Pyramid Song

Album: Amnesiac (2001)
Charted: 5


  • Lead singer Thom Yorke wrote this. He based it on a song by the Jazz player Charles Mingus called "Freedom."
  • This originally contained handclaps, but the group didn't like how they came out and erased them.
  • Radiohead performed this at some of their shows before releasing it on the album. It was known as "Egyptian Song."
  • Their albums Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded at the same time, but Amnesiac was released a few weeks later.
  • In 2003, this was used in a public service announcement for forest fire prevention in the US. Radiohead never allows their music to be used for commercial purposes, but Thom Yorke thought this was a good cause so he let them use it for $1.
  • This was written by Thom Yorke after a visit to an exhibition of Egyptian art, during a two-week sojourn in Copenhagen in 1999. He told MTV: "That song literally took five minutes to write, but yet it came from all these mad places. [It's] something I never thought I could actually get across in a song and lyrically. [But I] managed it and that was really, really tough. [Physicist] Stephen Hawking talks about the theory that time is another force. It's [a] fourth dimension and [he talks about] the idea that time is completely cyclical, it's always doing this [spins finger]. It's a factor, like gravity. It's something that I found in Buddhism as well. That's what Pyramid Song' is about, the fact that everything is going in circles."
  • According to Colin Greenwood, it was the image of "people being ferried across the river of death" that most affected York. This is reflected in the song's many references to Dante's imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Divine Comedy. These include the black-eyed angels, a moon full of stars and jumping into the river.
  • Yorke hammered out this track's chord progression on a baby grand piano that he had bought, in rejection of Radiohead's guitar-led past.
  • The siren - like sonic undertow was produced by Jonny Greenwood's ondes Martenot, an unusual Theremin-like device invented in 1928.

