If you have ever studied music, even just a smidge, you probably realize that music is MATH put to sound. From primal drumming by a Sioux tribesman in South Dakota, to the droning of a Didgeridoo by an Aborigine in the Outback of Australia, to the frenzied beat of a Bantu war dance in the heart of the Congo, basic mathematics is on full display for all to hear. A slightly more involved bit of math is on display when you listen to Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach, or when you hear a restrained Koto being plucked at a Shinto temple in Tokyo. It gets even more complicated when you listen to modern music from Tim McGraw or Luke Bryon, Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran, The Rippingtons or John Coltrane. It doesn’t matter what genre you listen to (or work with), it’s ALL mathematics.
That kinda takes the romance out of your favorite love ballad, doesn’t it? The Eagles, Earth Wind and Fire and Led Zeppelin songs can all be broken down into simple numbers. Understanding those numbers can be the key to unlocking the sweet, sweet mysteries of the music you work with, giving you a decided edge in the production game. Knowing the numbers and how they work together can make your rhythm and flow to new heights, making your work compelling to the listener, even when the message is crap.
This month and next, I’m going to break some of those numbers down for you. Don’t for one second think that simply reading this word stew will make you a brilliant producer. It won’t. I present this as a stimulus to your brain. I want you to dig deep into the music universe and start to SEE these numeric relationships. Take it as a personal challenge to explore all the possibilities. Push yourself to experiment. I feel extremely confident that every experiment you try will have been tried before, but it is in the trying you will learn that Mathematics has a set of immutable rules that will always lead you to the same place: resolution.
The ORIGINAL drum is sitting in your chest beating evenly, hopefully calmly as you read this. It’s bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP ad infinitum until the day you close your eyes for the last time. That is, in music speak, a simple 2 beat time signature. Two beats in every cycle, for the rest of your life. It goes faster when you run, swim or dance. In a normal, resting human adult, it beats 60 to 90 times per minute, unless you’re an athlete, then it might be closer to 40 beats per minute. (The stronger, more fit you are, the more efficient per beat the heart is in getting the blood pumped throughout your body.)
When your body perceives a competing rhythm, like a bass drum on a music track, your brain goes into what I call “simpatico” mode, trying to match the external beat. Most people feel the urge to move around a bit more when they hear dance music because the brain wants the tempos to match. Most dance music is 120+BPM, so when that pounding kicks in, it feels like the most natural thing in the world to get up and dance, or at least bob your head and squirm around in your seat. Later, when the club DJ throws on that killer ballad, the floor fills up with folks who are feeling more romantic AND those who are perhaps less athletic. Next time you attend a wedding, track the ages of dancers for differing tempos and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
At the other extreme, many people have discovered that “white noise,” or a constant whoosh helps them sleep. If you’ve ever spent the night near the ocean, chances are high that the sound of the constant surf helped you sleep more deeply and soundly. The endless whoosh of water hitting the sand in slow rollers blocks other sounds and the tempo is so slow that the brain stops trying to make the heart’s tempo be sympathetic with any external tempo. When I was growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, it was the constant drone of my window air conditioning unit that blocked other noise and allowed my brain to shut down the simpatico urge. During my four years of high school, I slept like a baby in the warmer months. It still works like a charm when I’m in a hotel/motel with a room unit. I am deep asleep within a couple of minutes.
So that’s all physiology. Let’s complicate things a bit.
Earlier, I described the heart having two beats every cycle. Mathematically, that is as simple as it gets. In music, a cycle is called a measure or bar. Every bar of music has a certain number of beats, just as your heart has two. Most of the music you’ll work with over the years will be ‘even’ as in 4 beats per bar. In spite of what some think (particularly club DJs), rhythm is more than just BPM. Beats Per Minute is only about tempo. If tempo were the only factor, every promo and commercial would have a 115 to 132 BPM track to get the listener’s heart to react and that would be the end of it. Rhythm is far more complex, adding some spice to the beat and at the same time helps you understand music construction.
Rhythm is mainly about emphasis. The heart’s rhythm is bump-BUMP, with the emphasis on the second beat in the cycle. Most country, rock, blues and in fact MOST of the music you’ll work with uses a similar beat with a longer measure: bump-BUMP-bump-BUMP. In musician’s parlance, that’s called a “back-beat.” I personally hold that the back-beat is most similar to the heartbeat (just a doubled bar) and so tends to get the fastest reaction in the casual listener.
Once every few years, you might run into a Waltz rhythm, which is 3 beats to the measure: BUMP-bump-bump, BUMP-bump-bump and so on. I only mention it because it does happen, but it’s pretty rare except in Classical Music formats.
Latin music is the spiciest of all genres. They introduce little grace beats between the main beats, emphasizing different beats and de-emphasizing others, making this style one of the most difficult to pin down. However, if you listen for the repeating beats, it gets pretty simple.
When you step into the world of Jazz, it’s like going to crazy town. When Lalo Schifren (Brazilian winner of buckets of scoring awards) wrote the TV theme for Mission: Impossible, he made it FIVE beats to the bar, which is extremely difficult to dance to unless you are classically trained. When Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. (half of the band U2) got the nod to re-create it for the Tom Cruise film versions, they switched it up into a 4 beats per bar tune. You can listen to it HERE. You can clearly hear the rhythm change at 19 seconds from the beginning (5 beats) to the main part (4 beats), BUT the brain rebels and that first measure at 4 beats is almost done before your brain catches up to what’s going on.
THAT is a key point in this column. The rhythm is what helps the listener (and you) understand where the measure begins and ends. When you change that without warning, the brain has to recycle to create simpatico with the heart again. The reason it’s important to you in your work might seem obscure until you try to edit the music to fit whatever production you are doing. This is always true, regardless of genre.
If you cut from the third beat of one bar to the first of another, it forces the brain to reset. You LOSE that 2 or 3 second moment of the message, quite possibly that key moment when the USP is supposed to become clear. Because the subconscious mind is searching for the right rhythm, it forces the brain to lose track of everything else. That’s bad. Very, very BAD. Adam and Larry did it as a sort of homage to Lalo Schifren and at the same time denoted the Mission: Impossible franchise being reborn. It’s actually a brilliant creative move which is OK because they are not hyping a money giveaway or zit cream. You cannot do that because you are. The message is kind of important, y’know? Interrupting the flow of the rhythm fights that.
If you’re struggling to keep up with all the math here (“NOBODY TOLD ME THERE WOULD BE MATH!”) don’t feel alone. When you’re done reading, let me suggest one more online stop before you move onto something else. Check out this video: youtube.com/watch?v=NHxVoGTdymY from an online music teacher named Saher Galt. He has a fairly large library of videos that teach singing skills, sight reading music and, most importantly in this case, counting simple rhythms. Watch this one and learn. When he urges you to count along, do it. You will find it simple to do and it will almost instantly open up an entire world of information with most of the music you ever work with in your production.
So we’ve touched on Beats and Rhythm. There is more, much more, but this is a great beginning. I urge you to play around a bit with these most basic tools of music and see if you can visualize the mathematics. I’ll have more math next time as we expand our view to include melody and harmony. You can make the beats/rhythm perfect, but if the melody and harmony are off, even a little, it’s almost as bad as skipping a beat. You need resolution to make the music work FOR you. Math will always deliver it. Follow the math and you will always deliver resolution to the listener, and that, my friend, is production Nirvana.