Game Music, Miscellaneous

5-Beat Patterns in Video Game Music

August 27, 2015 | | 2 Comments Share thison Facebook 5-Beat Patterns in Video Game Musicon Twitter

Video game music lovers can probably recognize a video game track pretty quickly, even if it’s one they haven’t heard before. Even though video game music comes in a huge variety of styles and genres (which is part of why I love it), there are musical elements that tend to be very common in many tracks, common enough that many of them have become (well-loved) tropes. Today, I’ll be discussing rhythm, and specifically I’ll be taking a look at one of video game music’s favorite tropes: 5-beat patterns.

I’ll start with a quick rhythm 101 for those of you who don’t have a formal music background or don’t play music. This is just going to cover the basics, because you could write books and books about rhythm. The most common rhythms in Western music are 4-beat patterns. If you put on a track from your music library, there’s a really good chance that it will be in 4. You’ll be able to tell if you try tapping your foot to the music. What you’ll notice is that as you tap your foot, the music is broken into sections of 4 that can be counted: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Each tap is a beat, and each group of 4 beats is a bar or measure.

Each beat gets a slightly different emphasis. In a measure of four, usually the first beat of each measure gets a stronger emphasis than all of the others, and then the third beat gets a slightly smaller emphasis. So you count: ONE-two-three-four. Each beat can also be subdivided into parts, most often into 2 or 4 equal parts. These subdivided beats are called offbeats, because they usually don’t carry as much emphasis as the main four beats. As an example, to count a measure of 4 that’s using all 8 subdivisions, you would count ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, etc. It’s a bit difficult to explain with just text, but hopefully this gives you an idea.

There are other patterns that are common also, usually patterns of 3 and 2. Video game music uses all of these, and they are still the most common. But video game music also uses 5 beat patterns quite a bit more frequently than most other music. In Western music, 5-beat patterns are not very common; if you’re looking at classical music for example, you’re not likely to find many, if any, 5 beat patterns prior to the late 19th century, and even after that they would not be used very frequently or in quite the same way that I’ll be discussing here. Probably the place you would be most likely to find patterns of 5 would be in Eastern European folk music or jazz music, but they won’t be super common there either.

Now, 5-beat patterns are a little odd because they tend to feel off-kilter. 4-beat patterns have two groups of two beats, with the heaviest emphasis on the first beat and a slightly smaller emphasis on the third beat, so it feels very even. In 3-beat patterns, the pattern is small enough that it isn’t subdivided, so it is treated as one unit. This usually creates a triplet feel, with the emphasis is on the first beat with the two smaller beats following.

In 5 beat patterns, there aren’t an even number of beats like in a 4-beat pattern. But the pattern is long enough that it is almost always subdivided into at least 2 groups, unlike a bar of 3. So when you divide the beats into groups with different emphasis, you’re left with groups of uneven sizes. Typically you get one group of three, and then one group of two, in that order. So the strongest emphasis goes on the first beat, and then a slightly weaker emphasis goes on the fourth beat. The two groups being different sizes is what makes the music feel a bit off-kilter; the beats that are getting the emphasis are coming at irregular intervals.

The way I’ve described it, it sort of sounds like all music that is in 5 will sound the same, but actually there are lots of different ways that 5-beat patterns are used to create really different effects. Let’s actually dig into some music to check it out.

I mentioned jazz, so here is a very well-known non-VGM sample: “Take Five”, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Every wonder why it’s called take five? Well, it has to do with the fact that it is in 5! Take a listen:

Try tapping your foot and counting the beats. Can you hear the 5 beats? If you listen to the piano specifically, you’ll notice that the accompaniment is emphasizing the 3 + 2 beat grouping. One-two, and-three, four-five. The piano is emphasizing the offbeats, the subdivisions of the main beats that you tap your foot to; listen to how the piano strikes a chord as you raise your foot instead of as you put it down. This specific accompaniment pattern has become quite well-known and is now often associated with a jazzy style.

Now, let’s finally segue into some VGM: “Cinco de Chocobo” from Final Fantasy VII!

Notice that the composer Nobuo Uematsu is using the exact same rhythms as in “Take Five”; the entire style of this track is really inspired from that song. And now you know why the track is called “Cinco de Chocobo; cinco is the Spanish word for 5, and the track is in 5!

So that’s one example of a 5-beat pattern being used to create a jazzy feel. Here is another example in a very different style: “Giza Plains” from Final Fantasy XII, by Hitoshi Sakimoto.

