Video game music, like most music (unless you live in Bulgaria), has been predominantly written in common (4/4) time. After noticing a few tracks from video games in unusual time signatures, I began searching online threads, looking specifically for video game music that fit this description. Many of the songs I found were in 3/4 and 6/8, which I eventually discarded due to these also being fairly common. In the end I came up with a list of over 40 tracks, which I have since narrowed down into a Top 10 list. Talking about these is a little tricky for me, as my knowledge of music and theory are both quite limited, so try and bear with me.

Also, I highly, HIGHLY recommend that you have some search tool open in another tab so you can actually hear the songs on this list as you read. Honestly, the list itself is pretty much useless otherwise. Here we go!

Written in 7/8, Minotaur makes heavy use of orchestral instruments, and despite the sound quality being over a decade old, the music is incredibly layered. The emphasis put on every odd beat (half-half-half-quarter) also gives the music a slight galloping sound to it. Because most of Vagrant Story's music up until the minotaur battle is slow and atmospheric, the minotaur's theme, while not the fastest or liveliest, gets the blood pumping while still remaining sinister and dark, as Ivalician games tend to be.

Though Vagrant Story does have an interesting plot, Minotaur doesn't really have much of a context in it; though the story keeps you guessing as to who is actually on your side, most of the boss battles are just a repetition of Sydney summoning random stuff and throwing it at you, and it's not until much later that you realize why he's doing it. That aside, the 'gallop' of the rhythm does fit quite nicely as you face off against a half-beast, half-man, even if the minotaur doesn't have a whole lot of backstory.

Due to this game's popularity, any musician who's had an interest in video games probably expected this. Although 6 + 7 + 6 + 4 (or 13 + 10) isn't exactly an easy rhythm to hear, especially given the melodic style of Ganondorf's battle theme, this does little to detract listeners from enjoying the music.

The complexity and heaviness make this perfect as a boss battle, with a fast and frantic xylophone (no seriously, that's what it sounds like) adding a mood of uncertainty while a slower, deeper melody, part organ and part brass, perfectly express Ganondorf's power and status. When all of the layers come together, it can really make the battle overwhelming, especially when you see him floating around effortlessly with lightning bolts gathering at his fingertips... Never mind the fact that you spend half of the battle playing ping pong with him...

The only real downside to this track is the audio quality really isn't so great. Thankfully you can find a bunch of different versions of the theme online in varying levels of audio quality.

Try listening to Marx's Theme and you'll follow it for a few measures before getting lost in the changing time signatures. Written mostly in 3/4 with measures of 5/4 scattered throughout, Marx's Theme is unpredictable both rhythmically and melodically. Sounding like a cross between sinister carnival music and erratic chase music, Kirby's battle against Marx can be described the same way. Marx's Theme has been described as "musical diarrhea of the mouth", and yet despite such a vulgar comparison, that's exactly what it aims to be in all of its chaos.

What really makes this song stand out is just how well it fits with the game. This theme can only fit someone who is not mentally stable, and Marx himself certainly doesn't look like it, with his bugged-out eyes and wacky expressions even as he attacks you. Oh yeah, he also has metal wings, a red bow-tie and loafers. Even if he weren't a megalomaniac, I'd say his fashion sense could get him put into an asylum. Rainbow colors, teleportation, lasers, and spiked vines all pop out and add to the insanity.

Another piece in 7/8 time, Library of Puppets has a hints of jazz and classical influence in it as well. Although the rhythm is not quite as complex as other entries this far into the list, the way the instruments blend so naturally even in an unnatural time signature really makes this track catchier than something like Ganondorf's theme could ever have been.

Despite chugging along at a leisurely pace, the mix of instruments and synergy between the guitar and flute make Library of Puppets surprisingly energetic yet relaxing at the same time.

Sadly the song doesn't have much context, as none of the Etrian Odyssey games have much of a plot. EO4 is also a little slow in terms of gameplay, which makes this theme rather underwhelming; I think it would have fit a lot better in a more fast-paced RPG like one of the Ys games.

