Monday, September 1, 2014

Electronic Music Theory: 8 Rhythmic Devices You Should Know (Polyrhythm, Syncopation +)

In my previous post, I wrote about the primary elements of drum beats: measured time, drum sound selection, and the observable phenomenon of 2s and 3s. Truth be told I wrote that article to get you thinking about rhythm in a different way so I could follow it with this article. I will go over some rhythmic devices that I’ve picked up over the years from working with drummers and percussionists in a variety of live performance and studio recording situations. Being that this is a series dedicated to how music works (music theory), it is appropriate to include some examples of recorded music that utilizes these techniques, which I will do for you below. Once you’ve internalized these concepts and can recognize their idiosyncratic sounds, you’ll start hearing them all over the place. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them using the comment section down below. Alright, let’s jump in.

Our Example

To start things off, check out this drum beat I wrote for the purpose of this article:
Click image to enlarge [audio:] Drum Beat Example
This one example includes all eight rhythmic devices that we’ll cover below: the downbeat, the upbeat, the pickup, syncopation, polyrhythm, cross-rhythm, sesquialtera, and linear drumming. The way to get the most out of this article is to read the segments below and then keep referencing this example making sure that your listening is focused on one device at a time.

1) The Downbeat

If you’ve ever taken a DJ class at Dubspot, either online or at our school in NYC, then you’d be familiar with the idea of “finding the 1″. The downbeat is the first beat of a measure, hence “the 1″. Historically the term downbeat refers to the downward motion of the orchestra conductor’s hand on the first beat of every measure, regardless of the time signature. Here’s what you would see if you were sitting in the orchestra:
Notice the highlighted line that shows where the one is. In my example above, all of the downbeats are highlighted in violet – listen again for the downbeats. The downbeat is the strongest and most important beat of the measure so make sure you always know where it is and give the listener a chance to find it / feel it themselves. Check out this video of one of my favorite bassists, Bootsy Collins, explaining the formulaic use of the one (the downbeat) in funk:
Bootsy Collins Basic Funk Formula

2) The Upbeat

If the downbeat occurs when the conductor’s hands go down, then the upbeat occurs when the conductor’s hands go up. The upbeat is the last beat of a measure and is weaker than the downbeat. Notice the arrow from the 4th beat back to the 1st beat of the conductor’s 4/4 beat pattern:
In my example I’ve highlighted all of the upbeats in blue. To hear the upbeat in action, check out Burial’s “Archangel” where the side-stick hit can be heard on the 4th beat of almost every measure (also, try to hear the boomy bass drum on the downbeat immediately following the upbeat):

3) The Pickup (Anacrusis)

The downbeat is the main beat of the measure with the upbeat leading us back to it – this makes sense when we hear it and the order makes for a nice cycle. But what would it sound / feel like if more emphasis was placed on or near the upbeat? Here in the US, it is tradition to sing as a group “Happy Birthday” to someone on their birthday. This song is in 3/4 (three beats per measure, each beat is a quarter-note in length) and begins on something called the pickup, also known as an anacrusisone or more notes sounding prior to the first downbeat of a musical phrase. The first word “Happy” does not start on the downbeat of the first measure – it actually starts on the upbeat (beat 3 in this case) of the lead-in measure. Then the word “Birthday” lands on the downbeat of the first measure (after all, the birthday is the purpose of the song so it makes sense that the word lands on the strongest beat of the measure). In my example above, I’ve highlighted the pickup in teal, right where the start marker is on the upbeat of the final measure. When you listen to the example again, notice that you don’t hear the kick drum on the downbeat right away – the first thing you hear is the pickup.
Finding a true pickup in today’s music is a little bit difficult since so much emphasis is placed on the downbeat, for example with “the drop”. However, check out Joker’s masterpiece titled “Digidesign” where the melody comes in at the 1:22 mark. Listen for the pickup, not landing directly on the upbeat, but landing precisely in-between the upbeat and the following downbeat (FYI, the bassline lands on the downbeat).

4) Syncopation

Click image to enlarge
Before you read this section, do yourself a favor and go listen to some afro-cuban music. Check out groups like The Buena Vista Social Club and The Afro-Cuban Allstars. This should get your ears in the right place.
In a measure of 4/4 time, there are four powerful beats and one of them, the first one, is the strongest beat. While those beats are cool and important and all, it’s way cooler to bring out the in-betweens – the subdivisions of the beats. Now, imagine a house track. What’s one of the first things you will typically hear? The kick drum on all four beats of the measure and the hi-hat directly between them highlighting the weaker beats. This constant, regular shift of the accent from the stronger beats to the weaker beats is known as syncopation. This house example is probably as simple as it gets. Things really start to get interesting as you subdivide the beat into smaller, odder increments. In my above example, notice that the hi-hat (highlighted in brick-house red) is syncopated the entire time, always accenting weaker beats.
Syncopation is much easier to find in today’s music than the pickup mentioned before. Here’s one of my favorite examples by Mount Kimbie from their track “Mayor”. Listen closely to the vocal part while bobbing your head on the beats. Notice that the voice tends to highlight the weaker beats:
If that went by a little too quickly for you, I found this slower alternate version of the same track:

5) Polyrhythm (Rhythm against Rhythm)

