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

56 thoughts on “Music in 5/4 time

  1. 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…”

  2. 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….

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

    Michael

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