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Much of the music that we encounter on a daily basis consists of quadruple time, or more simply, four beats per measure (even when sometimes it sounds like it isn’t). However, asymmetrical meters, otherwise known as “irregular time signatures,” have been utilized in a plethora of classic tracks in music history, as well as in many current tracks today.
Asymmetrical meters include but are not limited to time signatures such as: 7/8, 7/4, 3/16, 9/16, 5/8, and 5/4, to name a few, and there are even many examples of songs that combine different time signatures throughout.
Today though, we’re going to listen to 10 classic songs that make creative use of either 5/4 or 5/8 time — and why don’t we start with kind of an obvious one.
1. Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Take Five”
One of the first tunes that comes to mind with a time signature of 5/4 for many of us is The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 tune, “Take Five.” This jazz standard was originally composed by alto saxophonist and member of the quartet, Paul Desmond. Along with Desmond, the recording features Gene Wright on upright bass, Joe Morello on drums, and Brubeck on piano. Quintuple time is presented at the top of the tune with a swung groove in 5/4 played on the drums. Next, Brubeck introduces his iconic two-chord ostinato between E♭ minor to B♭ minor7. The E♭ minor chord is comped for the first three beats of the measure while the B♭ minor7 is accented on the last two beats of the measure. Therefore, the pattern in this case is 3+2. Wright soon joins the piano groove with the bass emphasizing this 3+2 pattern before Desmond introduces the main melody in the alto saxophone. Even today, “Take Five” is considered one of the most consulted by musicians learning to play and feel the asymmetrical 5/4.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Rondo, Rondò, or Rondeau? They Sound the Same But They’re All Different!”
2. Lalo Schifrin – “Main Theme” from Mission: Impossible
Arguably, one of the most recognizable themes in television and film history is the main theme from Mission: Impossible. Originally composed in 1966 by Argentinian composer, Lalo Schifrin, the theme has been rearranged and re-orchestrated several times throughout the entirety of the franchise, including a rearrangement by U2 members, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. in 1996. The orchestral track begins with an iconic trill in the flutes before presenting the main ostinato in the bass and low brass. The main ostinato in the bass plays the pitches: | G G B♭ C | G G F F# |. Although only four notes, the first two pitches are held for a duration of a dotted quarter each while the last two pitches are played for a duration of a quarter note each. Thus, this represents the quintuple time of 5/4.
Fun fact: Since the last two beats are emphasized, this is an example of a 3+2 pattern. Schifrin used the morse code for “M.I.”, which is portrayed as “_ _ ..”, and decided to use dotted quarters to represent “_” while using quarter notes to represent “.”
3. Guthrie Govan – “Fives”
Currently on tour with Hans Zimmer, Guthrie Govan has had a fruitful career as a solo recording and touring artist as well. His studio album, Erotic Cakes, was released in 2006 and shocked guitarists around the globe for its technical mastery and tasteful shredding. Aside from Guthrie on guitar, the album also features his brother, Seth Govan, on electric bass and Pete Riley on the drums. Govan’s tune, “Fives,” is conveniently also the fifth track on the album, and features the quintuple time of 5/4. Similar to Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the tune starts with an intricate drum groove in 5/4, however, Govan introduces strange guitar noises as an elemental textural effect. A syncopated guitar playing an A minor 11 chord is introduced just before the main melody is presented in unison between the guitar and the bass. Whether the pattern is 2+3 or 3+2 is not particularly clear until the guitar and the bass move away from the unison melody. Once Guthrie introduces a new melodic motif, the feel of the pattern is more clearly representative of a 3+2.
4. John Carpenter – “Main Theme” from Halloween
Considered one of the most horrifying films in history, the 1978 horror classic Halloween, features a score by the film’s own director, John Carpenter. The score is minimal with mostly piano used to portray the darkness of the antagonist, Michael Myers. The main theme is played in a 10/8 or “complex 5/4” time signature. The theme begins with the piano in a high register playing single notes with the primary intervals being a perfect fifth and a minor sixth. The theme is transformed often and goes through a variety of sudden key changes to represent the unstable psychological state of the murderous Myers. What’s most impressive about the score is that Carpenter composed and recorded the entire score for the film within three days!
And we’ve written about this particular theme before in “What Happens When You Mess with the Keys of Iconic Movie Theme Songs?”