Let me back up for a minute: The main reason that a true pickup was difficult to find in today’s music was because it has been, like other devices, a bit forgotten. This is not because these compositional devices were not cool anymore, but because they required a higher level of concentration and listening skills. I’ve been told by many producers and composers – now get this – that you can’t write what you can’t hear, and I think that’s what happened to these useful devices. One such device that I would like to help bring back is polyrhythm.
Literally “more than one rhythm”, polyrhythm is the term use to define the occurrence of two or more conflicting rhythms sounding simultaneously (rhythm against rhythm). In my example above, the polyrhythmic, conflicting element is highlighted in green. Down in the kick, snare and hi-hat, everything sounds normal. With the addition of the toms, a certain tension is created. Look closely and you’ll see that there are five tom hits in the time of one beat that is essentially subdivided into four 1/16 notes. The ratio heard is 5:4 and that’s where the tension lies. It is important to note that this tension resolves almost immediately after the said measure – more on this in the next section.
As with the pickup, a good polyrhythm is hard to find. What usually happens is the conflicting rhythm is heard while the more constant rhythm is omitted, therefore easing the tension. Well, I say learn to be comfortable with those tension and challenge your listeners a bit. Check out this beautiful example from James Blake titled “I Never Learnt to Share”. The kick drum enters at the 1:51 mark followed by the voice and keyboard. Notice the lavish keyboard fills that purposefully conflict with the rhythm of the kick and the voice. This helps to bring out the emotional, tension filled value of the lyrics:

6) Cross-rhythm (Rhythm against Meter)

Click image to enlarge
Now that you have a working knowledge of polyrhythm, it makes it easier to explain other rhythmic devices. A cross-rhythm is a polyrhythm that occurs in a longer span of time, not only conflicting against another rhythm, but also against the given meter of the music. This device has it’s roots in sub saharan West African music and can be heard in almost every type of electronic dance music genre.
In my example, the cross-rhythm is provided by the 808 side-stick and is highlighted in orange. What do you first notice about the distance between the side-stick hits? Answer: They are all, with the exception of the last two hits, three 1/16 notes apart from each other. It’s almost as if this instrument is not in 4/4 time, but in 3/16 time. This rhythm is not only conflicting against the rhythm heard as a composite of the kick, snare and hi-hat, but also with the larger structural meter of 4/4. This exact same example of 3/16 conflicting with 4/4 can be seen in an earlier post of mine about Parallel Harmony.
Luckily, cross-rhythm has staying power and can be heard everywhere in popular dance music. Here’s a recent example producer-extraordinaire Zomby from his track “Natalia’s Song”. Right off the bat we here the 3/16 vs. 4/4 between the synth and drums:

7) Sesquialtera (3:2)

Don’t be afraid of the word. Sesquialtera is just the fancy term for the occurrence of a triple rhythm and a duple rhythm sounding simultaneously. Again, this is a type of polyrhythm but can exist in a short or long span of time, and it can be seen in my above example highlighted in yellow. In the polyrhythm example, the relationship was 5:4, and here the relationship is 3:2 (when broken down as far as it can go). So there’s nothing really different here, it’s just that the 3:2 rhythmic device was used so much that they gave it a name.
The real-life example I’m going to give you is by Jamie XX and the late Gil Scott Heron titled “NY is Killing Me”. The thing about producers (digital musicians) today is that we are all trying to find our own sound. We listen to what other producers do in their tracks and either copy them verbatim, resulting in a similar sound, i.e genre, or try to do something completely different. Jamie XX is smart and I’ll tell you why: he noticed that other producers haven’t been using the rhythmic devices mentioned above and decided to incorporate them into his own music. If you listen to a bunch of his tracks, then you’ll start to notice a repeated use of 3:2 relationships, cross-rhythms that are centered around a grouping of 3 beats, and 1/8 and 1/16 notes that are so heavily swung that they almost sound like triplet rhythms:
Here’s another example from Jamie XX where he takes polyrhythm, cross-rhythm, and sesquialtera to the extreme in his remix of Nosaj Thing’s “Fog” (I hope you have some good speakers that can handle the subs):

8) Linear Drumming

This last device I’ll mention is called Linear Drumming and is very simple, fun, and effective. Popularized in the drum community (seriously, YouTube it), Linear Drumming is where a core unit of sounds refrain from sounding simultaneously. In my example, take a closer look at the kick, snare, and hi-hat (highlighted in red, note that the snare is layered). You’ll notice that none of those hits happen at exactly the same time – the result is the Linear Drumming sound. Keep in mind that these are all shorter sounds which helps achieve the desired effect, but that’s not to suggest that longer sounds can’t be used.
A style of music that has really embraced Linear Drumming is drum n bass. Have a listen to Photek’s classic jam “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” and pay attention to the kick, snare, and closed hi-hat. If there ever was a way to “get that sound” in drum n bass, then it’s using chopped up samples and utilizing Linear Drumming:
So, there you go. Hope that was helpful and that it opened up your ears to something new. In my example I used all of these devices in a single four-measure clip. That does not mean that you have to use all of the tricks you have at the same time. Yes, it could sound cool but it could also have the reverse effect and take away from the track as a whole. As always, use and trust your ears and you’ll make the right decisions.

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