Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 3 – rhythm super-basics

Kpopalypse is back with more music theory class!  This time we’re learning all about rhythm!

I conducted a Twitter poll where I asked people whether they wanted me to write about rhythm next, or music reading.  Most people chose rhythm, which for me was unsurprising, as rhythm is the most important element in any form of popular music.  Although it’s certainly nice, you don’t need to be able to read music in order to write a song, however it is essential for any songwriter that they at least understand rhythm on some level, even if it’s only subconsciously.  So, what is rhythm and why does it matter so much?

If you remember the “time frame” from the previous episode, in a very general sense, rhythm is just filling up our time frame with “some stuff”.  However not all “stuff” actually “sounds rhythmic”, even though technically, all of it is, because all sounds in a composition are happening within the designated “time frame” or they are not part of the composition to begin with.  Humans tend to perceive rhythm better when the distances between stuff and things are more regular.  It’s not known why this is – my personal theory is that that being in a womb for 9 months before birth listening to nothing but your mother’s muffled heartbeat predisposes all people subconsciously to repetitive patterns – but that could be bullshit and the real reason might be that it is just mathematically easier to appreciate “doof doof doof” than “doofds fosdeiuf asddsnfynbp psdfui npiusd afnpaids”.  The important point here is that for whatever reason, humans like regularity in their rhythm, and so any piece of music that is trying to appeal to a wide array of people (such as say, your fave’s next comeback) had better feature a regular rhythmic pulse in it of some description.  This desire for regular rhythm isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s a feature of almost all music that has ever been created.

All musical instruments (including the human voice) can produce rhythm, because all musical instruments (that work) can exist in a state of “making sound” or “not”, and it’s the oscillation between these two states that produces rhythm.  The easiest instrument to look at when trying to discern rhythmic patterns is the drum, so that’s mainly what we’ll look at in this post.  Most drums in Korean pop are in fact not real drums, but samples (drums that have been recorded earlier in another setting and are electronically played back) or synths (an electronic simulation of a “drum-like” sound), but this doesn’t actually matter because the function of drums in pop music is the same – to produce a rhythmic pattern, upon which other stuff can be overlaid.  As a primary element of pop music, drums in “upbeat” songs are usually placed at high volume in the mix, often second in volume only to vocals, so looking at drums is good for analysis purposes to determine different rhythms.

As we haven’t tackled music reading yet, I’m going to notate rhythm using my own special system that any 11-year old BTS fan who spends too much time on Twitter can probably read, and which I also use in music teaching to quickly teach people who can’t read music how to interpret and reproduce rhythm.  So this isn’t “textbook” learning, this is very “pragmatic” learning, which is “semi” textbook, but also “semi” a lot of other things.  In this system:

V denotes a block of time where a certain drum is played

– denotes a block of time where a certain drum is not played

| denotes the passage of a certain amount of time

The use of | denotes the start of a ‘bar’.  This ‘barline’ is part of actual proper music theory convention.  A bar is a certain block of time, which in popular music usually (but not always) represents a count of four beats.  The beats can go at different speeds (measured in BPM – beats per minute), and this rate can also vary over time if it needs to, but the beats stay regular to an extent – there’s generally no huge time shifts from one beat to the next, because this disrupts the “feeling of rhythm” too much for most listeners.

So if we were to write a beat where a drum is played four times in a repeated pattern, while somebody counts “1, 2, 3, 4”, then we would have this:

| V V V V
| 1 2 3 4

Which, not coincidentally, is the exact beat played in this song at 0:07:

However it would also be possible to magnify the time here, by also adding a “block” for what happens in between each beat.  If we did that, we’d have this:

| V - V - V - V -
| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Above is the same beat, but we’re looking at eight subdivisions per bar instead of four to show the space in between each drum hit.  You could magnify the beat even further, into sixteen blocks:

| V - - - V - - - V - - - V - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

And so on.  All three examples above sound exactly the same, it’s just different levels of magnification.  How much you magnify your scale is an issue of clarity – it depends on what sort of beat you’re looking at, and also what sort of other elements over the top you want to look at.  For now, this is just to illustrate the concept that the space between the beats exists and can be quantified.  When analysing a beat or rhythmic pulse of some kind, it’s generally best to use eight subdivisions per bar of four beats, minimum.  The reason why this is the case, is because you’re always going to want to look at what’s between the beats – the “off-beats”.  A drumbeat that is just striking exactly on the beat all the time, with no variation at all, is exceptionally rare in pop music, because such a beat is actually really fucking boring to listen to and doesn’t tend to help create catchy music.  Humans do like repetition, but we don’t like completely mindless droning repetition for minutes on end.  On the other hand, nothing but off-beats sounds a bit weird too (and after a while tends to create the illusion that the off-beat is actually the beat itself).  Most drumbeats tend to contain a mixture of drums played on the beat, and between the beat.  In order to show this accurately, we’ll stick to a minimum magnification of 16 divisions of the bar for our analysis examples.

