Music in 5/4 time

Time signatures in music are written like fractions. The numerator tells how the beats are grouped into measures. For the vast majority of Western music in every genre — popular, classical, jazz, country, etc. — this numerator is divisible by 2 or 3, but hardly ever by any other prime numbers. Musicians call exceptional time signatures “odd meters” though this is misleading. When they say “odd” they mean “odd numbers other than powers of 3.” For example, musicians would not call 9/8 and odd meter, but they would call 7/8 or 11/8 odd.

The most popular piece of music by far written in 5/4 time was Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. It sold over a million records in 1961 and continues to be popular 50 years after it was written.  Here’s a video of the Brubeck Quartet performing Take Five in 1966.

And here is a mind-bending mash up of Take Five by Radiohead. (Thanks to @explicitmemory for the link.)

Some music written in odd meters sounds like an intellectual exercise rather than a beautiful tune. The music of Dave Brubeck is a notable exception. In addition to Take Five, he composed other popular music in odd meters, such as Unsquare Dance written in 7/4.  (Listen to a sample of Unsquare Dance here.) Another song in 5/4 I enjoy is “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” recorded by Sarah Sadler.

Theme songs for action movies sometimes have music written in odd meters. For example: Mission Impossible, Mod Squad, and The Incredibles.

Update: See the follow-up post on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

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50 comments on “Music in 5/4 time
  1. Shawna Kennedy says:

    Odd-meters are not so uncommon in Middle Eastern and Eastern European music. While less common now due to the influence of Western musical culture, there is quite a lot of Turkish and Romany music in 5/8, 7/8, 9/8, and 13/8 time. Keep in mind too that a Turkish or Romany 9/8 is not subdivided evenly (approximating a waltz feeling), but is usually subdivided as 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3.

  2. I’d never heard the Radiohead/Brubeck song. Cool! Thanks for sharing it!

  3. John S. says:

    In college I roomed with a music major, and he always said that Take Five is not really in 5/4 time, but more like 3 + 2/4. Or something.

    Here is a wikipedia list of songs in odd time signatures:

  4. John says:

    Shawna, thanks! See the next post on Blue rondo a la Turk based on your comment.

  5. Mark says:

    “Take Five” is still one of my favorite CDs. I hadn’t heard the Radiohead mashup — excellent. Another recent song that’s partially in 5/4 time (I’m taking other folks word for it — my technical knowledge of music stops at the “insert CD” step) is “Dirty Second Hands” by Switchfoot (poor quality, but full-length link:

  6. Maria-Eglee Perez says:

    Hi, John! Lovely post. You can also find “odd meters” in Latin American music. Venezuelan “merengue” is many times written as 5/8… even though some venezuelan musicians think it should be written as 11/16!!

  7. Mark Reid says:

    Thanks for bringing the Radiohead/Brubeck mash-up to my attention. Great stuff.

    If you like odd time signatures, you might also be interested in an artist who goes by the name Venetian Snares. Most of his tracks are in 9/8 or some other strange time and a recent album of his was a mix of orchestral sounds and drum and bass. Two stand outs for me are Öngyilkos Vasárnap and Szamár Madár.

    Also, if you are up for a challenge, try to pick the time signature used by Radiohead in their (very haunting) Pyramid Song.

  8. John says:

    Jon, Thanks for the link to the Mission Impossible theme song. I updated the post to link to it. Also, I found the Mod Squad theme on the same site.

    I remember the theme from Mod Squad because we had to conduct it at drum major camp. (I’ve never seen the TV show.) Mod Squad is a challenge to conduct because it changes time signatures many times.

  9. Although it is his most famous tune, Dave Brubeck didn’t actually write Take Five – it’s by the band’s sax-player Paul Desmond.

    Another famous one is Pink Floyd’s Money, in 7/4.

  10. John Venier says:

    For unusual time signature (7/128 for example) as well as general numerological weirdness / complexity I like Crumb’s “Black Angels” — the score is really remarkable to look at, too.

    You might also be interested in “mathcore” exemplified by bands like “The Dillinger Escape Plan”.

  11. Aaron says:

    Radiohead is making music again? I completely skipped “Hail to the Thief” after hearing the single, downloaded “In Rainbows” and deleted it the same day.

  12. EastwoodDC says:

    The music of King Crimson often has odd time signatures, and sometimes even more than one time signature at the same time, which can make for difficult listening.

    Hank Levy wrote many big band pieces in odd times. A sample of my favorite “Time for a Change” in 9/4 time (4/4 + 3/4 + 2/2) can be found here. More Levy samples here.