Try tapping your foot again. This track has a very straight-up 5 feel; it isn’t emphasizing the two subgroups as much as “Cinco de Chocobo” did. The accompaniment pattern is placing a lot of emphasis on the offbeats again, but in a different way from “Take Five”. In this track, it creates more a driving feel. It draws inspiration more from the minimalist school of music than anywhere else with the way that it continuously uses the repetitive pattern.

There is one more rhythm element that I want to discuss, and that is additive beat patterns. I’ve discussed how in a measure of 5, typically the first beat and the fourth beat would get slightly heavier emphasis than the other beats. The 5 beats are divided into two groups of uneven lengths, but the beats themselves take the same amount of time.

There is another way to create a 5-beat pattern that uses additive rhythms. So instead of having 5 even beats that are arranged into two subgroups of different lengths, there are several beats of different lengths that all add up to 5. The most common way that this is done is by dividing each beat into two parts, so you get a total of 10 sub-beats, and then arranging them in a 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 pattern.

It’s a bit difficult to explain, but here’s the fundamental difference; in a regular 5-beat pattern, you get 5 beats of equal length arranged into groups of 3 and 2. In an additive 5-beat pattern, you get 4 beats of different lengths, and if you add up their subdivided parts, they are all equal to 10. This is a 5 beat pattern, just doubled.

Additive patterns like this tend to create an interesting pulse. At the beginning of each group you get the two beats made up of three, which are longer and feel steady. Then all of a sudden you get the two shorter beats of two, and it feels like the music is rushing to get somewhere new. This pattern repeats over and over, and it’s often used to create excitement and driving motion. For this reason they’re particularly popular in battle music and other tense or dramatic music.

Here is one of the most well-known examples: “Don’t Be Afraid” from Final Fantasy VIII, by Nobuo Uematsu.

This one should be pretty easy to follow, because the strings are hitting the pattern exactly. Pay attention to them; can you hear the uneven beats? 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2. If you try to tap your foot, you’ll probably find yourself tapping along with this additive pulse. If you want a bit of a challenge, try tapping your foot to 5 beats of two, and then you’ll really hear the syncopation! Here of course, you can hear how this pattern is used to build tension and drama as background music for fighting.

These additive 5-beat patterns don’t always have to be used in such dramatic ways though. Here is a much more lighthearted track that uses the same additive pattern. This is the city theme from Golden Sun, composed by Motoi Sakuraba.

This one is a little slower, so it may be easier to follow. The pizzicato strings are emphasizing the additive pattern really clearly here: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2. The pattern here is used to create a busy-feeling ambience for the city where it is used.

The last thing that I will mention is that you can also use additive patterns that don’t get broken down into 10 parts, so you just get one beat with three parts and one beat with two parts. These are a little less common, but here is an example for you: “The Sealed Door” from Chrono Trigger, also by Nobuo Uematsu. If you listen to the accompaniment pattern, you can hear how it is emphasizing 1-2-3, 1-2.

So what makes a bar of 5 additive instead of just counting it straight 1-2-3-4-5? It depends on a lot of factors. Tempo, or the speed of the music, is one big factor; tracks with an additive pulse will often be faster. The phrasing of the music, or how the notes are grouped, also makes a big difference. Some tracks will have accompaniment figures or melodies that heavily emphasize an additive pulse. You can always count music using 5-beat patterns as just 1-2-3-4-5 if you wish. If you do this with music that is emphasizing an additive pulse, you’ll notice the syncopation of the way the music is phrased against those 5 beats, which is a really cool effect. This is part of why composers use additive rhythms!

This is also just a good example of how a 5-beat pattern does not necessarily have to be what stands out about the music; in this instance, the 5-beat pattern takes more of a backseat to the melancholy melody and string accompaniment. It’s just a sad tune that happens to also be in 5.

Hopefully you’ve followed along and haven’t gotten to lost. If you’re really hungering for more examples, here are a couple more that you can take a look at:

“Drowning Valley” from Chrono Cross, by Yasunori Mitsuda

“The Dark Rift” from Skies of Arcadia, by Yutaka Minobe & Tatsuyuki Maeda

“Hollow Bastion” from Kingdom Hearts, by Yoko Shimomura

“Saber’s Edge” from Final Fantasy XIII, by Masashi Hamauzu

I love music in 5, so I’m always on the lookout for more. Do you know of any other video game music tracks that are in 5? If you do, let us know in the comments!

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