Tor is fast and furious from the beginning, and aside from being written in 7/8, the reason it made it on my list is most likely my passion for hard rock and metal. Not only is the guitar melody catchy, but the drums aren't slacking either. Later on the meter changes to 5/8 before changing back to its original 7/8. Fans of Animals as Leaders will appreciate this addition to the list. It's also guaranteed to make any boss battle 72% more epic, or your money back (which isn't saying much, since Iji is freeware).

After trying to stop the Tasen and Komato invasions and finding no foothold for diplomacy, Iji is forced to fight continuously, and what makes Tor's theme so epic (and party sad) is that perhaps even moreso than the other enemies, after everything that happens, you really don't want to fight him. LifeForce's cover of Further does a great job of turning the mood 180 degrees from badass to tragic after you beat the game. The context of the battle is very spoiler-heavy, so I won't say any more on the topic.

I'm not going to lie, I really can't follow the beat on this one, although the song comments confirm that it alternates between 13/8 and 14/8. Ancient Breeze sounds a bit like King Crimson, or really any early progressive rock band, with some definite influence from Eddie Van Halen thrown in for good measure. Although it can get a little hectic, coming at you like a wall of sound, the keyboard and guitar blend really well and the overall product is awesome. As DrumMania was produced by Bemani, you can also hear some very heavy DDR influence in the music, as the composers are likely the same.

This is the only entry in the list where the game is made significantly more difficult by the complexity of the music itself. This makes a lot of sense, given that DrumMania is a rhythm game, and it gives Ancient Breeze a bit of notoriety.

One of the longer songs on this list, The Package begins slow in common time, but a little more than halfway in, begins alternating between 10/8 and 12/8 with string instruments, later adding in more layers and instruments. Not only is the time signature interesting and memorable, but the overall impression from beginning to finish is just epic.

With the possible exception of Minotaur, The Package makes the heaviest use of orchestral elements on the list, starting with a soft melody before tapering off into ambiance after about a minute, and then slowly working up tension and suspense a minute after that. About halfway through is when the alternating meter comes in with an almost frantic viola and aggressive percussion with a slower, calmer melody underneath. The piece finishes with an almost somber piano melody.

Provincial Makai City Esoteria is quite similar to The Package, although it sounds quite a bit faster and carries a much different mood. PMCE alternates between counts of 5 and 6, making the time signature 11/8. Compared to the previous entry on the list, PMCE is a lot more impatient and a lot less subtle, although this makes sense given the style of gameplay; UFO is a straight-up bullet hell, not a protracted mission.

Part of what makes this song so cool is that in addition to the normal music heard during stage 5 of UFO, there are also a few enemies that are programmed to appear such that their sound effects synchronize with the music. For those of you wondering about the game, it's basically a collage of everything Japanese - spinning pentagram thingies, thousands of bullets, and random hovering anime characters shooting laser beams. Other than that it looks like a straight up Tyrian ripoff.

Going back to the music, I especially like that the difference between the measures of 5 and 6 are mostly rhythmic, which puts a really classy emphasis on the last three notes in 6/8. There's also some brass instrumentation coming in later in the song, which sounds kind of goofy, but somehow it works.

I'm somewhat reluctant to write much about this song, not because I don't have anything to say, but because I feel like the music really speaks for itself.

Guaranteed to confuse anyone on their first listen, Treasure Sleeping in the Sand tosses both 11/8 and 9/8 time signatures at you, sandwiched between measures of 7/8, though some parts default to a flat 7/8. As the name suggests, you get a very desert-like mood from the maracas and wind instruments, and overall the tune just sounds incredibly exotic, what with all of the strange instruments on top of the changing meters.

Part of what makes this tune so damned addicting is the energy level going on here. TSitS is fast and upbeat - it's just a shame Lynari Desert is mostly barren and so easy to get lost in, because I guarantee anyone listening to this theme is going to want to slash things up.

