How to Master Quintuplets

Theoretically and sonically, quintuplets work with any two numerical groupings, and can be used to make any simple meter - even 4/4 - sound surprisingly odd.
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In musical terminology, a “tuplet” refers to an evenly spaced group of notes played in the same time/space as a different amount of the same type of note. A triplet, for example, is group of three notes to be performed in the place of two of the same value, a quadruplet is four in the space of three, a quintuplet is five in the space of four, and so forth. Theoretically and sonically, this works with any two numerical groupings, and can be used to make any simple meter - even 4/4 - sound surprisingly odd. (Check out the score for Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” for some of the wildest tuplet action ever waxed.) We’ve already dealt with triplets, and quadruplets are simply triplets in reverse, so this month, we’re moving on to quintuplets.

As with triplets, there exist quarter-, eighth-, and sixteenth-note quintuplets. The four staves in Ex. 1 detail the process of creating five equally spaced quarter-notes in the space of four. First, we establish a tempo for the quarter-notes pulse in Stave 1. (Tip: Begin slowly and use a metronome.) Stave 2 subdivides each beat into a five-sixteenth- note quintuplet, which creates four groups of five. If you have trouble getting the hang of it, try verbalizing each quintuplet as a monotone five-syllable word, such as “u-ni-ver-si-ty.” (Just be sure to use robotic phrasing with all syllables spaced evenly.) 

Next, Stave 3 regroups the same sixteenths into five groups of four. Maintain the original tempo and play/say only the first sixteenth in each four-note grouping, and you get the quarter-note quintuplet in Stave 4 - five evenly spaced hits in the space of four. It’s like a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 5/4 played simultaneously at two different tempos, and kind of like falling down the stairs and landing on your feet! And, to get even freakier, each 5/4 quarter- note can be subdivided the same way as quarter-notes in 4/4. Yipes!


Ex. 2 utilizes the same process to derive an eighth-note quintuplet - five eighthnotes in the space of four - from the 2/4 pulse established in Stave 1. Each quarter-note is subdivided as before in Stave 2 (two groups of five sixteenths), while Stave 3 shifts the accents to five groups of two. Playing only the first hit in each two-note grouping produces the eighth-note quintuplet in Stave 4.

So what to do with all this rhythmic complexity? Well, the sky’s the limit, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. Enter the descending A pentatonic minor-based 4x5 sixteenth-note quintuplets notated in Ex. 3. By applying the conversion process from Ex. 1, we deduce the 5x4 shifted accent groupings shown in Ex. 4, as well as the down-the-stairs, quarter-note quintuplet in Ex. 5. Toss these (or substitute your own choice of notes) into a bar or two of your next improv and watch the heads turn.

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Another way to exploit these buggers is to clip the last sixteenth-note from each quintuplet as illustrated in Ex.6. to create five identical four-note motifs over the 4/4 pulse. Finally, Ex. 7 shows an alternative way to notate the same figure.

The real mind-blower here is that you can create tuplets from any two separate groupings - sevens, elevens, thirteens, etc., played against one, two, or more beats in any meter. (Of course, tempo will dictate how many notes will fit.) Once you convince yourself that this stuff really exists, a whole new world awaits. Use tuplets as sparingly or as radically as you please - insert a half- or full-bar quintuplet into a funk groove, blues shuffle, or fusion jam, or base an entire piece on them. Any way you look at it, tuplet-awareness rules!