The other factor to consider is that not all drums are equal, and most beats don’t tend to consist of just one drum being hit over and over.  If you’re not familiar with the most common types of drums that make up a drum set, here’s a great video that goes through it all.

When we’re writing down our patterns, it helps to differentiate between different types of drums, if that applies.  A traditional rock drum pattern that you might hear in a very straightforward rock song, is something like this:

| ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

In the above scenario, the (V) represents the bass drum, the (*) is the snare drum and the (^) is the hi-hat, whereas the (-) represents the passage of each sixteenth of a bar.  So we have the bass drum playing on beats 1 and 3, the snare drum on 2 and 4, and the hi-hat playing on each beat as well as between each beat.  Example in an actual rock song:

So now let’s apply our fairly simplistic model to some different rhythms in k-pop songs, so we can visualise the sound of common beats.

Snuper’s “Platonic Love” starts with three snare hits as an introduction at 0:14 before the beat begins.  Once it starts, the beat is similar to AC/DC example:

| ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - | ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - | - - - - - - - - - - - - x - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - V - - - V - - - - - | V - - - - - V - - - V - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

The hi-hat (^) and snare (*) follow exactly the same pattern as the AC/DC song, but the bass drum (V) does not, falling at the two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half points instead of directly on beat three.  This deliberate dodging around the beat has a name – syncopation.  While this is a very simplistic form of syncopation, this is the primary element that separates Snuper’s beat from AC/DC’s beat, giving Snuper’s song a different, lighter rhythmic feel.  Very generally speaking, playing more on the off-beat tends to give songs a “lighter” sound, whereas playing on the on-beat is “heavier” because it’s emphasising a pulse that already has emphasis in the mind.  Of course this isn’t the only reason why Snuper’s song sounds more “pop” and less “rock” than AC/DC (the instrument choice of synths over guitars is the main reason) but it certainly is a factor – “Platonic Love” in my opinion would feel strangely leaden with the bass drum hitting directly on beat three instead of before and after it, and likewise “Who Made Who” would lose a lot of its punch if the bass drum was playing a syncopated off-beat pattern.

The other notable difference with Snuper’s song is that on beat four of every second bar, the snare drum is doubled with an electronic clap sound, I’ve indicated this with the x.  This doesn’t change the feel of the rhythm drastically because it’s still happening in the same place as the snare drum, it’s just there for a bit of extra 80s synthpop flavour (in the 80s, synthesised handclaps were big).

Off-beats are quite a common rhythmic trick to give beats a bit more lightness and groove:

| - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

Momoland’s beat from 0:08 is pretty straightforward like AC/DC as well, with one important difference – the hats (^) only play off the beat, never on.  Well, actually they are probably playing “on” but the “on hit” is so much quieter than the “off hit” that it kind of gets swallowed up by the snare drum anyway, a phenomenon known as “audio masking” which I’ll talk about more another time.  In any case, the off-beat effect definitely makes the song sound lighter and “more poppy”.

Now let’s look at a slightly more complex beat:

| ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ | ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
| - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - | - - - - - - - - - - - - x - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - V - - - - - - - V - | - - - - - - V - - - V - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

The beat for Apink’s “Eung Eung” kicks in at 0:19, and has even less on-beat bass drum than “Platonic Love”.  The bass drum (V) only hits on the beat at the start of every second bar, and dodges the on-beat the rest of the time.  However the snare stays consistently on beats two and four.  There’s also another doubling of the snare on the fourth beat of the second bar, marked with the (x), except instead of a handclap it’s a really exaggerated synth tom sound.  The other difference here is that Apink’s hi-hats are twice as fast as Snuper’s – the hi-hats are playing a sixteenth-beat pattern (sixteen hits per bar, or four per beat).  Sixteenth-beat hats are popular for styles like funk and disco, and very fast-hi-hats are also a defining characteristic of trap music.

Let’s look now at a trap-influenced beat to see how it differs.

| - - - - - - - - - - - - ' - ''''' ' ' ' ' - ' - ' - ' ' ' - - -
| ^ - ^ ^ ^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
| - - - - - - - - * - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - * - - - - - - -
| V - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - - - - -
| 1 - - - + - - - 2 - - - + - - - 3 - - - + - - - 4 - - - + - - -

I’ve had to increase the granularity of the “magnification” by another 4x for Blackpink’s “Ddu-du Ddu-du”, as the song has quite a slow beat with a lot of detail going on, although I’ve only drawn in every 32nd beat of silence instead of every 64th division just so it doesn’t look too messy here.  Hopefully you get the idea anyway.

