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Why the Gorillaz’ “5/4” Isn’t Actually in 5/4

The virtual members of the Gorillaz: (from L to R) 2D, Noodle, Murdoc Niccals and Russel Hobbs.
The virtual members of the Gorillaz: (from L to R) 2D, Noodle, Murdoc Niccals and Russel Hobbs.

If a music lover happens to be a fan of both technically complex music, and popular genres like rap, electro, hip-hop, and dance EDM, then the Gorillaz’ 2001 self-titled, debut album will be an endless source of deep musical enjoyment. Boring synths devoid of all expressive personality in the form of monotonously tedious 4-bar structures are pretty much ignored, in favor of musical textures and songs that re-invent themselves between each and every single bar.

A particularly glowing example of this is the second track on the album, a song that is likely a major reason why the “creator” of the Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, has earned several Grammy nominations. To begin with, the title of the song — “5/4” — is a reference to the song’s meter… But is it? That questioning qualifier is important, as we’ll see after a quick look into this song’s music theory. First, listen to the track and see if you can tell what’s going on with the time signature:

+ Read more on Flypaper: “4 Tips to Help You Start Writing in Irregular Time Signatures”

The chord progression vs. the rhythm pattern

For a pop song to have a meter of 5/4, of which there are very few examples, would mean that every measure has five quarter notes inside of it. The feel of such a meter is essentially unbalanced, because there is an uneven number of quarter notes in the song. This would stand in strong contrast to the usual meter of almost every other pop song out there. And when “5/4” begins, the song actually does appear to be in this complex meter.

To start the song off, a rickety, grizzled electric guitar hammers out hard double stops in a bluesy, flattened key whose chords are grouped together into repetitions of five 8th notes. The entire chord progression starts over only after that group of five 8th notes has been played two full times. As long as there are no drums, the title of the song fits the musical situation perfectly.

But then the drums come in. We hear the snare drum and bass kick work together in an unexpectedly normal, straightforward way. The drums are, in contrast to the guitar, playing a straight, 4/4 meter. The bass kick of the set plays on the first and third quarter notes of a possible 4/4 meter, while the snare plays right on top of the second and fourth quarter notes of that same 4/4 meter. Because the dominant feature of the musical texture, the drums, fits into a meter that is much more common, this song maybe should have been called “4/4” instead of “5/4.” While the meter so far seems up for question, the dynamic level of each respective group of instruments — drums and guitar — is not.

The drums are much, much louder than the guitars. With a bumpier low end, and a sharper high end, the drums dominate the mix. Because of this, any interpretation of the music as a whole should rely on first figuring out what the drums are doing, rather than what the guitar is doing, which is how a misnaming like “5/4” would occur in the first place. For these very reasons of orchestration, dynamic level, rhythm, meter, performability, and stereophonic mixing, 4/4 is a much better meter for this song to be notated in, rather than the titular 5/4.

A transcription of the Gorillaz’ song “5/4” in 4/4.
A transcription of the Gorillaz’ song “5/4” in 4/4.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Learn to compose more complex music with our brand new course, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft. Sign up now using code FLYPAPERSENTME and get 20% off!

Is it worth changing, though?

Laying down a 5/4 rhythm in the drum pattern would solve the consistency issue, but it wouldn’t necessarily make the song sound better… Let’s look at why a 5/4 interpretation could actually come with some undesired musical implications in either the studio recording or a performance context.

To see just how incorrect a 5/4 interpretation is, take a look at what the transcription of this song in 5/4 would be for the drummer. This sheet music would require the drummer to treat each of the five quarter notes in the meter as having a strong accent at one moment, and then a weak accent in the very next bar. This is the opposite of what transcriptions are supposed to do, which is to make music easier to play. Playing rhythms that constantly shift their accent in this extreme way is one of the hardest things any instrumentalist can ever be asked to do. While a guitarist would be asked to change their accents in 4/4, the guitarist is responsible only for guiding themselves; the drummer directs both the other instruments and the general motion of the song.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “The Ins and Outs of Recording Your Guitar ‘Direct In'”

A transcription of the Gorillaz’ song “5/4” in 5/4, more difficult than it has to be for playing by the drummer.
A transcription of the Gorillaz’ song “5/4” in 5/4, more difficult than it has to be for playing by the drummer.

In contrast, there is another song on this album that, although structured similarly, does not fall into the same trap as “5/4.” In “New Genius (Brother),” Albarn’s stereophonic production complicates the overall meter of the song, without confusing it. In other words, it does not try to fit a 3/4 pattern into a 4/4 box.

