Trained musicians know what the words “in one” mean. Occurring most often when the meter signature is 3/4 (or 3/8), the designation “in one” signals the performing musicians that, although the music appears to have three beats in a measure, the “feel” involves only one pulse per measure. Put another way: when music is written in 3/4 or 3/8 but designated “in one,” each single pulse has three component parts. Each of these pulses might be further grouped—commonly, in twos, threes, or fours. It’s relatively uncommon, though to have other groupings, such as five.
This post is about the rare music “in five”—particularly, about three flawed Christian songs in quintuple meter. I suppose I should mention the likes of iambs and spondees and trochees and dactyls, although I really don’t speak that language. It might be worthy of note that the commonly studied “iambic pentameter,” with its five pairs of syllables, is probably most often recited¹ in alternating groups of four and two—six total pulses per line, with the last one silent, like this:
Even five is is rendered in a kind of six here. My point is that rhythms “in five” are relatively unnatural for most of us.
The first flawed one in five
In the mid-90s, I wrote an a cappella worship song that began in 5/8. It was called “Not To Us,” and its words came from Psalm 115. It was intended for a performance group with high-level abilities, but it was really a disaster. This song lit up my own spirit at the time, and a few other sets of eyes might have widened when I shared it, but there was no real chance for the piece to have been sung with any success. Oh, I suppose the rhythmic conception was fine, emphasizing “not” and “us” and de-emphasizing the preposition “to” as the last syllable of a dactyl, but it’s too awkward a pattern for most folks to latch on to. It was a plus that the song didn’t stay in 5/8 for long, and it did have a very dramatic, expressive ending, but its main value was in its creation, not in any future use scenario. Mostly a fail.
John G. Elliot wrote “Unto the King Eternal” based on the words of 1Timothy 1:17. This song involves a more convincing application of 5/8 than my own song above. The poetic diction of the phrase “unto the King eternal” semi-naturally falls out in five, but actually, the way this comes out is in four with two long beats and two shorter ones. This has the effect of having two flat spots in your tire.
Below, I’ve diagrammed the layout of 16th notes, 8th notes, syllables, and accents. If you’re not really a musician yet are interested in this, try this step-by-step procedure, before or after examining the diagram:
- saying the numbers 1-10 fairly quickly (and repeating without pause between 10 and 1)
- then adding stress on the numbers 1, 4, 7, and 9 (again, repeating)
- then saying the words “unto the King eternal” in the same rhythm and tempo, with “King” and “-ter” receiving double the time of the other syllables
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (16ths) 1 2 3 4 5 (8ths) un - to the King e - ter - nal > > > > (accents/beats)
What this amounts to is two dactyls (123456) followed by two trochees (78910). And the 5/8 meter works for about that long, but the rhythm breaks down when the 1st and 2nd endings are in 9/8 without proper syllabic emphasis. Not as much a “fail” here as in my song, but there’s still some questionable rhythmic conception at work.
And the third
Bob Kauflin’s arrangements are frequently heard on Glad’s albums, and they can excite the spirit and the musical sensibilities. Kauflin is a skilled craftsman who understands both music and words deeply, and I have envied him. For all his adept treatment of notes and voices, though, Kauflin didn’t succeed, in my opinion, with an extended 5/4 section in his arrangement of Deborah and Michael W. Smith’s “Great is the Lord.” The result is an awkward song that limps (as rhythms in groups of 5 tend to do!), would-be tribute to God’s greatness. In the realization, the song ends up calling far more attention to its own quirky, flat-sided rhythm than to God.
Epilogue: Four, Five, and Six (in five)
On the upside, Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” works really well in 5/4. It was famously performed by a quartet that played together all the time; they could gel beautifully in this relatively unusual meter. Gustav Holst’s “Mars” movement from The Planets, also famously in 5/4, is a masterwork. Mark Camphouse, one of my top-20 wind band composers, writes in 5/4 in short bursts, and it always seems to work well for him. In short bursts, mind you: Camphouse allows his music to experience a sense of repose in 4/4 or 3/4 after the rhythmic tension of 5/4.
After respectful nods to the above composers and a few others, most of the rest of us ought to stay away from writing in five very often.
¹ I don’t know if the modern recitations I’ve heard of iambic pentameter resemble how it was read in prior centuries. Perhaps the five iambs were rendered more truly “in five” in earlier times. Relatively modern Greek dances (art-music types, anyway) seem more comfortable in asymmetric meters such as 5/8 and 7/8, so it could very well be that music of other cultures and eras doesn’t play by the same rules as contemporary, European-based music.