Adventures in Music - Classical, Pop, Rock or Jazz

What do the Beatles, Tchaikovsky and Dave Brubeck have in common? For one thing, some of their music have  unusual time signatures, in particular the quintuple or 5/4 time. This would not have been such a big deal, had musicians and listeners been more adventurous, which was rarely the  case during the baroque and classical periods; and rarer still in popular or even progressive rock.

Tchaikovsky used the quintuple meter throughout  the second movement of his Pathétique Symphony; which gave the lilting melody an added pungency. More common instances involved mixing or alternating   5/4 meter with other regular rhythms. The “Promenade” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition  in one of three original piano versions, is an example. This became even more common with the post-romantic and early twentieth century music, as in the opening movement “Mars..” from Holst’s The Planets, or the well-known bacchanalian from the concluding movement of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.





Evolving Styles, from Dave Brubeck to the Beatles & Pink Floyd

Popular and rock musicians came under the influence of these stylistic innovations during the later half of the last century. To start with, the Beatles did not write their music as such. The score was written down later, or transcribed  often by others, always faithful to the original harmonic progression  and rhythmic structure of the songs. There can however be   no doubt or guesswork about George Harrison’s famous  song “Within you Without you”, which is clearly in 5/4 time. So  is the controversial Lennon/McCartney(?)  number “Happiness is a warm Gun”.

It is not known whether in pop or rock music this is consciously experimental, rhythmic innovation, or just happens in the head so to speak. A melody or a simple tune depends on repeated beats, slow or fast, to stay in the head, be catchy or become popular, and a ‘regular’ beat is essential for achieving that. For rock music and beat-driven pop, the regular is defintely  4/4 or 2/4. For ballads, mainstream and melodic or  sentimental music, the regular can also include 3/4, 6/8, etc. But 5/4, 7/8 or  more exotic time signatures are very rare even in classical music and jazz until recently.  Familiar examples in the pop/rock genre include Pink Floyd’s “Money” (7/4 mixed with 4/4 guitar solo)  and The Beatles’ “All you need is love”  (7/4).

ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

This trend most likely started with Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet. This is probably a spoiler to mention Take Five  - their  famous “experimental” album of unusual meters including  the almost self- revelatory number “Take Five”  in 5/4 time, which became an overnight sensation and the eponymous album, against all expectations, went platinum. This inspired generations of “serious” pop, rock, jazz and heavy metal  musicians, starting in the early sixties and still continuing today. The parallel with the comparable trend set  by Stravinsky, Bartók or Messiaen  in classical music during  the early twentieth century, is unmistakable.

Influence of Classical Music

In fact, the symbiotic relationship of modern classical music and jazz had started about that time,  with Ravel, Honneger, Gershwin, Copland, Kurt Weil  and of course, Stravinsky being the trendsetter  in many aspects of style. It used to be  said that after Stravinsky irregular meters became more of a norm rather than the exception.

Dave Brubeck studied with the French Composer Darius Milhaud who encouraged him to pursue Jazz and cross-genre music. Milhaud himself was strongly influenced by Stravinsky, and was in turn  a great influence on  new music pioneers like Stockhausen, Xenakis, Steve Reich et al, in addition to Brubeck. Milhaud  himself  experimented with rhythmic asymmetry and shifting meter,  which must have inspired Brubeck. The indirect but distinct  influence on  progressive rock and modern popular  music is obvious.

Today's Mega Stars & Yesterday's Classical Composers

Megalomaniac media super stars and many popular musicians of today are often seen flaunting their excesses and eccentricities as a trend-setting novelty without probably ever realizing that these antics are antiques indeed! The same with many "new age" practioners, psychadelic 'gurus' and so on.

In fact,  all these spectacles and the musical extravaganza were started more than a  century ago by Scriabin who fascinated his contemporariess and influenced and inspired the later genrations not only by his unique music but also with his innovative multi-media concert spectaculars.

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la mȇme chose!"