The cymbal hits (which sound a bit like metal bowls) that open this track at a quiet, pianissimo level in the far right corner of the stereo spectrum, are actually playing in 3/4. The drummer (or sample) plays each of his three tuned cymbals just once for a single quarter note, in repetition. As a result, a musical idea whose length — three quarter notes — is out of step with the meter’s four has been sent to the back of the musical picture via panning.

The same type of musical trickery (making use of the production techniques of stereo mixing, dynamic level, and timbre) is at work just as brilliantly in “New Genius (Brother)” as it is in “5/4.” In both cases, Albarn uses a stable meter to keep the songs accessible, while integrating an off-meter element to keep things interesting. But in the “New Genius,” Albarn didn’t name the song after the incorrect time signature…

To recap, “5/4” isn’t in 5/4 time because the drums are deciding the meter, not the guitar part. The guitar part, instead, is changing its starting rhythmic position several times over the top of the 4/4 structure of the bar, but not changing the structure of the bar itself.

Even if the song’s musicians are thinking in complex groupings of 5, they are playing in more straightforward groupings of 4. The following audio clip is a rough rendering of what a version of “5/4” that’s actually in a 5/4 meter might sound like, with the guitars played louder and the drums’ role made smaller:

 

You can’t say Damon Albarn doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. This is theory and mixing production working hand in hand, and music is pretty darn complicated. To decide what a piece of music is doing at any point in time relies not just on describing the piece’s meter, or its orchestration, or its harmony, melody, dynamics, or anything else, but how they all work together.

At the end of the day, though, any fan of incredibly original music should never want to be the one to tell a Grammy-nominated artist to rename one of his best songs from “5/4” to “A 5-8th Note Rhythmic Phrase Repeated Twice Over a 4/4 Metric Backbeat.” If such creativity comes at the cost of music theory education, then that is probably more than an even trade-off.

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Martin Connor
Martin Connor

Martin Connor is a music teacher and writer from Philadelphia, PA, with a B.A. in Music from Duke University who is currently studying for his M.A. at Brandeis University. His research is focused on the vocal melodies of the rap genre and he teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace.  He is a contributing writer for HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and has had multiple articles from his website go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. His forthcoming book, The Artistry Of Rap Music, due out in late 2017 via McFarland Publishing House, is a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to their anthology, Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race.

  • Robert Hosier

    It’s undoubtedly worth mentioning, though, that the composite of the drum pattern and guitar pattern only align and repeat every 10 beats. That would be 2 and a half bars in 4/4, and odd place for a cycle repetition, or 2 even bars in 5/4, a normal place for a cycle repetition. So, although the drums become the dominant rhythmic force, they still cannot commandeer the most sensible way to think about the composite, which remains in 5/4.

    Instances of logic like this can be seen frequently in notated music, and I can think of a few examples by Stravinsky that do exactly this seemingly-counterintuitive insistence on the weaker meter. I believe it is a violin concerto of his where the conclusion is written in 3/4, but everything except for a few solo parts is written in an oom-pah, strongly suggesting 2/4. Still, because of the solo parts in 3/4, the composite makes more sense as 3/4 so he sticks with that.

    • Hey Robert! Thanks for commenting; this is Martin, the author of the article. Your point here is well taken:

      >So, although the drums become the dominant rhythmic force, they still cannot commandeer the most sensible way to think about the composite, which remains in 5/4.

      Honestly, I struggled through multiple iterations of the notation before arriving at my conclusions. I did several versions of it, using 5/4, 5/8, 4/4, double-time, straight time, and other ways, before settling on my examples.

      Although your identification of how “the drums become the dominant rhythmic force” is a correct location of a major point of my article, it only gets us halfway, so to speak. The drums are the dominant rhythmic force, as I still assert now, but that piece of knowledge, left alone, is incomplete. The other necessary point of knowledge is that notation is only ever structured in a way to make the playing of any music as easy as possible. The identification of a “composite,” here, is really besides the point; I’m only talking about the meter with regards to what is easiest to play, which should be the only goal of well-crafted notation. Simply put: to count this song in 5/4, while playing it, would be unnecessarily complicated. Notation is NOT the music; it’s the music, simplified for transmission across time and space for replication elsewhere, and time signatures are, in themselves, only notational objects in the first place.

      >It’s undoubtedly worth mentioning, though, that the composite of the drum pattern and guitar pattern only align and repeat every 10 beats.

      If you insist on this point, then that doesn’t mean that 5/4 is your only option; you also could do a series of 4/4 + 4/4 + 2/4 meters, which, as you probably already know already, is reflected in modern notation as well. Additionally, while the drum and guitar align after every 10 beats, sections change at divisions of 20 beats, into which 4/4 meters can, indeed, be fit.