Comments: 44

  • Javier Olmedo from Los Angeles, CaIt's a 4/4 swing everybody! Learn it while tapping your foot to a quarter note, place those chords properly - and voila! It's also easier if you listen to it in context with the drums. You can hear Phil quietly keeping a quarter note on the ride cymbal. Good luck all!
  • Emphyrio from UsaThis song will remain forever linked in my mind with The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, which I was reading at the same time that I first heard Pyramid Song. The mood of the book and the song are identical. Not close, IDENTICAL. Pyramid Song = Night Land. The book is about the future of the earth after the oceans have boiled off. There is a pyramid at the bottom of the earth, where there used to be sea, and it is the last redoubt of humanity. This pyramid is a central part of the story. I wondered if this might have inspired the song, but that is probably conjecture on my part, based on a strong subjective impression. If you are interested in reading Night Land, be forewarned. It is a classic of the flawed masterpiece genre. A tale of romantic love a the end of the world, the epic scale, incredible horror, and sheer originality of the concept overpowers the often incompetent writing.
  • Gene Akimov from Vaughan, OnThe song is in 4/4 at 106 bpm (approx) I thought it was poly-rhythmic myself at first but no... What he does is he basically plays 5 chords over 8 beats (2 bars). That's right, 2,5 chords per measure in 4/4 time. I forgot the right musical term for that. I loaded it into a DAW, set the rojects to 106 bpm and realized that. Then I sliced up the first 8 bars of the intro and found that the 3rd chord - G is slightly longer then the first 2 and the following 2. That creates this dragging feel. Very clever of Thom. A true masterpiece.
  • Emily from Sf, CaI think the best way to count it is to hear it in eighth note groups of 3 and 2. I hear it as 3-2-3-3-2-3-3-2-3-3-2-3 for one complete pattern. I hear those grouping into 5-8-8-8-3. It's a lot easier to hear when the percussion comes in.
  • Adrian from Hadley, MaI TAKE THAT BACK! I'm pretty sure it's just 3|2|3|2|2|2|2. So, 5/4, 5/4, 6/4??? I dunno. I give up. Enough procrastination. Back to my economic history paper.
  • Adrian from Hadley, MaListen to the outro - it's the easiest to count it then.
  • Adrian from Hadley, MaHaha I got in a really long argument with a music MA student friend about this once. I'm not classically trained myself, but I do disagree with Matt/John, as well as Rudi... I count it as 123|12|123|12|123|123, and I'm *fairly* sure that's right... I think John's right about it being in 16/4. So if you wanna be a stickler about it, you could say it's two measures in 5/4 and one in 6/4.
  • Caroline from Cincinnati, OhI, too, have the sheet music that says 9/8 9/8 6/8, but I definitely feel it as 9/8 6/8 9/8. Once you think of it that way, it actually makes sense and feels natural.
  • Colin from Bradford, EnglandThis song is being used as the backing music for the Discovery History Channel programmes to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic
  • Murilo from São Paulo, BrazilOn the time signature, personally I prefer the division by Bertram Malle, Eugene, OR; I think it adjusts better to the chord changes (though not perfectly). I have a difficulty on choosing triplets or swing; if you choose triplets, the first two notes, e.g., get 5 and 4 16ths. Also, if you think of jazz you choose swing, but if you think of british folk music you may choose triplets (and Radiohead is full of that, e.g. "How to Disappear Completely" or anything from the first two albums).
  • Colin from Bradford, EnglandThis song is currently being used in the UK as the backing music for some Discovery History channel trailers.
  • Zach from Lakewood, CoAll your time signature guesses are wrong in my opinion. Each downbeat is either a triplet or a quadruplet. 123 123 1234 123 123 123 123 1234 123 123
    10/8, 9/8, 7/8,6/8 repeat. It is a 33 beat phrase and this is the easiest division of it.
    Jumped in a river what (10/8) did I see (9/8), 7/8, 6/8. The piano accents these downbeats.
    It works better to count that way than try to estimate when exactly a dotted note end in the next time signature and 4/4,
    and why keep time in a time signature that doesn't even have any downbeats match up with major beats and 33 beats does not fit in 4/4, nor 9/8, 9/8 6/8
  • Koshmar from London, United KingdomPeter, Niagara Falls, get out of your superior arse and stop having a hissy fit at everyone. That's the beauty of being in a forum. Opinions are like arseholes - everyone has one, some of you actually are one....
    We all agree one thing - Pyramid Song is a piece layered with beauty and depth, complicated to the 9th degree and all the better for it...
  • Jeff from Huckleberry, BahrainIt's 4/4 guys. Measures 1 and 2: Dotted quarter, dotted quarter, quarter note is tied into the quarter note of the next measure ( which is played as a continous note with the value of a half note ), followed by two more dotted quarter notes. That makes two perfect measures of 4/4 my friends. Repeat repeat repeat. That's the whole song. It takes 4 measures of 4/4 for Thom to sing one line to the next. You count from 1 to 16 using quarter note values to hear the rhythm repeat.
  • Jeff from Huckleberry, BahrainSome of you people over think this time signature stuff. The rhythmic pattern is based on divisions of 4 dotted quarter notes followed by a half note. But since Radiohead starts the song on the the third dotted quarter note of such a rhythm...the song has to be written as two dotted quarter notes, followed by a quarter note that is tied over into the next measure with another quarter note, which is then followed by two more dotted quarter notes. Repeat repeat repeat! That's 4/4 my friends. Each time Thom sings a new line in the takes 4 measures...whioch is why some people believe the song is 16/4 which isn't untrue.. If you count from 1 to 16 using quarter note values, the rhythm repeats itself. It is just hard to read measures of 16/4 on it would be reduced to 4/4. When you write it CORRECTLY on can visually see a repeating 8/4 pattern.
  • Peter from Niagara Falls, OnOh and David, one more thing. You also said, and I quote "all pretty doomy but the uplifting chords and strings at the end mean there is hope"

    The chords at the end are the same as the rest of the song in an ever so slightly different pattern, and "uplifting"? Are we even listening to the same song?
  • Peter from Niagara Falls, OnTo David from Los Angeles who commented -

    "Way too much preeeeetension here, which is what Thom and Radiohead are very anti. This song takes a lot from jazz rhythm and that in itself is pretty complicated but the song itself is a simple expression of the end of time/the world/life - all pretty doomy but the uplifting chords and strings at the end mean there is hope. Which is what I wish I could say about some of the self-absorbed contributors on here. Stacy, TX - let your work do the talking, we don't need to be broadcast about your performing, eh?"

