The Rhythmic Turnaround: How to make your beats interesting
Why boom bap boom boom bap is not enough for your beats
There’s a fine line in rhythm-based music between repetition and variance. It’s certainly necessary to introduce new things to keep listeners interested, but repetition is equally important. In beat making, it’s really all about repetition – without being overly repetitive.
Striking this balance can be a little tricky, but one of the best places is to start is with the beat. IE: the actual drum track. Drum tracks are by nature the most repetitive part of most songs, and they need to be. The drum track is there to keep the beat and give the song a foundation to sit on. So, they need to establish a pattern and basically stick to it. Too much noodling around and you lose the groove. But a drum pattern can also be too repetitive, which can suck the life out of a track.
What to do? There are a million options, but one of the best is what I call the rhythmic turnaround. Before we get specific, let’s talk a little about why this works.
Rhythm and The Brain
Keeping it simple, let’s just say the brain responds to rhythm differently than other aspects of music. In “This Is Your Brain On Music”, Daniel Levitin says “Our response to groove is largely pre- or unconscious because it goes through the cerebellum rather than the frontal lobes.” In other words, music is visceral. You move and react to it without thinking.
Sam Brinson points out that when “we’re surprised by an off-timed beat or a different rhythm altogether, the blood flow increases to this area, our brains are surprised… and a little excited because it’s these surprises and deviations that make the music interesting.”
This means that a little bit of variation will go a long way toward keeping your listener engaged on a very fundamental level. Not only that, the brain tends to respond well to certain types of variation, namely ones based on simple integer ratios.
That’s just a fancy way to say what we said above: changes are good. But repetition is also good, because listening to something again and again, whether that’s a whole song or a phrase repeated during that song, causes the brain to listen differently, and pay better attention to subtle changes and differences.
In other words, repetition and variation work together to make an interesting beat.
The Rhythmic Turnaround
Quite technically, what we’re about to talk about isn’t a turnaround in the strictest sense, but I call it that because it occurs over the last part of a phrase and serves to lead back into the repeated phrase in an interesting way.
Consider the quintessential pop/hip-hop/rock rhythm – the boom bap boom boom bap:
This is a one measure phrase that’s often-repeated ad nauseum throughout a song. While it sometimes works, played on its own it can feel a little wrong. You can make it feel more balanced by turning it into a two-measure phrase with some kind of change at the end of the phrase:
Here I’ve simply added another kick hit which leads the phrase back into itself. A lot of times, this tiny change can make all the difference. For some songs, though, you might need a four-measure phrase. Something like this:
Here I’ve varied the back third of measure four, leading the rhythm back into the first measure. This not only creates a little interest, it also makes the track feel more balanced.
Something interesting to note here is that the longer the phrase, the longer the variance. When we varied the most basic one bar rhythm, we changed the last beat of measure two. In the four-bar measure, we changed a proportionately longer bit of the end of the phrase. In an eight-bar phrase, we might vary the last measure or two to create this turnaround.
The Power of Silence
In the previous examples, we added or moved notes to create a rhythmic change, but it’s just as powerful to take things away. Let’s take the other ubiquitous rhythm- boom boom bap boom boom bap:
You may recognize this rhythm from Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. In their case, it works perfectly, partly because of Freddy Mercury’s vocal groove, and partly because the point of the track’s intro is simplicity.
You can create variants to turn this beat around in a number of ways, including removing notes:
We only removed one kick note and moved another, but it changes the feel drastically. For another example, let’s put silence where there was a note before:
This four-bar loop omits the snare on the four of measures two and four, which creates a short drop. I’ve further varied the rhythm by adding an extra hi-hat hit on measure four. And for good measure, the hi-hat sample has a slight delay effect, further altering the rhythm.
Fills vs. Variants
A drum fill is any variation between sections which marks the transition from one part of a song to another. There’s a small difference between that and a variant, which serves to keep interest and lead the listener back into the loop.
In practice the two may not be all that different. A fill could be as small as one beat or as long a couple of measures, and a variant might be just as long. That said, a true fill is usually more complex:
This is the same rhythm as above, only instead of leaving the snare out at the end of the four-bar phrase, we’ve added sixteenth notes, creating a simple quarter measure fill. This kind of fill pulls the listener forward and can also be used in the same way as a simpler variant, or as a turnaround.
Some longer fills don’t necessarily work as variants because they cause the listener to leave the groove. For example:
While still in time, this whole measure fill temporarily interrupts the basic groove, which helps demarcate a new section. This would be useful for moving into a chorus, or simply into a new part of a verse.
One Of Many Tools
A great beat starts with the rhythm itself. A great rhythm can be banged out on a table, worked up in Ableton, or written out as sheet music. These patterns are the foundation of a great track, so it’s useful to know how to write rhythms that are interesting and compelling, even before you start tweaking timbres and effects.
A rhythmic turnaround is just one of many tools you have at your disposal in this endeavor, and now you can try it out on your next track, if you haven’t already! Just make sure to listen and trust your ears – after all, rules were made to be broken!
Until next time, may your beats stay fresh and your grooves tight!