Asymmetrical patterns


General Principles

An Alternative Approach


Music directors in charge of secondary school bands are not likely to come across asymmetrical meters very often.  Even so, it seems appropriate to make mention of them for the sake of conductors in charge of more advanced ensembles.

Clarity is essential.
Many conductors have individual and very specific ways of conducting asymmetrical meters.  The point is not which one is correct or incorrect, but which is the most comfortable or most appropriate for the particular style of music being played.  Above all, clarity is essential.  Asymmetrical meters are not easy to play or conduct, and careful thought should go into the matter if the conductor is going to be more of a help than a hindrance to the ensemble.

Some conductors approach the problem of conducting a five pattern by first deciding whether to divide the bar into 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 and then allocating the beats on each side of the vertical plane accordingly.  A 2 + 3 division, for example, would involve crossing the vertical plane after the second beat so that beats 3, 4 and 5 were located on the conductor’s right.  A  3 + 2 division, on the other hand, would mean crossing the vertical plane after beat 3, thus placing beats 4 and 5 only on the conductor’s right.

See my book for details.
A seven pattern is even more difficult and can severely test a conductor’s skill in maintaining a steady pulse and clear icti.  Numerous variations are possible, not in the least because the bar can be divided into a wide variety of subdivisions.  Basic combinations include 2 + 2 + 3,  2 + 3 + 2  and 3 + 2 + 2.  To make matters worse, crossing the vertical plane can mark out just about any subdivision. My book [ordering details can be accessed from the homepage] contains diagrams giving some suggested solutions.

General Principles

In working out how to conduct five and seven patterns it is a good idea to go back to the basics and remember a few of the conducting principles suggested at the outset. They are:

  • The downbeat is the most important and should be clearly visible.
  • The last beat of any pattern should always come from the same general direction.
  • A secondary pulse, if there is one, is located at the right of the pattern, and
  • Each beat should be clearly distinguished from the one before it and the one after it.
  • The specific pattern adopted should be both clear to the performers and comfortable for the conductor.

An Alternative Approach

Let's face it. Conducting the five and seven patterns according to diagrams given in conducting books can be pretty difficult, even for experienced conductors. Moreover, even if you manage to get it right, getting inexperienced bands to follow the beat accurately can sometimes seem almost impossible.

One of the beats has an "extra" half beat.
Fortunately, there is an easier way, and I have found that it works in most situations. This involves explaining to the band that a 5/8 is simply a lopsided 2/4 and that a 7/8 is really a lopsided 3/4. In each case, one of the beats has an “extra” half a beat. The music director then conducts the 5/8 and the 7/8 like a standard two or three pattern, except that there is a delay on the last beat equal to the extra eighth note.  In the initial stages, both the conductor and the players will be helped if the conductor counts aloud “one and, two and, and” for a 5 pattern and “one and, two and, three and, and” for a seven pattern.

The approach effectively divides the bar into 2+3 for a five pattern and 2+2+3 for a seven pattern. Other divisions are also possible, of course. For a 3+2 division in a five pattern, for example, try conducting a standard two pattern while counting "one and, and, two and".

Interestingly enough, the approach I have outlined here is rather similar to the “floating” technique often adopted by many professional conductors when dealing with asymmetrical metrical patterns in fast tempos.