May 14, 2013

Unsquare Dance

Dave Brubeck, in 2001
I enjoy arranging music, and the group I’ve currently been writing for is my nine piece saxophone ensemble at Hamilton College. Last fall when I was searching for an appropriate song to arrange I thought of Dave Brubeck and his catalogue of stimulating compositions. I considered “Take Five” and decided it was too obvious a choice. I then settled on one of his lesser known but equally catchy songs, entitled “Unsquare Dance.” As it turns out, I was timely without realizing it. If I had been more informed about Hollywood releases I would have known that “Unsquare Dance” was used in the hit movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” released in November of 2012, at the same time my arranging effort occurred.

“Unsquare Dance” was included on the 1961 LP entitled “Time Further Out,” a jazz interpretation of Joan Miró’s work of art entitled “Painting #25.” This work was used as cover art, and Brubeck chose the 12-bar blues as his basic format for his compositions. In his own words, he called it “a search for something new within old forms.” “Unsquare Dance,” much like “Take Five,” has a very distinctive sound to it which appeals to the average listener, whether they are jazz fans or not. The song reportedly was written hastily on the way to the recording studio, and Brubeck managed to take a piece of classic Americana (the square dance) and add a unique twist to it.
I’d like to take a look at the elements that make it so distinctive. Let’s start with a little rhythmic primer. The majority of music we hear on a day-to-day basis is based on the number 4. We call beats 1 and 3 the downbeats; and 2 and 4 the upbeats, or more appropriately the “backbeats.” Let’s take two groups of 4. To feel the basic groove we all know, tap your foot on the odd numbers, 1, 3, 5 and 7 (downbeats); and clap your hands on the even numbers, 2, 4, 6 and 8 (the backbeats).
The first thing we notice about “Unsquare Dance” is that its time signature is 7/4. Instead of a repeated pattern of 4 or 8 beats, we have a 7 beat looping phrase. One beat missing shouldn’t be that big a deal, but the effect in this music is extraordinary. This time try tapping your foot on 1, 3 and 5; and clapping your hands on 2, 4, 6 and 7, and make sure you don’t pause after 7, go directly back to 1. This repetitive seven beat phrase is the groove throughout “Unsquare Dance,” and definitely makes it “unsquare.”
Brubeck takes this groove and lays it over our old friend the 12-bar blues. In this case he both adds to and subtracts from the form. Instead of 4 beats per measure we have 7. Instead of 12 measures in the 12-bar blues, we have 6. He follows the basic I-IV-V pattern. See my blog entry on Why I Love the Blues from March 30, 2009. If we refer to one time around the 6-bar blues as a chorus, our map of “Unsquare Dance” reads as follows:
The first chorus starts out with bassist Eugene Wright playing quarter notes where we were tapping our feet on 1, 3 and 5 in conjunction with clapping on 2, 4, 6 and 7. Brubeck comes in with a very simple melodic phrase on the second chorus and it becomes more complex during the third chorus. We hear a country-sounding phrase complete with Floyd Cramer-sounding grace notes, representative of country & western piano playing. It also foreshadows the melody Brubeck will use at the end of the song. It’s worth noting that this particular piece is really the Dave Brubeck Trio. Paul Desmond’s sax was deemed unnecessary, perhaps he was one of the clappers.
After these three choruses Brubeck drops out and we have seven more devoted to the rhythmic explorations of drummer Joe Morello. Much like the previous hit “Take Five,” a steady vamps ensues while Morello explores the space in between the beats, mostly on the rims of his snare drum. Morello seems to be doing his best to make the clappers and listeners lose track of the 7-beat pattern. Brubeck called the piece “a lesson in concentration.”
After a lengthy drum solo (where I found myself saying one more chorus? One more chorus!) eventually it’s time to move on, and they do so on the eleventh chorus with a much-needed release from Eugene Wright who climbs up the minor scales of the 1, 4 and 5 chords. The twelfth chorus of the song features Brubeck paraphrasing the song “Turkey in the Straw,” an appropriate square dance tune that he fits into the 7/4 groove — this cliché is then topped by another cliché. The last two measures end with the familiar “shave and a haircut, two bits” lick, and I’m guessing this was added on the fly.
Musicians who record when microphones are employed know it is S.O.P. to remain silent at the end of a take, allowing the engineer to draw down the faders. If you listen to the original recording and turn up the volume at the end you’ll hear someone chuckling and saying “yeah.” Brubeck attributes this to Joe Morello’s expression of surprise and relief that they had managed to get through the difficult last chorus.
It is fascinating to speculate on the choices made by Hollywood music directors. We could surmise that the quirkiness of “Unsquare Dance” fits the scene where the two main characters, with more than their share of personality issues, are coming to terms with one another. Perhaps the instrumental nature of the song was a plus — no words to skew the mood. Or maybe the director just liked it and the fee for licensing was acceptable to the bean counters.
The production team on “Silver Linings Playbook” were not the only ones who found a relevant use for “Unsquare Dance.” The San Francisco Ballet choreographed movement to it, as did a duo on a “Judy Garland Variety Show.” Google recently used “Unsquare Dance” in a Google Doodle to accompany graphics paying tribute to designer Saul Bass. I did my part with the nine piece sax ensemble and was quite pleased with the results.
Try the tapping and clapping and see if you can concentrate all the way through the tune. Set aside your 4/4 routine and give it a shot.


  1. one-two, one-two, one-two-three!

    Thanks for this article. I love the Unsquare Dance and was casting about for some history on it when I found your post. Interesting stuff! The story behind the chuckle at the end is awesome.

    1. Thanks for this info on Unsquare Dance, a long time favourite of mine. I also was not aware it had been used in a recent Hollywood movie. I'm currently working on an arrangement of it for two guitars, cello and percussion. Lots of fun. Cheers !

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  3. Thank you for the story and hello from Russia!
    It is more natural to consider the time signature as 7/8, not 7/4.
    Unsquare dance is one of my favourite piece of Dave Brubeck. I like the ending the most because piano pattern shifted and it ended together with the rhythm pattern exactly at the last quaver of the measure. Clever and funny.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Although I've never seen his written out sheet music, I don't know if he chose 7/8 or 7/4, but both contain the same groove.