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  • Graham Abbott

High Fives: Music in Quintuple Meter

Updated: May 14, 2020

In this post we’re going to look at a phenomenon which, although it’s been part of music for centuries, is still regarded as unusual. If I asked you to beat time with a march, or a waltz, it would be pretty easy to do. But the traditional groupings of music into two, three, four or six beat units are of course not the only ways in which musical beats can be organised. Different beat groupings have been used and it’s not exactly a modern phenomenon, either. While it is common for music written before - and even since - 1900 to use two, three, four or six beat groupings, from time to time composers have written their music in groupings of five beats. This is quite apart from music which uses sevens, tens, elevens or other groupings, and music which changes meter frequently. Today’s post explores some of the music written in five, and I think you’ll be surprised at how “normal” it can sound.



A lot of music from non-Western cultures, especially in Asia, uses quintuple meter. But as far as what we might call “western music” is concerned we can find traces of music written in five-beat units in what tiny fragments remain of ancient Greek music. Modern Greek traditional music uses a lot of music grouped in sevens and fives, so it stands to reason, perhaps, that ancient Greek music should show this trait as well. This is the music known as the First Delphic Hymn, one of earliest examples we have of western music, dating from the second century before the Christian Era. A lot of this music is grouped in five beat phrases stressed in patterns of three plus two, that is, 12345 12345. [listen]


Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The use of five beat groupings in western music was virtually unheard of before the 19th century except where there were strong influences from non-western or folk cultures. For example, there is a very rare use of five beat groupings in this secular song by the Spanish composer Juan del Encina, who was born in 1468. Encina’s songs were strongly influenced by popular traditions and they also relate strongly to the rhythm and emotional content of the text. This song, Amor con fortuna, dates from the end of the 15th century is - like the Greek song we heard - in five beat bars, grouped in three plus two. The five beat groupings will be most clearly heard in the instrumental interludes. [listen]


Bust honouring Juan del Encina in Leon, Spain

I only know of one western composer in the 18th century who used five beat groupings - and who actually wrote them in a time signature of 5/8. Remarkable as it may seem, this composer was Handel. In his 1733 opera Orlando, the second act concludes with an incredible mad scene. The title character’s mind has snapped with the turmoil of his situation and he imagines himself in the Underworld, crossing the river Styx in Charon’s boat. To show not only the rockiness of the imagined boat in the waters of the river, but also the instability of Orlando’s mind, Handel amazingly writes four bars of 5/8 in which the notes ascend within the bar but descend from one bar to the next. In this performance, the 5/8 bars start at the 1’28 mark. Three of the quintuple bars are heard together, then there’s a long note in the orchestra before the fourth. [listen]


Denner: George Frideric Handel (late 1720s)

The fact that Handel used quintuple meter to describe madness shows, perhaps, that composers weren’t ready in the 18th century to use five beat groupings as a “normal” metrical grouping. In the classical period in particular, the period of Mozart and Haydn where balance and form were underpinning assumptions, to group beats in uneven patterns such as five would have been anathema. It really wasn’t until the 19th century that composers started to see expressive possibilities in quintuple meter.


One the earliest to do so was the young Chopin. His first piano sonata dates from 1828, nearly a century after Handel’s Orlando. Chopin, aged 18, was still a student at the time, and the sonata wasn’t published until after his death. This attractive work, though, has a slow movement in the time signature of 5/4. Far from implying madness or anything out of the ordinary, Chopin’s use of quintuple meter is gentle, flowing and natural. Again, the internal stressing is largely three plus two, although at times it feels like a regular 4/4 bar with an extra beat added. Here is one of the first uses, if not the first use, of quintuple meter as a natural and expressive metrical structure in its own right by a mainstream composer.


This video (with score) is of the entire sonata, played by Leif Ove Andsnes. The movement in question starts at 14’17. [listen]


Wodzińska: Frédéric Chopin (1836)

In the later 19th century it seemed that Russian composers were the most willing to include quintuple meters in their music. Most adventurous of all in his use of unusual metrical foundations was Anton Stepanovich Arensky, who was born in 1861. In 1881 he wrote his piano concerto in F minor, a remarkable work in the grand romantic tradition which should be heard more often. The last movement, titled “Scherzo-finale”, is in 5/4 time and unlike most of the music we’ve explored so far it favours a metrical subdivision of two plus three: 12345, 12345.


