Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Many great artists, songwriters, and producers are guided by their ears with years of experience, creating music that excites them in their own unique style. Knowledge of music theory concepts helps many of them reach this point and can be a crucial foundation to build from when crafting an artistic identity.
The following information is meant to be a guide for anyone looking to develop their understanding of rhythm in the world of beat-making, with basic visual examples from a digital audio workstation (DAW) for reference.
What is Rhythm?
Simply put, rhythm in music is defined as “the placement of sounds over time.” When it comes to beat-making, one of the greatest strengths one can have is a strong grasp on the fundamentals of rhythm in order to create infrastructure for musical productions.
In order to understand how sounds are placed in time within the music you listen to, and how to place sounds throughout music in your own exciting way, it is extremely helpful to be familiar with time signatures. Time signatures can be found on written sheet music and in digital audio workstations and look like this:
Time signatures tell us how the rhythm of a piece of music is organized. Music is divided into segments called measures, also commonly known as bars, and time signatures tell us how many beats to count in one bar and what the rhythmic value of each beat is.
The time signature you’ll find most often in popular music genres is 4/4 time, also known as common time. Though many other time signatures exist, the focus of this guide will be 4/4 time.
The top number of a time signature denotes the number of beats per bar, and the bottom number represents the rhythmic value of each beat. So, in 4/4 time, the top “4” tells us that there are four beats in each bar, and the bottom “4” tells us that every beat is given the value of a quarter note. This is demonstrated by the basic rhythm below.
Guidelines for Rhythm in 4/4 Time
To create a general framework for a rhythm in 4/4 time, we need to be mindful of the strong beats in each bar throughout the entire process. These beats will be given added emphasis or assigned specific functions in order to provide you (and your listeners) with a strong, followable rhythm.
Beat one, or the downbeat, is recognized as the most emphasized beat in the majority of music. It is extremely probable in most cases to hear a kick drum (or punchy 808 sound) on the downbeat to signal to the listener that the bar has started.
What happens on the following three beats can be highly dependent on the feel of the song or the desired genre or production style. The following examples are general guidelines that are common in popular music and can serve as good templates for beat construction.
In what is called “regular time,” the downbeat of a bar may be followed by a secondary kick drum sound on beat three. Accents, usually in the form of snares or claps, will fall on beats two and four, creating an alternating pattern of kick and snare.
In various types of dance music, the kick drum will instead appear on all four beats, often referred to as “four on the floor.”
In what is called “half time,” the tempo, or speed of the music, will feel slowed down by half due to the downbeat and subsequent accented beat being more spaced-out. In these cases, bars will consist of a downbeat followed by an accent on beat three. This is a technique found in modern trap beats as well as pop songs with less intense pacing.
Additional Rhythmic Elements
Emphasizing the downbeat with a kick drum sound (or 808) and then choosing which beat(s) to accent with your snare or clap will give you a skeletal beat to develop further. Once this format has been laid out, the most common element to incorporate next is a hi-hat. A closed hi-hat sound typically outlines the tempo by falling on all four beats, in addition to decorating the spaces between beats. Customizing the pattern of your hi-hat can help you determine the way that your rhythm ebbs and flows with the downbeat and accent beats.
After hi-hats, there are several other elements that can be included to add further complexity and interest to your rhythm. Common examples include:
A crash cymbal on the downbeat for added emphasis
An open hi-hat sound on or between accent beats
Tom drums for ornamentation or build-up between beats
Auxiliary percussion sounds to brighten up accent beats or fill space between beats
Loops of instruments like tambourines or shakers to add intensity or momentum
Another thing to keep in mind is the upbeat, or the final beat of a bar before the downbeat of the next bar. On the fourth beat, transitionary variations in rhythm or instrumentation are often implemented to build brief excitement or tension, which is released by the downbeat of the following measure.
To put the above information into practice, create a MIDI region on a drum kit track in your DAW and use the pencil tool to create MIDI events that outline the described guidelines. Listen back, experiment with timing and placement, and enjoy the process of creating strong and exciting rhythms for your productions.
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