5. Cream – “White Room”
Unlike the above examples, “White Room” by British rock-band, Cream, only utilizes the quintuple time signature of 5/4 in the opening of the track, including its reintroduction two other times within the song. The verses, choruses, and guitar solos are all played in quadruped time or in 4/4. The recording features guitar legend, Eric Clapton; Jack Bruce on bass and lead vocals, Ginger Baker on the drums, and producer Felix Pappalardi on violas. The 5/4 beginning is presented in sustained power chords with chords only changing on the downbeats. The progression includes: | G minor | F | D minor | C || G minor | F | D minor | C | A minor ||. The progression is based on the G Dorian mode and creates a tantalizing mood. The distinctive 5/4 section was said to be added by Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “An Intermediate Guide to Chord Tones and Tensions.”
6. Sting – “Seven Days”
Featuring A-list musicians such as David Sancious on keyboards, Paul Franklin on pedal steel guitar, Dominic Miller, and studio legend, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums; “Seven Days” is a track on Sting’s 1993 solo record, Ten Summoner’s Tales. “Seven Days” represents the quintuple time signature of 5/8 and features the drumming virtuosity of Colaiuta. The predominant intervals in the harmonic motif are the root and the fifth for the beginning. The root is held for two beats while the fifth is accented just before beat three. Beats four and five are tacet in the harmony while the drums continue to groove. Because of this, I would consider it to be a 3+2 pattern. Sting is masterful at composing and playing in an irregular time yet also creating a sense of stability for the listener.
7. Muse – “Animals”
Progressive-rock band, Muse, released their second album entitled The 2nd Law in 2012 featuring Matt Bellamy on vocals, guitars, and keyboards; Chris Wolstenholme on bass, and Dominic Howard on drums. The song “Animals” features an asymmetrical meter of 5/4. Additionally, Howard describes the song as the album’s most political song, as it represents bankers “who gambled everyone’s money and ended up putting countries in debt.” The track begins with a sombre-like electric piano motive followed by a driving drum and bass groove. The overall pattern is a 3+2 and remains for the entirety of the song. Although not uncommon for progressive groups, the use of asymmetrical time signatures creates a sense of instability as it supports the overall concept behind the politically-charged message.
8. Radiohead – “Morning Bell”
Released in 2000, Radiohead’s fourth studio album, Kid A, sounds just as fresh and contemporary as if it were released this year. Featuring a collection of experimental electronic pop and ambient tracks written collectively by Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Thom Yorke, the album’s ninth track, “Morning Bell” features the quintuple time signature of 5/4. The track begins with textural sounds behind a repeating drum groove playing in 5/4 before the electric piano enters. The rhythm of the electric piano motive suggests a 3+2 pattern. Lead vocals soon enter and sing around the harmonic ostinato in the electro piano and the repeating drum groove. The overall mood is sombre yet hopeful with the incorporation of major chords.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “A Harmonic Analysis of Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’.”
9. Nick Drake – “River Man”
Nick Drake’s “River Man” is the second track on his 1969 album, Five Leaves Left, and features the asymmetrical time signature of 5/4. Known for his liberal use of alternate guitar tunings, Drake’s “folk Baroque” track begins with an acoustic guitar comping in a quintuple feel as the lead vocal sits on top. The harmony is quite intricate with the use of both major and minor chords to evoke a hypnotic sound. The opening chords playing out in a quintuple feel include: C minor(add9)/G | E♭9/B♭ | A♭ | C7 (b5) ||. “River Man” is unique as most folk style songs are composed in a quadruple feel, however, Drake’s decision to write in 5/4 contributes to the haunting yet beautiful mood of the song.
10. Gustav Holst – “Mars” from “The Planets”
One of the most referenced orchestral pieces by film composers in Hollywood includes Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite entitled, “The Planets, Op. 32.” The seven-movement orchestral suite was composed between 1914 to 1917 and features the names of planets of the solar system for each movement. The first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” features the quintuple time signature of 5/4 for most of the duration of the piece, particularly in the “marching” ostinato. What’s interesting here is that most marches in the classical idiom are presented in a duple or quadruple time signature, yet Holst’s addition of an extra beat creates an uncommon, asymmetrical feel. The 5/4 marching ostinato consists of an eighth note triplet, followed by two quarter notes, two eighth notes, and another quarter note; equalling a total of five beats per measure.
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Andre Madatian is a composer, film scorer, and guitarist with placements on major national TV shows on Bravo, TLC, CBS Sports, Oprah Winfrey Network, and more. Andre holds a Bachelor of Music Degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. He’s written major orchestral works, including a string quartet for the famous Kalistos Chamber Orchestra, and is currently touring nationally and around the world as a guitarist in a country/rock band based in Nashville, Tennessee.