What makes Treasure Sleeping in the Sand so awesome is that not only does it incorporate a complex time signature (7 + 9 + 7 + 11) but the rhythm works for the song a lot more than the song works for the rhythm. A lot of progressive music plays around with rhythms for the sake of it (ie. Pi, or a lot of djent for that matter), but I felt Kumi Tanioka had just as much fun composing it as consumers enjoyed listening to it. Overall just a fun piece.

While narrowing down my original tracklist into a top 10, I actually passed over this song several times before fully appreciating just how epic Ar Tonelico's soundtrack is. It was a really tough break choosing between EXEC_SPHILIA/. and EXEC_SOL=FAGE/. because I made a conscious decision to limit my list to one entry per game. Ultimately I decided on SPHILIA because it fits the bill of 'unusual time signatures' better, but to be honest they're both incredible tracks.

The main part of EXEC_SPHILIA/. is written in 11/8 with a measure of 12/8 every fourth repetition, although it sounds like the meter may change around during other parts of the song. Aside from having a really interesting rhythm, the reason this takes #1 on the list is because, like Treasure Sleeping in the Sand, the unusual meter sounds very natural. That's about the only thing the two songs have in common, though; SPHILIA/. is one of those 'epic rock' songs, being both dramatic and quite heavy. It's also the only vocal track on this list, and the singing really is phenomenal, although it sounds a tiny bit somber to me. Every instrument and theme in this song just blends perfectly together into one big wave of sound. There are really no words that can do this song justice. You really just have to hear it.

There you have it - ten pieces of video game music with wacky time signatures! There were a handful of tracks I wanted to include but simply couldn't, so those that are interested can find the full list below.

As many of these tracks come from fairly obscure games, I hope I've introduced some readers to some new tracks and perhaps some new games as well! And hopefully the next person who plays Ocarina of Time after reading this will be counting 10s and 13s in their head when they reach the boss battle.

Super Metroid - Mother Brain (7/8)
SOCOM Fireteam Bravo 2 - Dry Riverbed (7/8)
Ocarina of Time - Fairy Flying (3s and 5s)
Atelier Iris 3 - Visiting the Ancient Castle (7/8)
Kingdom Hearts - Hollow Bastion (5/8)
Utau Oka ~Harmonics FRELIA~ (11/8 breakdown)
Mega Man X2 - Crystal Snail (13/8)
Ocarina of Time - Boss Battle (10/8)
Mass Effect 2 - Suicide Mission (7/8)
Castlevania 3 - Overture (11/4)
TaQ - Holic (7/8)
Chrono Trigger - Sealed Door (10/8)
Iji - Seven Four (7/8)
Dragon Warrior IV - Battle Theme (8+10+13+7+7 breakdown)
Persona 4 - Reasoning (7/8)
Mario Kart 64 - Results (11/8)
Star Ocean 3 - Mountains of Barr (7/8 and 4/4)
Final Fantasy VII - Cinco de Chocobo (5/4)
Chrono Cross - Drowning Valley (5/8)
Final Fantasy VIII - Don’t Be Afraid (5/8)
Mana Khemia - A Gap to the Darkness (10/8)
Contra 3 - Stage 1 (7/8)
Panzer Dragoon Orta - Ancient Weapon 1 (7/8)
Final Fantasy VI - Dancing Mad (15/8 and others)
Street Fighter 2 - Sagat's Theme (11/8)
Mother 3 - Strong One (Masked Man) - (29/16)
Grim Fandango - Lost Souls Alliance (5/4)
Final Fantasy Tactics - Bloody Excrement (7/8)
Psyvariar 2 - True Last Boss (7/8)
Donkey Kong Country - Bad Boss Boogie (29/8)
Final Fantasy XIII - Boss Theme (5/4 and 3/4)
Ar Tonelico - EXEC_LINCA/ (5/8)
Ar Tonelico III - METHOD_HYMMELI/.(6/8 with others)
Ar Tonelico II - EXEC_SOL=FAGE/.(5, 6, and 7)
Super Mario RPG - Weapon's Factory (13/8)
Chrono Cross - Battle Theme (9/8)

List by Kwing (09/24/2013)

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