It's no secret that Led Zeppelin loves playing with rhythm. And one of their favorite stunts is establishing a rhythmic expectation early in a song, then thwarting that expectation later through a compositional technique known as rhythmic displacement. I have several examples in mind, and I'll dedicate one blog for each.
To start, let's look at “Dazed and Confused”, the fourth track of Zeppelin's self-titled debut album from 1968. The first thing heard on the track is John Paul Jones' bass playing two measures, each consisting of four chromatically descending tones, and each with an anacrusis - what I'll call “The Dazed Motive” due to its rather wobbly feel.
That Dazed motive is heard a total of 16 times. The first eight instances (heard consecutively from 0:00-1:13) all start on beat one, as illustrated above. But the last eight instances (heard four times from 1:21-1:57, and another four times from 5:11-5:45) all displace the motive one full beat – they all start on beat two, as illustrated below.
But it's not just Jones' bass that is displaced – it's Robert Plant's vocals, as well.
At first, Plant places the syllable “fused” from “confused” on the downbeat (0:18), delineating the official start of the first verse.
And he does the same phrasing (but with different lyrics) with the second verse (0:55).
But with verses three and four, his entry is delayed one beat. Since verse 4 begins with the same lyrics as verse 1, it makes for an ideal apples-to-apples comparison.
Additionally, Jimmy Page's guitar is also displaced one beat. I won't provide examples for that, however, since it's identical to Jones' bass.
In fact, the only instrument not displaced is John Bonham's drums. And it's the percussion that confirms that a displacement has indeed happened. Because obviously if the drums were displaced one beat, just like every other instrument, then this would be a case of changing meters – not displacement.
Since changing meters is another favorite rhythmic technique of Zeppelin, it's slightly surprising that we don't find more meter changes in “Dazed and Confused”. Their rhythmic instability could be put to good use in a song with this title. And yet, there are just two instances of measure(s) in a meter other than 12/8.
The more obvious instance comes during the up-tempo middle section, from 3:30-5:02, where a metric modulation of eighth=quarter yields a fast 4/4 meter.
The less obvious but more significant instances comes at the end of the second verse (1:09), which is abbreviated by one beat from a 12/8 bar (as it was in verse 1) to a 9/8.
After this single measure of 9/8, the pitched instruments are consistently displaced while the drums are not. So this 9/8 measure might be thought of as the catalyst for the subsequent rhythmic displacement. And it's for that reason that this 9/8 measure is my personal favorite measure in the entire song :-)
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.