    First of all, the most pretentious comment I've read on this page is yours. There are a lot of legitimate musicians looking to learn and discuss the seemingly misleading time signature of this song because they respect it and want to learn more about it. There is nothing pretentious abou that. And, yes, you are right in your comment that Radiohead is anti-pretentiousness, but I doubt that they would have a problem with people wanting to analyze their songs.

    Meanwhile, your comment 'the song itself is a simple expression of the end of time/the world/life' - - what does that even mean?

    Also your comment 'Which is what I wish I could say about some of the self-absorbed contributors on here' - - There's no need to be insulting. This is an open forum, and when searching for answers on the internet I personally appreciate a diverse source of input, and many different opinions on a given subject. A diversity of subjectivity is what gives topics an objectivity. And reader boards like this are perfect for that type of thing.

    This song (The Pyramid Song) by the way is one of my favourite radiohead songs, and I am a fan of all their songs, so you can imagine how hard it is to narrow it down.

    The song evokes emotion far beyond it's rhythmic phrasing, and the heart of this song is unaddressable with mere words
  • Dan from Rochester, NyFirst of all, this song is very hypnotic- I have listened to it like 5 times in a row now and can't seem to bring myself to stop and travel to my other school to teach Chorus like I am supposed to be doing! The meter issue is certainly divisive. Everyone that has posted something about the time/meter has a good point. I think John from Lenexa, KS got it the most right for me. I hear the 3/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 + 3/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 the best. If those divisions are too small for you, try 5/4 + 6/4 + 5/4, but even those numbers don't really show the tonal rhythm very well. Any song that garners this much discussion is a winner in my book!
  • David from Los Angeles, CaThis song isn't based off of "Freedom" by Charles Mingus. However, the Radiohead song "We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up)" off the album "Amnesiac" is. There are clear similarities between "freedom" and "we suck young blood" - go take a listen!
  • Koshmar from London, United KingdomWay too much preeeeetension here, which is what Thom and Radiohead are very anti. This song takes a lot from jazz rhythm and that in itself is pretty complicated but the song itself is a simple expression of the end of time/the world/life - all pretty doomy but the uplifting chords and strings at the end mean there is hope. Which is what I wish I could say about some of the self-absorbed contributors on here. Stacy, TX - let your work do the talking, we don't need to be broadcast about your performing, eh?
  • Caroline from Cincinnati, OhYep, I hear 3-2-3 3-2-3 (or "9/8 | 6/8 | 9/8 | 9/8 | 6/8 | 9/8.") The sheet music I have says 9/8 | 9/8 | 6/8.
  • Rob from Ypsilanti, MiWell... technically... the way it is recorded the song is in 12/8 (similar to 4/4 but it is a triple meter feel). this is very clear when the drums enter. you could feel it as 9/8, 6/8, 9/8 (sim. to 3/4, 2/4, 3/4 in duple meter). a time signature is just used to break up the music in a logical way for the performer to interpret.

    similar to "The Rite of Spring" being written out in 4/4. It is the same music but has a different feel and is in turn interpreted differently.
  • Waxpowtry from Hoboken, NjIt is in 4/4, and it's actually an extremely simple rhythm. Interestingly, if you play it fast and with straight 1/8ths, it sounds like an old 80s rave or hardcore riff. It's the phrasing of the melody that makes it seem more complicated than it is.

