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.

[Update: video removed]

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.

Related: Psychoacoustics

63 thoughts on “Music in 5/4 time

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. Great site. I’ve really liked late 20th century pieces of music that are in either ‘5″ or “7” time, such as of course Dave Brubeck’s classic. And I’m not trying to be too picky here, but I’m pretty sure that “Money” by Pink Floyd is in “7” time.
    On a somewhat different plane — your name caught my attention because a good friend of mine is also named John Cook (different middle initial, tho’) and for many years we both followed the career of the U.S. golfer John Cook.
    Tale care, Cornell Kimball

  4. My favorite in 5/4 and 5/2 has always been “Mars” by Gustov Holst. I played that piece a few times when I was in grade school “A long time ago…”

  5. Pingback: Dave Brubeck and Berkshires Jazz Youth Ensemble
  6. don ellis wrote a lot of pieces in unusual time signatures. and of course turkish, greek, bulgarian etc folk music is FULL of sevens, fives, irregular nines, etc….

  7. Take Five was not” formed” by Dave Brubeck, it was composed by the alto sax player Paul Desmond . Tragically Desmond gets scarcely any acknowledgment for what has turned out to be a standout amongst the most famous jazz tunes ever. Aside from Las Cuevas de Mario by Art Pepper, De Coupage by Stan Kenton, Living in the Past by Jethro Tull, Money by Pink Floyd and River Man by Nick Drake I am unable to consider numerous different tunes written in 5/4. On the off chance that anybody can think about any others I’d be happy to know about them.

  8. Hi John,

    I appreciate your posts. Thoughtful and insightful!

    A quibble, though. The Sarah Sadler version of “How Deep the Fathers Love for Us”, is not set in 5/4 meter, but rather, in alternating bars of 4/4 and 6/4.
    She starts each phrase with a pickup note on the last beat of the preceding measure, and the harmonic changes occur on the downbeat.

    It could be argued that she is singing two bars of 4/4 followed by a 2/4 bar but from a melodic and lyric perspective, I think the arrangement uses the additional 2 beats in the 6/4 bar as a thoughtful pause, much as a church organist may insert between 2-4 beats between verses of a hymn.

    I particularly like the undulating meter that results every 10 beats, but I don’t hear (or feel) 5/4.

    Thanks in any case, for introducing her version of one of my favorite hymns to me!


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