      Thanks Robert! Again, it’s a tricky series of interpretations that lead me to an arrival at 4/4, or a series of duplet meters, in which “5/4” is played. The answer is clear-cut, to me, but only after a lot of work. If you insisted on 5/4, you’d also have to simultaneously grant that the same meter’s very own accents are simultaneously treated differently between two different instrument which, while not impossible, is very nearly almost so. In any event, feel free to hit me up at [email protected] if you want to keep going! haha

      Peace,

      Martin

      • Ben Salazar

        Hey Martin,

        First off, love the article and your analysis on the meter. Just wanted to give my two cents on why the song is named “5/4”. Although it does make a lot of sense to chart the piece in 4/4 for the reasons you outlined, but it is undoubtedly a 5-over-4 polyrhythm which is reinforced by the 10 bar phrase. So it’s not so much that the song is in 5, but it is in “5-over-4”, which is how I read the title. Mostly semantic, but I think the paradigm is important.

        • Cory J Henry

          Actually, it’s a polymeter and not a polyrhythm.

        • Yeah, but if he had just named the song “5 Over 4,” then I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to write about it for FlyPaper!!! haha 🙂

          Best,

          Martin

      • Josh Prescott

        In my estimation, notation can both be for ease of reading and the analysis. Looking at the way the song is structured and how the parts all work, I’d say there are a few different things happening here. First, I would analyze the guitar part on its on as being in 5/8, not 5/4. Once the drums come in with strong accents on 1/4 notes, it makes a stronger case for thinking of this guitar part as being in 5/4, with the part kind of oscillating between starting on a downbeat and an upbeat. Then, looking at the actual phrasing of the drums, it’s easiest to interpret this as 4/4, but when combined with the guitar phrasing, it seems that it has to be in some sort of odd meter or polymeter. Now if we look at the vocals and their phrasing, things get a little more complicated. As you all have mentioned, everything eventually lines up to be able to be analyzed in 4/4 (20 bars total), but thinking of it this way takes away from the reality of the phrasing and doesn’t convey its meaning. I’d say that you could either think of this as being in 10/4, 4/4+6/4, or 4/4+4/4+2/4. I prefer 4/4+6/4 as far as how to think about it because the vocals seem to have the feeling of a downbeat/start of their phrase on beats 1 and 5, but I think that 4/4+4/4+2/4 spells out the reality of the phrasing best because the last two beats seem to be more of an extra space as opposed to part of the previous 4 beats.
        When I think about notating this and the balance between analysis and ease of reading, I feel like 10/4 is probably best, perhaps specifying the phrasing a little further next to that in parentheses, such as “10/4 (4+6)” or “10/4 (4+4+2)”. This allows us to have a consistent meter and not have to actively think about switching from meter to meter. This would allow a drummer to properly interpret the phrasing and know automatically where any sort of fills should be placed or where the real downbeat is that they might choose to place a crash cymbal. Beyond that, and this may be the most important part, choosing this sort of time signature allows all members of the band to be able to communicate about the song without having to decode the language the other person is using, eg, the downbeat of bar 2 for the drums is the second eight note for the guitar and they would either be using different language to describe this, or one of them would have to do the math to say it in the other person’s lingo.
        The choice of meter for analysis, to me, affects many aspects of interpretation, which could very much impact the ability of a group of musicians to practice this all together with efficiency.
        Also, great article. I love when people actually analyze music, especially genres that typically don’t receive an analysis. With the subjective nature of analysis, it’s hard to say anyone is wrong but I can’t help but argue my interpretation.

  • Jen

    If you’re allowed to be fussy enough to argue why 5/4 shouldn’t be titled 5/4 (in a very informative and interesting article), I’m allowed to be fussy enough to inform you that, like Pixies and Deftones, Gorillaz is a standalone band name that does not have “The” in front of it. Damon Albarn was the creator of “Gorillaz,” not “the Gorillaz.”

    But back on topic, this issue was briefly addressed in Rise Of The Ogre, the autobiography for Gorillaz, where the guitarist tries explaining the 5/4 timing and the bassist brushes her off to declare “The song is just off time.”

  • Dan Rusic

    Out of curiosity, could the 5/4 song be in actuality a 5:4 time.. That is, a loop of 5 against a 4 (kind of like the 3:2 structure in Carol of the bells). Just curious.

  • Marco Frey

    Just because there’s a hemiola backbeat (every other quarter note) doesn’t mean it’s not in 5. We fit bars of three or added bars of two into 4/4 all the time. Why should the same not be allowed for 5? It’s really just a matter of semantics but it’s not fair to say one is correct and the other is incorrect. Even if you wrote it in 4/4, the verse is based around 5 bar sections (where the backbeat realigns with the 5 rhythm in the guitar riff.

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