  13. David says:

    John, maybe I missed it, but nobody here has mentioned what I think of as the most famous 5/4 piece written – Tchaikovsky’s pseudo-waltz movement from his Pathetique Symphony. There’s also a great song from ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (Sensitivity) that is mostly written in that time signature. Thanks for an interesting forum.

  14. Ed says:

    Wow, thanks for that Radiohead mash-up. Very neat.

    I like Radiohead, but Brubeck makes 5/4 sound much more natural than they do.

    Anyway, I posted my own take on songs in 5/4 here. You might enjoy it.

  15. noah says:

    certain genres of metal are played in odd signatures that change all the time. The Dillinger Escape plan is a great example. They were influenced by jazz. I suggest listening to their song “calculating infinity.” It’s just an instrumental song, and it sounds very jazzy. It’s complex.

  16. Larissa B. says:

    I actually have the sheet music for Take five, and it is indeed in 5/4.

  17. “Sky” did “Dance of the Little Fairies” in 5/4 as well, and it was in the same kind of 5/4 as Take Five.

    For a truly mindbending polyrhythmic time signature, check out Gorillaz 5/4, in which the guitars play in 5/4 but the drums in 4/4.

  18. Jordan says:

    Sting’s “Seven Days” is also in 5/4. Definitely has a natural and free sound to it.

  19. Jared says:

    Another common piece in 5/4 is Gustav Holst’s Mars, from his suite The Planets.

  20. Eric says:

    Decoupage on Kenton ’76 is one of my favorite 5/4 songs. Played that in Jazz Band in college. Also tried “Time for a Change” mentioned above, but the horns never quite caught the time signature well enough to be able to perform it.

    I”ll note too that while you said 9/4 isn’t usually considered “odd,” in Time for a Change it’s not 3 groups of 3 like it might be (and which might not be all that odd), but rather a “2-2-3-2″ pattern (I think), which makes it odd.

  21. Radivoje Balkanac says:

    Folk music from Balkans is mostly written in “odd” time signature. Most common are 7/8, 9/8 and 11/8.

    Here is an example of 9/8 in modern arrangement.

    And some of it in 7/8: :)

  22. Suresh says:

    These odd time signatures are quite common in South Indian classical music. 5/8 and 7/8 are often.

  23. Blake says:

    Awesome remix. John. Btw, I just discovered that Take Five still makes $100k per year in royalties. Incredible:

  24. Gage says:

    There’s a song in 5/4… at least partially. Anybody remember ELP?

  25. mnb says:

    If you like odd time signatures, check out Rush, a Canadian Rock Trio Band. They seem to live for odd time signatures as most of their music tries to avoid 4/4.

  26. Johannes says:

    Mussorgsky’s Promenade from Pictures of an Exhibition constantly changes between 5/4 and 6/4. I never actually heard that it switches time signatures, but the sheet music looked weird at first :-)

  27. kim says:

    I want to know more about “odd” time signatures in Pakistani and Indian music and does anyone know about jazz musicians who have incorporated these sounds?

  28. Mary says:

    Another 9/8 is the Irish slip jig (3 groups of 3 per bar).
    Sang a 5/4 hymn in church this p.m. with a very familiar melody (I remember it as an instrumental) by a composer I’ve never hear of (and unfortunately can remember now).

  29. Mary says:

    …meant CAN’T remember…multiple senior moments!

  30. Gary Gapinski says:

    See also “Get Over, Get Off and Get On” in The Blue Yusef Lateef.

  31. Ian says:

    Genesis also tends to use odd time signatures. A good example is Turn It On Again:

    The main riff is in 13, which I’d break up into 6+7, or further into 4+2+4+3. There’s also a prechorus section that I can’t figure out how to count.

  32. patfla says:

    The beautiful second movement to Tschaikovsky’s 6th (and last) symphony really sounds like a waltz (3/4) but is in fact 5/4. I’m a musician (but work as a programmer): Brubeck’s Take 5 sounds like 5/4 – Tschaikovsky’s 2nd movement to the 6th does not.

    Quite a slight of hand.

  33. Jon Peltier says:

    “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull is in 5/4.

    Yes liked uncommon time signatures. Sections of “Close to the Edge” are written in 12/8 for guitar and keyboard, and in 8/8 for bass and drums. “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is all over.

  34. patfla says:

    And (fwiw) Mahavishnu Orchestra had mind-blowing time signatures.

  35. Rod says:

    also in 5/4 … “Do what you like” by Blind Faith (self titled album 1969)

  36. Stuart Buck says:

    Deas Vail’s “Atlantis” is one of the most beautiful rock songs I’ve heard, and the verses are in 5/4.

