5/7 Time Signature: An Overview (2023 Edition)

Table of Contents

If you want to learn more about the 5/7 time signature, you’ve come to the right post!

Is There Even Such a Thing as 5/7 Time Signature

No matter how much you learn about music theory, it always hides its mysteries. So do you think you got ahold of time signatures? Well, what about the 5/7 time signature?

Honestly, if you’ve heard anything about it, you’re probably in the minority. But just like most people who have heard of it, you’re probably scratching your head. So is 5/7 time signature even a thing? Is anything with a denominator that’s not a power 2 even possible in time signatures?

Technically, it is possible. However, it’s far from a common occurrence. And, as you already might assume, it’s a bit mind-twisting. Technically, you need a note that’s exactly 1/7th of a whole note for this time signature.

There’s one way how you can think of it. Take your traditional 4/4 time signature. We all understand that one, right? Now, instead of using regular eighths, sixteenths, quarter notes, triples, and everything else, you write a quarter-note septuplet. In its essence, this divides the whole note into seven equal parts.

Now, you take those seven notes and just play five. And that’s one whole measure. Seems confusing? Well, it is.

Irrational Time Signatures

In order to fully understand how the 5/7 time signature works, we need to explain what irrational time signatures are. Essentially, it’s anything with a denominator that’s not a power of 2. So it can be 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, and so on.

The very name irrational time signatures might not be the most appropriate one. Mathematically, these aren’t irrational numbers. However, the term is widely accepted among music theorists.

It’s easy to understand 2/4, 4/4, and 6/8. It’s also not that hard to wrap your mind around odd-time signatures. These come with an odd number as a numerator. Time signatures like 7/8 or 9/8 or 11/8 aren’t that uncommon. Sure, they’re a bit tricky, but you can count them all.

In so-called irrational time signatures, the denominator still refers to the whole note. It’s dividing the whole note into equal parts. The numerator, or the number on top, just tells you how many of these equal parts of the whole note to play.

Some would also argue that it’s a simpler alternative to metric modulation. And what is metric modulation? Well, it’s a whole different story. But you can read more about it at the link above. For now, just bear in mind that the denominator simply divides the whole note into equal parts.

As I already mentioned, you’d practically achieve 5/7 if you used a quarter-note septuplet on a 4/4 time signature, and you just play five of them. It’s not exactly an irrational time signature if you write it like that. But it’s the simplest way to understand it.

And then you build off of that. Imagine tweaking it with further subdivisions. Like eighth or sixteenth notes within the quarter-note septuplet. An irrational time signature, like 5/7, will just allow you to write that down in a simpler way.

Irrational Time Signatures in Practice

You now may wonder whether these irrational time signatures have any practical value. Technically, they do. But they’re extremely rare. Some modern musicians might use them.

What’s important to note is that irrational time signatures often complement regular ones. You won’t exactly write an entire piece in an irrational time signature. You go from ¾ to 4/4 and then add 5/7 or 12/8 or whatever you need.

These are mostly useful in pieces that deliberately sound off and clumsy, so to speak. It’s a piece that has brief parts that feel like something’s stumbling or rhythmically off.

One such example is a piece called “Asyla” by composer Thomas Adès. You can check it out below.

Thomas Adès - Asyla (1997)

So if I wasn’t clear enough, here’s one video showing irrational time signatures in practice. Bear in mind that this musician is using Konnakol. It comes from traditional Indian music and it’s a simpler way to count using syllables.

Understanding 4/6 and 5/6 time signatures

As you can see, he first shows you what sextuplets sound like in a 4/4 time signature. Then he divides the whole measure into six equal parts. Yes, it’s challenging, but that’s the simplest way to explain irrational time signatures.  

5/7 Time Signature: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you think through this unusual time signature!

And if you have more questions about it, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Also, if you’d like to read more about time signatures on this blog, check out the 15/8 Time Signature post on this blog!

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