The Anthropological Reason It Feels Weird to Dance to Brubeck's 'Take Five'

Reading the scholarly literature on Dave Brubeck's funky time signatures

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Dave Brubeck

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday, will be remembered for recording one of the most beloved jazz melodies of its era: 1959's distinctive, serpentine "Take Five," which was written by Brubeck's collaborator Paul Desmond (well, maybe it was a joint effort) and performed by their band, The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME EXPERTS WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: There's another reason why the popularity of "Take Five" is remarkable: It's performed in a musical structure that people in the Western world often show cognitive resistance to.

Most Western music is dependent on a structure with two, three, or four beats in a measure—or some multiple of those—with even spaces between the emphasized beats. As Justin London, a music professor at Carleton College, puts it in "How to Talk About Musical Metre," "Western music theory, from the 19th century through Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983) has presumed meter to be inherently isochronous." In other words, when you tap your foot to a common piece of Western music, be it one by Katy Perry or Tchaikovsky, your taps will have regular time intervals between them.

"Take Five," though, is written and performed in a 5/4 time signature, as my jazz-fan colleague David Graham mentioned yesterday—meaning there are five beats per measure. (Hence the title.) When there are five, seven, eleven, or almost any number of beats in a measure that doesn't divide evenly into twos or threes, the beats can become non-isochronous—meaning the emphasized beats, the ones you would tap your foot along with, aren't evenly spaced. For example: Try clapping along with the original Mission: Impossible theme, which is also in a 5/4 time signature.

Time signatures like these are often known as "irregular," "complex," or "asymmetrical" time signatures.

"Irregular" time signatures are anything but unusual in other parts of the world—some musical cultures from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Balkan Peninsula commonly use metric structures that don't follow the same set of rules as Western music, according to an article called "Synchronization and Continuation Tapping to Complex Meters" for a 2006 edition of Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

But people raised in North America often have a particular trouble with irregular time signatures. The authors of the Music Perception article conducted a study in which participants were asked to tap along with recordings of drum patterns played over Balkan folk melodies in irregular meters, then continue tapping out the rhythm once the drum pattern was turned off, then in the absence of both the drum pattern and the melody. North Americans, they found, had difficulty producing complex metrical patterns—even those with, as the article specifies (kind of amazingly), "high amounts of tapping experience and music training." Their tapping frequently stretched out to resemble something more like an even beat.

Studies have also shown that the Western preference for even, symmetrical rhythms is a learned behavior. The Music Perception article cites an earlier study that found that

young infants have little difficulty perceiving timing disruptions of musical patterns in both simple and complex meters, while North-American 1-year-olds and adults only perform accurately in the context of simple meters (Hannon & Trehub, 2005a, 2005b). These data suggest that North American adults' difficulty with nonisochronous meters arises from learned representations of Western meters and not from the intrinsic difficulty of complex meters.

So perhaps if you listen to enough music by the famously outside-the-box Dave Brubeck Quartet—or other stuff with a funky time signature, like Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" and Pink Floyd's "Money," which both have sections in 7/4—it's still possible to train your brain differently. Better yet, sing it to your baby at bedtime and he or she might grow up to be as musically innovative as Paul Desmond.

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. As Leonard Meyer explains in Emotion and Meaning in Music, disturbances in the expected meter can create doubt and tension. When they're employed temporarily in music that's otherwise structured around a four-beat measure, listeners become "uncertain of the outcome" and eagerly await the return to a normal meter and harmonic progression.

Given that "Take Five" is an entire composition structured in an irregular time signature that most of us aren't used to, maybe there's something to Graham's description of Brubeck's opening piano riff as "ominous."

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: "Take Five" didn't just transcend the rules of jazz—it also transcended what was once a rigid rule of Western music. A real achievement, even if it is a little hard to dance to.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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