Written in 7/4 time, the piece is a typical example of Brubeck's exploration of time signatures. According to Brubeck, it was written during a single trip from his home to the recording studio, and was recorded the same day. Based on a blues form, the piece is driven by a strong bass figure, with percussion provided primarily by the rim of the snare drum and hand claps. It combines duple and triple meter.
Third measure with initial theme development (time 0:22 to 0:34)
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The piano enters with descending phrases crossing the 7/4 rhythm. The main theme then develops initially without left accompaniment and then with a characteristic figure based around the use of tenths. A drum solo using rim shots follows, then a restatement of the theme and a distinctive conclusion.
Brubeck points out in his liner notes that "'Unsquare Dance', in 7/4 time, is a challenge to the foot-tappers, finger-snappers and hand-clappers. Deceitfully simple, it refuses to be squared. And the laugh you hear at the end is Joe Morello's guffaw of surprise and relief that we had managed to get through the difficult last chorus". According to one music teacher, "Brubeck calls it 'Unsquare Dance' and it ends with 'Turkey in the Straw' which is as 'square' as you can get!" At the very end, right after referencing "Turkey in the Straw", the song cleverly quotes the well known musical couplet known in some circles as shave and a haircut ... two bits, with the last note being the seventh in the measure.
"Unsquare Dance" was initially included on the album Time Further Out, and even became a hit single, peaking at #74 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Brubeck has since arranged the piece for orchestra. Although it is rarely covered, Brubeck has recently endorsed an arrangement and recording by British pianist and composer Paddy Milner.
The piece has been used in the United Kingdom as the theme to Emma Thompson's short-lived 1988 BBC TV sketch show Thompson, and for a McDonald's full bean coffee TV advertising campaign during 2010 to 2013. The tune was featured in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. On 8 May 2013, Google honoured the American designer and filmmaker Saul Bass on the occasion of his 93rd birthday with a Google Doodle and a video featuring this piece.
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