    You can feel it as 2 bars of swing, or 1 bar of shuffled sixteenths, either way accomplishes the same thing. As sixteenths, Rudy already laid it out: 123-123-1234-123-123 etc etc. same rhythm that is used in countless pop and urban songs, usually with the kick drum. For example, follow the kick in Drop It Like It's Hot, shuffle the 16ths, and add that last chord that falls right after the last beat.
  • Dave from Cardiff, Wales.. Red Guitar does not have one particular chrod structure in it anyway. And I know several people at the time of PS's release when I used to play David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees album a lot who remarked, "Blimey, this souinds like Radiohead's new song". So I know I'm nort alone in that. If you think they're dissimilar then fair enough, but don't cynically disregard my comments like that!
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesI can only conclude that Kristian from Cornwall has never heard Red Guitar. OK I admit they are not "identical" and I exagerated that remark, but they are similar, and I've perfect hearing thanks a lot!
  • Stacy from Denton, TxOh and by the way....

    "anyone who thinks this is in anything other than 4/4 has actually fallen for the very trick Yorke intended."

    Are you buddies with Thom? Did he reveal his intentions to you? How do you know this?
  • Stacy from Denton, TxKristian from Cornwall England... I didn't mean for it to be condescending. I was simply asking if there were any classically-trained musicians because I was curious if anyone else heard it the same way I did... and we tend to over-analyze things, yes. My boyfriend is a jazz musician and he hears the song in 4/4, whereas I hear it in a different time signature. I just believe that people with certain training interpret it differently... I'm sorry you took offense to that. And thanks for the advice about how to make it as a composer, but I'm not a composer, I'm a performer.
  • John from Lenexa, KsYou folks are making it more complicated than it needs to be. :) Honestly some time signatures are dependent on the listener's perception, with the final word coming from the musician of course (but how often do we hear the final word about an arrangement from its writers?). Two bars of 7/8 might actually sound like 7/4 to another (listen to the instrumental sections between verses of Dance on a Volcano by Genesis). 9/8 + 7/8 might actually be two bars of 4/4 to another ("Lie" by Dream Theater comes to mind). Listen to the opening and closing of The Grudge by Tool and tell me if it's in 5/16, 5/8 or 5/4. Then ask yourself if it really matters. ;)

    Matt, what you said is how I've always heard it. I count out the quarter notes, making it 3/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 + 3/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 - which of course equals 16/4 and could be heard by another person as a simple 4/4.

    Regardless of how you hear it, it's a great song. Quite possibly my favorite from Kid A or Amnesiac.
  • Matt from Boston, MaThe song can be though of in triple meters, like so:

    9/8 | 6/8 | 9/8 | 9/8 | 6/8 | 9/8

    That totals 48 eighth notes, which could be thought of as 16 beats of triplets.
  • Eugene from Brooklyn, NyI do agree that it's basically long 16-beat measures with syncopated stress points. But for the sake of trying to match what my ears are hearing and what my brain is thinking, I'm going to go with this subdivision for the 16 beats: 3 - 5 - 8. Repeat.
  • Bertram Malle from Eugene, OrThe song does not have a 7/8, 3/4, 5/8 etc. pattern. The ratio of the longer notes (3rd and 8th at the start) to the shorter notes is 4/3 (I imported the song into Audacity and verified their time distance). So Rudi is right with his 123|123|1234| division, but notation in a 4/4 meter is very awkward and constantly binds notes across the boundaries, which is not how the lyrics are phrased and the drums are played. Thinking of the notes as three eights and four eights works best, as Matthew depicts at However, I don't think that 16/8 is correct, because it doesn't account for phrasing of lyrics, drums and other instrumentation, and the piano's chord changes (especially in the F#min -- E9 section). My best bet would be a 6/8, 10/8, 10/8, 6/8 alternation. I am not sure the text below is going to come through, but here is my attempt to write it out with chords and lyrics (for the first two lines).

    F# * Gmj7 A13 * * Gmj7 * F# *
    1 2 3 4 5 6 | 1 2 3 4 567 8910 |123 456 78910 |123 456
    I jumped in the river, what did I see?

