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?

  • 4
    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
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 19:18
  • 2
    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
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 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
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 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
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 7:37
  • 2
    @Caters - Sure, I was just pointing out that typically a five pattern ends up being grouped into a 2 and 3 in some order, and the standard conducting patterns do that, even if you try to make all five beats "equal." It wasn't a criticism; merely an observation. You see it in 4/4, where most people can't help feeling a grouping of 2+2, rather than just one strong downbeat. As Tim's answer notes, the human bias is to group 5 (or any number bigger than 3) into 2s and 3s, and the conducting patterns reflect that.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 1:25

7 Answers 7


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.

  • 1
    Nail on head. This is a great example of a question, of which there are many here at this forum, about how to define something, or how to classify some musical practice, where the answer can only be a matter of convention, since it adds nothing to the understanding of what's going on. And while it's important to establish agreed-upon nomenclature, it's more important to realize that it's very often- and not only in music- simply pigeonholing, just convienience and not informative. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 11:07

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.

  • I think you misunderstood the OP's meaning of simple/compound, and I get your meaning. In Brazilian Portuguese, AFAIK, "simple" is when tempo is divided always in two parts, and "coumpound", when divided in three or more. But OP's question isn't about that.
    – Josí Neto
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 6:37
  • This was my first thought, but then the question discussion goes off in a different direction not about simple/compound! Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 21:18

Time signatures do not directly correlate to metre; 9/8 can be compound triple or an irregular quadruple metre, depending on where the main pulses are. It is inaccurate to refer to time signatures as "being" simple or compound, these are adjectives which describe metre, not time signatures.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the time, 9/8 is compound triple; you could argue that 9/8 is so strongly associated with compound triple that it practically "is" compound triple. But it would be very difficult to substantiate a similar claim about 5/4 being so strongly associated with one particular metre.

  • But how often do you see 9/8 as 4/4 + 1 eighth note? Much rarer than as a triplet version of 3/4, I would imagine.
    – Caters
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 1:32
  • @Caters Very rarely indeed, and perhaps in the case of 9/8 this is mere pedantry; you could say that 9/8 is so strongly associated with compound triple that it practically "is" compound triple. But it would be difficult to substantiate a similar claim about 5/4 being so strongly associated with one particular metre.
    – Esther
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 1:36

It COULD be Simple Quintuple. Not very likely, but it could. The only example of this I can think of is at the end of Stravinsky's 'Firebird' where a 7/4 is simply hammered out with no 2 or 3-groups. (OK, 7 not 5. But same idea.)

But 5/4 (or 7/4) more usually falls into 2+3 or 3+2 groups. A simple beat and a compound one. I expect there's a name for this.

Note that 4/4 doesn't HAVE to be 'simple quadruple'. That's not a useful description of a Latin tune with consistent 3+3+2 8th note groupings.

We're not in the 19th century any more. Can't always pin down the identity of a time signature without looking at what it DOES.



The top number isn't a multiple of 3.

But the body of your question doesn't seem to be about simple vs. compound. It seems to be about wanting a category beyond duple, triple, and everything else being some additive meter. At least you seem to hint at that. A non-additive, quintuple meter of strong, weak, weak, weak, weak. Maybe simple, non-additive quintuple?

But categorizing it that way doesn't seem nearly as important as notating so the accents are clear, because 3+2 & 3+2 seem to be the convention.


Perhaps the easiest way to think about meters - 5/4 or any other - is, that there "is no meter".

If you haven't downvoted already and you are still with me let me explain: music happens in a "pulse" - the thing a metronome would give you. tack - tack - tack - tack - .... What makes a "meter" from that endless stream of identical strokes is that some pulses are emphasized and some are not. Instead of

tack - tack - tack - tack - tack - tack - tack - tack -

we now have (for instance, 4/4)

tick - tack - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack - tack -

or maybe (3/4)

tick - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack

and so on. We call it a "meter" if that happens in a recurring pattern. In 4/4 we have a basic pattern of 4 strokes where the first is strongly emphasized, the 3 is less but still a little emphasized and 2 and 4 are not emphasized. In 3/4 we have an emphasis on 1 and no emphasis on 2 and 3. These meters can change within a piece (see for instance Leo Brouwers "Estudios Sencillos, Nr. 4", where the meter constantly changes between 3/4 and 2/4).

Now, to answer your question: for common meters like 4/4 there are common patterns (as described above) established (and by "established" I mean: we are very much used to them), but even these are not the only ones used. Non-standard patterns of emphasized strokes exist (called "syncopations") and are equally used. For instance, a "normal" 8-stroke pattern:

tick - tack - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack - tack

and Samba:

tick - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack - tick - tack

And while the "basic" 7/8 meter puts emphasis on 1 and 5 or on 1, 3, 5 and 7, Dave Brubeck put it on 2, 4, 6 and 7 in "Unsquare Dance" for the clapping in the intro part. I'd call this a syncopation because the 1-stroke in every meter is usually emphasized, but in a stricter sense there is only a repeating pattern of emphasized and non-emphsized strokes. As the Free-Jazz-guys (i.e. Jack DeJohnette) called it: "pulse".

The upshot of all this is: "meter" can be anything you want. If you want to have a "simple" 5/4 meter of:

tick - tack - tack - tack - tack - tick - tack - tack - tack - tack

then go ahead and do so. If you want a constant change of 2/4 and 3/4 (a "compound" 5/4) then do that instead:

tick - tack - tick - tack - tack - tick - tack - tick - tack - tack
tick - tack - tack - tick - tack - tick - tack - tack - tick - tack

After all: music is what is pleasing to the ears. All the theory only tries to find rules which describe how to make intelligent tries to find something pleasing. But every time we think we have all covered in the rules1) someone comes and finds an exception, which, according to the rules, shouldn't sound good, but still does. Duh!

1) See "Gradus ad parnassum" - some of the things Chopin did shouldn't have worked - still, they did. That doesn't mean that Johann J. Fux did bad work - just, that Chopin knew all the well-sounding harmonies Fux knew and then some. Just like todays composers know what Chopin knew - and some more.


Simple VS Compound simply refers to whether what is considered a beat in the time signature has a dot or not.

Seeing as both 5 time and 7 time has beats without dots it would be simple time. If you want to do compound 5 and 7 time then you would be going into the spheres of experimental music.

If you do experiment in compound five time then that is a youtube video worth making. (If it has not been done already)

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