CHOW, Chris: Cognition of Odd Time Signatures, Specifically 5/4 Time in 20th Century Western Music

Wikis > Final Projects > CHOW, Chris: Cognition of Odd Time Signatures, Specifically 5/4 Time in 20th Century Western Music

by Chris Chow

The vast majority of Western music that we listen to today is composed in meters of either three or four beats (e.g., 4/4, 3/4, 6/8). However, compositions in many genres have explored somewhat more rare time signatures, such as 5/4 and 7/4, hereto referred to as “odd time signatures”. Late 20th century genres like progressive rock and “math rock” even combine seemingly chaotic sequences of ever-changing time signatures into coherent (to some) compositions. Of course, these kinds of complex time signatures have been prevalent in other musical cultures for a much longer time. However, I intend to focus on a series of questions regarding the use of 5/4 in 20th century music. The first question explores potential reasons behind the scarcity of compositions in 5/4 compared to “common” time signatures: why is 5/4 less prevalent than 4/4 or 3/4 as a “standard” time signature? The second question explores how listeners perceive 5/4 in musical applications: mainly, are listeners able to easily perceive groupings of five, or is 5/4 perceived as a purely compound meter? Hopefully, experimental results would help to answer the underlying question: Is there an inherent cognitive reason for an affinity for music written in 3/4 and 4/4 that explains why 5/4 is not as commonly used for musical composition?

I was attracted to this topic mostly through my involvement in musical performance, as well as listening. The first time I experienced an odd time signature was listening to the 1959 jazz composition “Take Five”, performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet (to be discussed). The conscious switch in mindset required for me to understand this piece is what interests me in odd time signatures. Another piece I plan to discuss is Victor Wooten’s “Zenergy” (1999), a jazz-fusion piece featuring several time signatures that I explored by playing the drum part. It is interesting to compare the use of 5/4 in different pieces, as although the time signature is the same, the perceived pulse can differ drastically.

To answer my questions, I will first need to examine specific aspects of Western musical notation. The constraints of notation greatly affect the ability of composers. Secondly, the experimental portion of my study would involve the creation of varied sound samples, consisting of simple tapped patterns, each with an unaccented version and a version with an accent on each beat one as if the sample were a beat of five. Listeners (non-musically trained), looking at the notation, would be asked to draw in measure lines. Results would be analyzed, looking for the tendency to group notes into 4 or 3 on the unaccented samples, and 5 or combinations of 3 and 2 on the accented samples. This would help to identify the ability to perceive groups of five, or confirm that groups of five necessitate division into smaller groups.

Musical Excerpts:

Bradford, P.R. (1995). The Aural-oral difficulty levels of selected rhythm patterns among kindergarten children. University of Oklahoma, DA9542131. Retrieved from

This is an experimental study designed to test the ability of children to discern rhythmic patterns aurally and orally. While the abstract is not too specific, Bradford does emphasize that subjects were least successful in duplicating “unusual” paired division/elongation patterns.

Jordan, J.M. (1989). Rhythm learning sequence. Readings in Music Learning Theory, 26-36(386).

Jordan describes Edwin E. Gordons principles for the basis of rhythm, based on natural body responses. One of the layers of rhythm is macrobeat, the largest unit of pulse that the body can move comfortably to. He then characterizes “unusual meter” as including macrobeats of unequal length. This is reminiscent of London’s uneven subdivisions (see below).

London, J. (2004). Hearing in time: psychological aspects of musical meter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

London discusses odd meters with respect to his cyclic model of the measure. He postulates that these odd time signatures are partitioned into smaller units in order to achieve “maximal evenness”, allowing attention to be effectively distributed over the course of a metric cycle. Also, he states that these non-isochronous meters promote a different sense of accentuation, in that a higher level of periodicity is perceived without necessarily making a downbeat obvious.