basic rock drum beat in the background before changing (at 1:36 in this recording) to a new synthesizer melody (which the bass guitar will eventually imitate). This instrumental section begins and is played in 7/8 time, containing a guitar solo section as well as many cross-rhythms on the drums. After the solo section, which can almost be perceived as a development section, the song returns to 4/4 (at 2:34) with the pre-chorus section following almost immediately and followed by the chorus. The 7/8 section appears again at the end of the song (4:00, first expressed here on the guitar), without changing meters from there, and continues as the song fades out.

Considerations for Teaching: This song as well as many other Rush songs are totally appropriate for classroom use.  Among many music fans, Rush is often perceived as a "nerd's band" due to their considerable instrumental proficiency and lack of offensive or lyrically challenging song.  However, this makes their music totally palatable for children and a wonderful teaching tool for educators.

Up the Hill, Seven Steps at a Time: Changing Meter (emulating Asymmetrical Simple Meter!) in Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill"

Two Time Signatures at Once: Cross-Rhythm in Tears for Fears's "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"