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I have seen 3 major ways of subdividing the quarter notes in 5/4. 1 is treating it as a simple meter and 2 others treat it as an irregular compound(or technically speaking, complex) meter. I have seen these interpretations in 2 main contexts, conducting an orchestra and music theory. I myself, when I see 5/4 always treat it the same way regardless of tempo. Of course, I can oblige by composers who used 5/4 as 2+3 or 3+2 by placing dynamic accents on the first note of each 2 or 3 note subdivision. But in my own compositions, I don't abide by the 2+3 or 3+2 that everybody else does when I use 5/4. I only use the irregular compound that everybody else uses for 7/4 and higher prime time signatures.

Simple Quintuple Meter

This is the interpretation I use in my own compositions when I use 5/4 is that 5/4 is a Simple Quintuple Meter. I mean, it makes sense right? 5 beats per bar, that is pretty easy to count, and isn't it ease of counting that makes 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 all simple meters, even though in theory, the 4/4 could be subdivided into 2+2? 6/4 is when you really start needing to subdivide the bars into larger beats than the time signature. But 5/4 is easy to count as individual quarter notes, no need for subdivision.

1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3 4 5 |

This here is an example of a conducting gesture in 5 beats:

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I see this used mainly for slow movements in 5/4 because at faster tempos it is hard to conduct in this 5 beat pattern. So for fast movements in 5/4, conductors generally will use a pattern of 2/4 3/4 2/4 3/4 or 3/4 2/4 3/4 2/4 depending on which beats the composer wanted to be accented beats. But for a solo pianist like me, counting in groups of 5 at a fast tempo is no problem.

Irregular Compound Meter(or complex meter)

This is the 2+3 and 3+2 that I have mentioned before. This has its merits, mainly for conductors, because the conductor doesn't have to use a 5 beat pattern which is difficult to do at fast tempos. But, if 5/4 is treated as an irregular compound meter, how would you know which accent pattern the composer wanted, whether it was 2+3 or 3+2? What if there are a lot of short notes in a given bar, making it hard to see the accents? Some composers have left the accents ambiguous, some have emphasized the accented beats with dynamic accents to make it clear, and others decomposed the 5/4 into 2/4 + 3/4 and used multiple time signature changes or a dual time signature to make it absolutely clear what interpretation the composer was going for.

So, given that 5/4 can be interpreted either as a Simple Quintuple Meter or as an Irregular Compound Meter and that each one has its merits, how should 5/4 be classified? As a simple meter? As an irregular compound meter?

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    This is a nice, informative discussion, but I think you basically answer your own question. Depending on the tempo and the "feel," one can interpret 5/4 as composed of 5 (slow) primary beats, or as 2 (fast) beats with a 2+3 or 3+2. It's not one or the other: it varies based on all the issues you bring up. (And I would note that your conducting pattern has a bias too: it's a 2+3 conducting pattern. To conduct 3+2, you'd usually have two small swings toward the center, with "beat 4" swinging outward to indicate the stronger beat.) – Athanasius Dec 1 at 19:18
  • Exotic meters like this are typically explained in the score, since the composer can't rely on everybody to have the same piece with same accent pattern in mind. Our band currently plays a piece in 10/8 and there is a clear indication, that this is intended to be subgrouped to 3/3/2/2, so the conductor gives 2 slower and 2 faster beats. In general I find the simple/compound distinction not very helpful and there are no well-established terms for it in some languages. – guidot Dec 1 at 21:38
  • Even within a single piece in the same measure, a piece in 5/4 time can get subdivided differently. I've played the concert band piece "Heartbeat Five" by Gary P. Gilroy, and in at least one measure where I as a bass clarinet player play in a 3-3-2-2 rhythmic pattern, the trumpets play 5 straight quarter notes. – Dekkadeci Dec 2 at 7:34
  • @guidot - what tickles me is when the band is rehearsing in a piece with time changes, and we look at the place where a change from, say, 4 to 3 has happened. We need to start on the 3 bar, so he counts us in with '1 2 3 4'..! – Tim Dec 2 at 7:37
  • @Athanasius That difference in the 2+3 and 3+2 patterns is why I said in the question only that it is a conducting pattern in 5 beats and didn't get any more specific than that. – Caters 2 days ago
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Does it need classification? Why does everything have to be pigeon-holed?

5/4 (and 5/8 for that matter) is generally split into a more manageable 2 and 3, or 3 and 2. Not very often is it counted as a simple 5 with no sub pulse. That may be because humans are happier with basic counts of 2s and 3s. After all, most of our (Western) music falls into that category. we often count 1 2 3 4, and 1 2 3 4 5 6 in well used timings. So 2s and 3s seem natural.

If 5/4 was to be counted 1 2 3 4 5 1 etc, then it would be filed under 'simple'. If not, as is more common, it'd be 'compound'. Same would go for 7/4 as often counted as 1 2 1 2 1 2 3, (or other 2s and 3s combinations) - rarely as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

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Regardless of how the notes in 5/4 are grouped, I believe 5/4 is a simple meter because its quarter notes are divided into 8th-note duplets. A quintuple-meter respective compound meter is 15/8, with 5 dotted-quarter-note beats made of 8th-note triplets.

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