Music education always & always looking forward.

Unusual Markers: Mixolydian Mode & Asymmetrical Simple Meter in the Foo-Fighters' "Times Like These"

Mode madness & 7/4 meter.


What you think a musician is doing and what said musician is actually doing are quite often two different things.  I've often had the discussion, mostly with other non-musicians, about whether or not "popular" musicians know what they're doing when they write songs in Mixolydian mode or put little metrical turns here & there.  This stems from the belief that popular musicians don't know theory, don't have training, and therefore cannot possibly understand the complexity of what they are performing or what they themselves wrote.  I disagree with that belief.

Another popular idea is that great bands & great songwriters learn from experience, not from training.  Dave Grohl feeds into this idea himself, as he's now considered the elder statesman of alternative rock, and he often talks about how Nirvana resulted from a bunch of kids banging around in a garage, having no clue what they were doing (link contains lots of cuss bombs).  But Grohl is not a teenager anymore.  He's played in huge number of bands and worked as a session drummer for some of the world's biggest musicians.  I have a feeling that at this point, and probably long before that, Grohl knows a lot more about the academic mechanics of musicianship than he lets on.  And in the case of other popular musicians, someone in the room knows what they're doing.  Michael Jackson may have been famously untrained, but Quincy Jones sure knew how to describe everything that was going on in that studio.  

The distance between what you think a musician is doing and what they're actually doing refers to lyrics, as well.  I was paying precious little attention to what was popular in the spring of 2003, but I remember this song well.  It had an impact on me as a college student, debating the Iraq War with my peers and having watched 9/11 on TV with my friend from New York less than 18 months before that.  It seemed like a song that our culture needed at that time, but in actuality Grohl wrote the song about the uncertainty of the Foos future rather than as a healing balm for a hurting American culture.  Regardless, it seemed to work as the latter.  I always feel a strange sense of comfort when I hear this song, whether Grohl intended it that way or not.

Intro: This band formed first as a solo project on which all of the songs were written, performed, and recorded by Dave Grohl as a means of recovering from his bandmate Kurt Cobain’s death. The Foo Fighters quickly became a fully formed rock band and would go on to be one of the most commercially and critically successful bands of the late 1990s and 2000s. Their eight studio albums have sold more than 12 million copies and several of those albums have charted in the Top Ten of the Billboard 200 Albums chart. The band has won a total of 10 Grammys, four of them Best Rock Album awards. 2002’s One by One, on which “Times Like These” appears, won the Grammy for Best Rock Album and hit #3 on the Billboard Album charts (topping the charts in Australia, Ireland, and the UK). The song appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #65 and on both the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts at #5 in 2003.

Spoiler Alert: Many of the songs unusual guitar riffs are played in an unusual time signature and the song’s chord progression is written in an unusual mode.

Analysis: This song serves as a terrific rock listening example because there's so much theory to teach here. After an opening four measures in 4/4 time, the main guitar riff appears in two measures of 7/4 time (starting at :07 in the video recording above). This meter is highlighted by a sixteenth note rhythm in the drumset on the last beat of each measure. Those two 7/4 measures are followed by two 4/4 measures (or maybe an 8/4 measure?) before the riff changes. The verses and chorus continue in standard rock 4/4 time. After two verses & two choruses, the lead guitar riff appears with an extended 7/4 section (starting at 2:06 and continuing to 2:29).

The song is also written in D Mixolydian mode, avoiding traditional cadence points. The chord progression seems simple -- D-Am-C-Em, and C-Em-D in the chorus. If analyzed in G major, that would indicate a V-ii-IV-vi progression; however, the G major (tonic) chord is never played throughout the song, giving an undeniable indication of D Mixolydian mode.

Considerations for Teaching: This song is considered one of the more optimistic & introspective rock songs of the 2000s, and contains no inappropriate lyrics or subject matter. It makes for a great classroom listening sample (or great for after-school rock band).

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