Again, this video (with score) is of the entire work. The finale starts at 18’25. [listen]


Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1895)

A composer of an older generation who was a keen supporter of Arensky was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. When he heard Arensky’s piano concerto in 1885, Tchaikovsky wrote to him saying, “Pardon me if I force my advice on to you... It seems to me that the mania for 5/4 threatens to become a habit with you.” For his part, Tchaikovsky flirted with quintuple meter on more than one occasion. In the Eighteen Characteristic Pieces of 1893 there is a “Waltz in 5/8” [listen], but perhaps his most famous use of five beats in the bar came in his last symphony. Written in the same year - 1893 - which was also the year of his death, the elegant second movement of the “Pathétique” symphony is in 5/4 and it too has the feel of a waltz, although it would be rather difficult to dance to! In the central trio section, the pulsing two plus three of the five beats in each bar creates a real sense of yearning, coupled as it is with descending phrases, so characteristic of Tchaikovsky in general and this symphony in particular. [listen]


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1893)

With the growing interest in abstraction and asymmetry in the arts generally in the 20th century, it’s only reasonable that music post 1900 should make more use of quintuple meter. In 1903, Ravel used a driving five beats in the bar, often played with incredibly energetic tremolo, in the final movement his string quartet. [listen]


Rachmaninov’s tone poem The Isle of the Dead, written a few years later, also conspicuously uses quintuple meter [listen] but perhaps the most famous early 20th century use of 5/4 (and 5/2) is in the opening movement of Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets. The hammering rhythm of “Mars, the Bringer of War” is in 5/4, stressed three plus two: 12345, 12345. In the first section of the music, Holst writes a phrase which interrupts the five crotchets of each bar and suggests five minims across two bars. He takes this up literally in the middle section which is in 5/2, sinisterly building up to the explosive return of the 5/4 rhythm in the final section. This movement was completed in 1914, shortly before the start of World War I. [listen]


Gustav Holst (c. 1921)

Mars is well-known; what is perhaps forgotten is the fact that the last movement of The Planets - “Neptune, the Mystic” - is also in 5/4 and what a different effect it has! The tempo is slower, and the volume is extremely soft, but the division of the five beats is the same as in “Mars”: three plus two. Dating from 1915, this music has inspired many imitators. [listen]


Quintuple meter as a means of expressing tranquillity can also be seen in the music of Aaron Copland. The “Corral Nocturne” movement of the Rodeo ballet (written in 1942) is largely in 5/4, with the odd 4/4 passage thrown in. In the score Copland marks with dotted barlines how the quintuple bars are to be stressed. The gentle displaced bass notes provide a feeling of being “just right” rather than unsettled. For all its rhythmic asymmetry, this music is remarkably calm. [listen]


Aaron Copland (1962)

Outside the world of what we might usually call “classical” music, quintuple meter has made some notable appearances. Perhaps the most famous use of five beats in the bar is in Take Five, written by Paul Desmond. Paul Desmond was the sax player in the Dave Brubeck Quartet and their recording of the piece in 1959 became an instant hit. [listen]


Paul Desmond (R) with Dave Brubeck (1954)

A number of Dave Brubeck’s pieces in the early 60s also used 5/4 time, but it was Lalo Schifrin who created the piece with perhaps the most famous use of quintuple meter in popular TV culture. This music plays around with the internal accenting in a remarkably sophisticated way. Far from being in a mere two plus three or three plus two grouping, this piece is based on dividing the five beats into four, with the ratio 1.5 plus 1.5 plus 1 plus 1. Or if you like, two dotted crotchets plus two crotchets. There are other rhythmic crossings in the saxes, but let’s not get too carried away. This famous piece was written in 1966. [listen]


Lalo Schifrin (2006)

In 1971, Andrew Lloyd Webber used quintuple meter in Jesus Christ Superstar. Mary Magdalene’s song “Everything’s Alright” is not only in 5/4 grouped in three plus two, but it’s underpinned by exactly the same rhythm as we heard in Take Five. It works really well in this somewhat different context. [listen]


Andrew Lloyd Webber (2008)

As our final example of music in quintuple meter we go to music from the late 1960s written by Ian Anderson, who was also inspired by Take Five. Anderson is credited with bringing the flute to rock music and this piece is performed by the band of which Anderson was - and still is! - a member, Jethro Tull. Called “Living in the Past”, the music occasionally moves out of quintuple meter but the main thrust of the piece is very five-beat oriented. The composer is playing the flute as well as singing in this TV appearance from 1976. [listen]


Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson on flute)

I seem to recall that the original Keys To Music program on which this post is based was the one which spanned the greatest distance in terms of music history: we started with ancient Greece and ended up with Jethro Tull, music more than 2,000 years apart. Quintuple meter is a really fun element to music, used by so many composers in a so many different contexts. Keep your ears out you; you never know when it’ll pop up some time!


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2007.

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