    F#min * E9 * * Gmaj7 * * *
    1 2 3 4 5 6 | 1 2 3 4 567 8910 |123 456 78910 |123 456
    Black-eyed angels swam with me

  • Kristian from Cornwall, England4/4 with syncopated stress points.... who cares about the "Odd time signature" theorists.... they tend to make things more complicated as a way of disguising their lack of ability to resolve to the most simple measure counting method so as to allow the musicians to concentrate on dynamics and feel.

    anyone who thinks this is in anything other than 4/4 has actually fallen for the very trick Yorke intended.... and that's just the tip of the ice burg for this track... count 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a .. at 106 bpm.... the second and fifth chord over every two bars feels early until you realise it's working in dotted crochets....or triplets...

  • Kristian from Cornwall, EnglandSound's exactly like David Sylvian's 1980s hit "Red Guitar" - Radiohead have never named the New Romantic era as inspiration for their music, though.
    - Dave, Cardiff, Wales

    lol...because it's got a piano in it? or because you don't recognise the chord sequence through conditioned ears?

    There's nothing the same about it at all?
  • Kristian from Cornwall, EnglandIt's in 4/4 Stacy, Denton, TX ... damn that's so patronising!!!! "Are there any classically trained musicians out there?

    No...but there are musicians with their feet on the ground and ears on the sides of their heads!

    yes ... different time signatures place the stress points in "Perceivably" different places....but if you're stupid enough to subdivide to great complexity, a song of which is essentially based on a two bar ostinato in 4/4... then you ain't gonna make it as a composer ...

    play the dots love...leave the hard bits to the rest. lol!

    only joking...
  • Stacy from Denton, TxAre there any "classically" trained musicians out there? If you listen carefully, you'll find that the song is in a repeating pattern of 7/8, 3/4, 5/8, and 2/4. It completely makes sense, because it makes the phrasing so that it ends up equal every time.
  • Garoud from Arica, ChileI feel is an amazing song, and hear it throug a couple of breaking off a romantic relationship, does it better for me than pearl jam.

    the video is also pretty good and for a fwe of my friends...this a song we sing almost in a hush remembering our fallen
  • Ben from Bristol, EnglandThis was the song which made me hate Radiohead before i listened to it properly and now it's one of their best tracks in my opinion
  • Jon from Columbia, MoThis song, to me, feels eerely remeniscent to Pink Floyd's Saucerful of Secrets/Ummagumma era. I can't get over Thom's hypnotic vocals and piano.
  • Mark from Boston, MaMany paralells can be drawn between this and The Inferno by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The very last line of The Inferno is very similar to "a roomfull of stars and astral cars". Also, the entire theme of seeing old love ones and familar faces are present in both works, as well as references to boats and fallen angels.
  • Curtis from Fremont, Cait's in 4/4. if you want to count in 16ths, that's fine. that would be 16/16. the first number is how many beats per bar, and the second number is what kind of beat do you play. ie, you play 16 16ths note per bar. subdividing rhythms is very common, and if it counts out to 4/4, then it's in 4/4. saying 16/16 is like saying Porsch-UHH instead of just Porsche. don't be a douche
  • John from New York City, NyActually the song is in 16/4 time. There's no way even if it is subdivided it can be 4/4. If you count out in 16/4 time if fits perfectly.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesSound's exactly like David Sylvian's 1980s hit "Red Guitar" - Radiohead have never named the New Romantic era as inspiration for their music, though.
  • Rudi from Melbourne, Australiathis song actually doesn't have an unusual time signature. in fact, it's in common time (4/4). it just has unusual subdivisions. if you listen closely, the song is divided into subdivisions of 16ths like this: 123|123|1234|123|123, which equals 16 16th notes in a bar.

    also, i think the song is about a man who drowned and about heaven. first he jumps in the river and drowns. subsequently he sees angles who take him up to heaven (through a 'moon full of stars and astral cars'). in heaven, 'all his lovers are there with him', and there's nothing to fear and nothing to doubt'. sounds a lot like heaven to me.
  • Colin from Silver Spring, MdPyramid song, in my opinion, is a track about the world approaching its end (another one of Thom's greatest fears) and a journey through a survivors eyes.
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