Piebald Part I: “The Monkey Versus The Robot” – Odd-Time Signatures and Key Changes

Piebald undoubtedly hit their peak of creativity and populararity with 2002’s We Are the Only Friends We Have.  While at its root, the band was writing pop-punk songs, they were able to elevate their craft by adding clever and humorous lyrics overtop of odd time signatures and key changes. In Part I of a two-part series focusing on the Piebald, we’ll look at how they do this in “The Monkey Versus the Robot.”

This song was probably not the most popular song on We Are the Only Friends That We Have. That would have to be “American Hearts.” However, by taking simple elements and throwing in some curve balls, I think this may be the quintessential Piebald song of this era.

 The Opening and Verses – 7/4

First, this song is all over the place with time changes and uses them to really build  groove and intensity. Most pop-punk songs are in 4/4 – meaning everything is done in groups of four. There are four beats in a bar and most phrases are four or eight bars long. However, “The Monkey Versus the Robot” opens in 7/4, alternating between bars of 4 and 3. They do this by dropping what would be the 4th beat in every other measure. Most odd time signatures work this way: the odd time is made by either a dropped beat or an added beat. For instance 5/4 (five beats in a measure) often just sounds like  a bar of 4 plus 1 extra beat.

Next, while most bands would slip back into 4/4 when the vocals come in, Piebald keeps the 7 feel going even during the first verse. It’s not easy to sing in 7! Finally, before the chorus (“We’ve got a job to do…”) there is a pause allowing the final verse phrase to actually have 8 beats. This  “extra” beat gives the song momentum leading into the chorus. Usually, you might hear a band play in 4/4, but add or a drop beat to lead into the chorus, but here Piebald just does the opposite – but it has the same effect.

The Choruses – All Kinds of Weird Stuff That Doesn’t Even Sound Weird

Finally, we’re into the chorus, so we must be moving into 4/4, right? Wrong! The song takes another twist and is now in 6/4 and stays this way through the entire chorus. But then halfway through the chorus we get another twist – a key change. We’ve been chugging along in a very comfortable G major, when suddenly it shifts down a minor third to E major – with every instrument playing the exact same part as before, just in a new key.

Changing keys like this is usually pretty jarring, but this key change is not really so strange because E is the relative minor of G major. Because of this our ears feel more comfortable with this key change than with one that is to a totally unrelated key. Finally, the chorus closes by just going straight back to the verse – and back to G major. The reversion back to G works here because of how related the two keys are and the fact that the song is only E major for about nine seconds. That’s not really long enough for your ears to fully switch to E major, making G still sound like home.

After a second verse that follows the form of the first verse, we get a surprise pre-chorus before the “We’ve got a job to do” chorus comes back. This time the band is in 4/4 but is using the same chords as the chorus. This pre-chorus then leads directly into the chorus, giving the chorus (and time change) even more punch. The song then has a simple building section that leads once more the chorus. The chorus plays through, but then the song ends with the pre-chorus vocals overtop of the chorus. This works as a cool variation on the song and ties all of the parts together nicely. All this works to make the ending that much bigger and more satisfying.

This song uses only a few chords and only has three or four sections, but uses odd-time signatures, sudden key changes, and variation to take something relatively simple and really add sophistication to it.

Part 2 on Piebald will look at the use of the minor 7 chord in “American Hearts” as well as other odd-time signatures used on We Are the Only Friends That We Have.

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