Christopher Doll (Rutgers University, USA)


Considering the overwhelming majority of Western popular music is in some kind of 4/4, the rare track in 5/4 is going to stand out. The few, brief scholarly engagements with such outliers (Biamonte 2014, Osborn 2014, Murphy 2016) have treated them as examples of abstract theoretical phenomena—non-isochronicity, Euclidean rhythms, Platonic-trochaic successions. By contrast, this paper identifies rhythmic similarities between several of these 5/4 songs that are far more specific than what these abstract concepts capture. These similar features are so specific, in fact, that they suggest a direct historical connection between these otherwise disparate songs. A natural question, then, is when and where do these features originate? This paper argues the likely fountainhead of these shared 5/4 elements is the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s cool-jazz hit “Take Five” (1959).

“Take Five” exhibits a 5/4 meter grouped as 3+2, fleshed out with two additional looping patterns: cross-rhythmic accents before 3 and on 4 (in Joe Morello’s snare drumming and Brubeck’s piano bassline), and accents before 2 and on 3 (in Brubeck’s right-hand chords). This specific groove was mimicked in Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme song to the late 1960s’ television series Mission: Impossible, a possible mediating influence on the numerous 5/4 songs that emerged soon after, particularly in British pop-rock: e.g., Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past,” Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock-musical anthem “Everything’s Alright,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks.” These 5/4 songs share much more than their odd meter; their parallel rhythmic profiles are suggestive of direct—conscious or subconscious—influence. “Take Five” is the earliest hit to include all these features, likely making it the original source for subsequent appearances, a small but significant intertextual lineage hitherto unappreciated.