  37. John M says:

    I adore weird time signatures in music. I hadn’t realized how bizarre Crimson’s infamous “Discipline” is. “During the song the two guitars of Belew and Fripp, respectively, move through the following sequence of pairs of time signatures: 5/8 and 5/8, 5/8 and 4/4, 5/8 and 9/8, 15/16 and 15/16, … and 14/16. Throughout the drums play in 17/16.”

    Only 17/16? Slacker! :)

  38. Stuart Buck says:

    Deas Vail also has a song where the verses are in 7/8 time!

  39. OK, who wants to try and tackle what the title of this 5/4 jazz composition is? It’s from the 1970 edition of Sesame Street. Sounds to me like a library music selection, but I’d give my left armpit to learn who wrote it, what its title is and where I can buy it.

  40. Mike S says:

    The following paper contains a fairly extensive list of music, and musical genres, in time signatures that are not simple variants of 4/4 and 6/8.

    “The Euclidean Algorithm Generates Traditional Musical Rhythms”

    by Godfried Toussaint

    The Euclidean algorithm (which comes down to us from Euclid’s Elements) computes the greatest com-
    mon divisor of two given integers. It is shown here that the structure of the Euclidean algorithm may be
    used to generate, very efficiently, a large family of rhythms used as timelines (ostinatos), in sub-Saharan
    African music in particular, and world music in general. These rhythms, here dubbed Euclidean rhythms,
    have the property that their onset patterns are distributed as evenly as possible. Euclidean rhythms also
    find application in nuclear physics accelerators and in computer science, and are closely related to several
    families of words and sequences of interest in the study of the combinatorics of words, such as Euclidean
    strings, to which the Euclidean rhythms are compared.

  41. Gene S says:

    My grandfather used to play pipe organ for vaudeville and silent movies in the ’20′s and 30′s until talkies terminated his position. The audience often would tap their feet on the wooden suspended floor resulting in a loud beat with his music. When this happened, he would slide into a few bars of 5/8 time music where the tapping would stop after the few bars. He then resumed the regular music to a non-tapping audience. Very clever.

  42. q_the_physicist says:

    odd times aren’t that “odd” at all. they are just additions of two regular times, in this case with “take 5″, the musicians are adding 3 and 2, both normal beats in western music. so when you listen, you are not actually counting to five, but rather counting a “3″ and then a “2″

  43. tony says:

    radiohead now sucks for me because they ruined a classic. get a better voice too btw dude from radiohead

  44. Melissa Perez says:

    Thanks for explaining 5/4 so well! This really helps me! =)

  45. Dieter says:

    A Belgian band that suffered from the simultaneous decline of music sales and the explosion of the number of bands was called Millionaire. Their record “Outside the simean flock” starts with this 5/4 piece. Writing songs in odd measures is not difficult. The art lies in making it sound natural. I think they succeed by and large.

  46. jamie says:

    Most of the songs on “ten summoner’s tales” by Sting are in odd meters, and yet they groove quite nicely. Pretty cool.

  47. Lee Graham says:

    Take Five was not” composed” by Dave Brubeck, it was written by the alto sax player Paul Desmond . Sadly Desmond gets hardly any recognition for what has become one of the most popular jazz tunes of all time. Apart from Las Cuevas de Mario by Art Pepper, De Coupage by Stan Kenton, Living in the Past by Jethro Tull, Money by Pink Floyd & River Man by Nick Drake I am hard pressed to think of many other tunes written in 5/4. If anyone can think of any others I’d be glad to hear of them.

  48. Graham Dukes says:

    In the correspondence on this theme I don’t see a mention of B.C.Hilliam’s song “1-2-3-4-5″ which he composed and sang in Britain in the late 1940′s in his radio show “flotsam’s Follies”. Both the words and the music were catchy, but I haven’t managed to trace a recording or sheet music, though it was published.
    Appropriately, it tells the story of a man (named “Dot-and-Carry-One”) with a malfunctioning leg, who could only walk in 5/4 time. The last verse relates to the end of the evening where he leaves the bar where he has been drinking:
    “When the closing time shout goes
    Down the very last stout goes
    Dot-and-carry-one out goes….he!!!”
    I wish it could be traced!

    Graham Dukes

  49. Dan S says:

    Don’t forget Tarkus

    While 4/4 is considered standard time, for prog rockers standard time is 7/8. That’s what you jam in ;-)

    Tony Banks’ pian intro to Firth of Fifth changes time several times

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