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Thread: 5/4 vs 10/8

  1. #1
    Registered User SkinnyDevil's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2004

    5/4 vs 10/8

    So I was going thru some time signatures with a more advanced student, but failed to present the information properly. We were doing a groove in 10/8 and he asked how it was different from playing in 5/4. The groove in question, I thought, made it somewhat obvious (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10) - somewhat like a 9/8 plus an eigth tagged on the ***.

    His response was to play the 5 groove we had done previously with "artificial" accents. Inventive, I thought, but also almost intentionally missing the point. Not sure where he was going with this because he's not very talkative and the lesson was almost over.

    Perhaps someone can give me a better way of expressing these ideas to him?

    Thanx in advance!
    David M. McLean
    Skinny Devil Music Lab
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    "...embrace your fear..."

  2. #2
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    New England
    Being able to explain the subtleties between x/4 and x/8 has always been challenging for me. I thought your example and explanation are about as clear as is possible.

    x/4 can be used to notate grooves in straight and swing 8ths and 16ths and even 8th and 16th triplets. But certainly not in the irregular grouping that you outlined in you 10/8 example. Maybe you might present it as a compound time sig like (3+3+4 / 8). He's right that you can still notate is as a syncopated 5/4 though. The difference is that for some his way might be close enough while your way (or the compound sig) would be technically correct.

  3. #3
    Internet Superstar Rivorus's Avatar
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    Jun 2007
    Watertown, CT
    Quote Originally Posted by Jed
    Maybe you might present it as a compound time sig like (3+3+4 / 8). He's right that you can still notate is as a syncopated 5/4 though. The difference is that for some his way might be close enough while your way (or the compound sig) would be technically correct.
    I agree with this. I almost never write in "odd" time signatures without notating the signature as an additive signature such as "3+3+4/8". Really though, whether you write something out with an additive signature, a simple signature, or a reduced signature with explicit syncopation, is all mostly a matter of preference and just reflects how the composer personally thinks about the rhythm.

    I usually prefer additive signatures since they more directly express in the music (without any comments or explicit accents), the arrangement of beats per meaure and how counting should be performed. It tells you clearly, unambiguously, and with minimal symbols, the high-level rhythm of the following music, and it does so immediately at the time change. This is very helpful since it makes, in particular, sight-reading much more easy to accomplish. Compare this and the examples in the original post.

    First, if you write it in 5/4 with either a comment about the syncopation or consistent explicit accents, you're a little bit ambiguous concerning the intended counting, at least so immediately at the time change. As you know, 5/4 has multiple ways of being counted. Most commonly, is the arrangement of beats to be 3+2 or 2+3? Without explicit notes about syncopation or the performer either knowing the song or looking far enough ahead to notice any consistent accenting and adapting his counting, it is not clear at all how this measure and the measures to come should be approached. What happens if in the measure, a note isn't voiced on an "off-beat beat" which exemplifies the syncopation, or if a note is held from earlier through the aformentioned beat? Here, explicit accents are clearly not going to be of much help, and this particular performer is left questioning exactly what the counting should be. As well, how is the reader to know if the accenting is a consistent high-level rhythm that continues on for the following measures, or if the accents are unique to that particular measure? Pretty much the best you can do is write a comment describing the syncopation, which the performer now has to read in addition to the time signature, despite the fact that they both should logically be describing the same concept. The rhythm in the original post is specifically difficult to unambiguously explain in 5/4 even with a comment about syncopation. If you're reading music, you generally want to be able to get as much information about your music as possible, as early on in the music as possible, in the most consice way possible. I'd argue that this is far from being the case if you are using a signature such as 5/4 with the rythm in the orignal post with-or-without further comments and accents.

    If rather than 5/4 you jump to 10/8, there are some similar problems and some trade-offs. Now, the rhythm no longer has to be expressed as off-beat syncopation, which may be a little bit simpler to think about when counting, depending on the reader. However, counting can still be ambiguous for similar reasons as with the 5/4 examples, and the amount of possibilities for counting, not even including off-beat syncopation, goes up. If I'm sight-reading music and I see the time signature 10/8, I often have more questions than I do answers unless I have already heard the piece. In order to figure out how to divide the 10 subdivisions, you have to look ahead and hope that there are accents which clearly establish a pattern for counting which transcends over the following measures. With respect to the original post, this approach suffers from some similar problems as the 5/4 example but without the off-beat syncopation. I personally would prefer to see 10/8 in this case instead of 5/4, but it's still somewhat ambiguous.

    Finally, if you use 3+3+4/8, you get rid of most of the problems that 5/4 and 10/8 have in this situation. You are now expressing immediately at the time change in a single time signature and with no additional comments the exact way the measures should be counted, and it is done so in a very consice manner without requiring off-beat syncopation. If you are sight reading music and see a signature such as 3+3+4/8, you have all of the information you need to understand exactly how this measure and the following measures should be counted all the way up to the next time change. There is no ambiguity and no need for explicit commenting or accents.

    So, I'd say just forget about 5/4 and 10/8 here and prefer an additive signature. If you want to show him why such a signature may be desired and why 10/8 is generally prefered over 5/4 in this case, I'd give him 3 different measures of music, each using the different approach to notation mentioned here, and have him explain how the music should be counted. Since 5/4 and 10/8 are generally somewhat ambiguous, no matter how he counts them, you can say "actually, the composer of this piece intended this counting...". Unless you leave a potentially verbous comment describing the odd syncopation or lots of explicit and redundant accents, the music is going to be unclear.

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