Starting from 0:10 “Ddu-du Ddu-du” actually has two different hi-hat sounds, the beat begins with a duller more naturalistic sound (^) that sounds like hi-hats from a real drumkit before switching just after the second beat to a brighter more characteristically machine-driven hi-hat (‘) that is more commonly associated with trap.  The hats continue to vary a lot throughout the song, constantly speeding up and slowing down in tempo while also changing in pattern (this variation is also a common trap quirk), but the slow bass drum and snare drum pulse remains the same throughout.  As a general rule, slower beats tend to be more rhythmically complicated, not less – because with more space between the beats to work with, there’s more room to insert details.

| ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - | ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - | V - - - - - - - - - V - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

| ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - | ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - - ^ - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - | V - - - - - - - - - V - - - V -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

Loona yyxy’s “Love4Eva” from 0:24 demonstrates this concept well – it’s a much faster song than Blackpink’s or anything else in this post, ripping along at 204 BPM which is crazily fast for a k-pop song, hence I’ve had to double up on bars just to fit the whole pattern of the beat in, but the rhythm itself is actually not that complicated.  As the pace is quite quick, the hats are playing on the beat only, and the only variation is at the end of every second bar where the bass drum pattern changes.  In a fast song, too much detail can sound messy to the ear and make the rhythm seem indistinct, and indistinct rhythms aren’t very catchy or conducive to pop music.  Just a little variation is often enough when the song is also crammed full of other details.

| ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ | ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
| - - - - - - - - - - - - - - x - | - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - | V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

A small detail is often all it takes to make a beat interesting.  Aseul’s “Always With You” has quick sixteenth-beat hi-hats but pretty straightforward four-on-the-floor on-beat playing, it’s the insertion of that echoey handclap just after the fourth beat in every group of two bars that helps keep things interesting, like Snuper it’s a “flavour” addition but in this case because it’s off-beat where all the other drums are on the beat, it really changes the feel of the drums.

Of course drums aren’t the only rhythmic element in music.  As mentioned earlier, all instruments have rhythm – drums are just the most obvious way that rhythm is conveyed.  In Aseul’s case the drums are quite basic but the synth bass is also prominent, and quite varied rhythmically, as a deliberate contrast to the drumming.  Let’s expand the picture of Aseul’s song from two bars to four, and add in the places in the groove where the synth bass hits.

| ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ | ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
| - - - - - - - - - - - - - - x - | - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| A - - - A - - - A - A - - - A - | - - A - A - - - - - A - - - A -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - | V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

 

| ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ | ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
| - - - - - - - - - - - - - - x - | - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| - - - - A - - - A - A - - - A - | - - A - A - - - A - - - A - - -
| V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - - | V - - - - - - - V - - - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

Here’s the beat again from 0:04, but with the bass (A) added in.  As you can see, the bass is highly syncopated, playing off the beat just as much as on the beat, and with no two bars being quite alike.  Like Blackpink’s hi-hats, this pattern doesn’t stay completely consistent throughout the song even when it wraps around, but is always changing slightly, while still retaining the same general feel.  Through the addition of the strong bass sound, a fairly basic rhythm has become much more interesting to listen to.  Everyone playing complex all the time is just too confusing for most listeners, and everyone only playing simply can get boring.  It’s common for songs in all genres to try and aim for that perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, by giving some instruments simple parts and offsetting that with more complicated parts for a different musician in the same section of the same piece.

| ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ^ - | ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - V - - - - V - V V - - - - - | V - V - - - - V - V V - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

In BOL4’s “Fix Me” we can hear the same principle applied in reverse.  The intro and chorus bass drum pattern is more complicated, and I’ve also used (^) and (‘) to indicate the hi-hats varying in volume, so the other instruments on top are kept more rhythmically simple to create a balance.  Add the melody guitar (m) and rhythm guitar (r), and you have this in the intro:

| ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ^ - | ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ' - ^ - ^ -
| m - m - - - - - - - - - m - - - | m - m - - - - - - - - - m - m -
| - - - - r - - - - - r - - - r - | - - - - r - - - - - r - - - r -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - V - - - - V - V V - - - - - | V - V - - - - V - V V - - - - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

The bass drum is still the most complex part of it all, because it’s the most syncopated, and the only instrument that gets to play with sixteenth-beats.  Due to this rubbing against the time of everything else, the bass drum really sticks out from all the other instruments.

I’ll give this highly-syncopated beat as the final example for this post:

| - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ - | - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| V - - - - - - V - - V - - - - - | V - V - - - - V - - V - - V - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

NeonPunch’s “Tic Toc” is a very rhythmically busy song, right from the start at 0:09.  Add the intro vocals and you get this:

| - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ - | - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| - - - - n n - n - n - n - - - - | - - - - n n - n - n - n - n - n
| V - - - - - - V - - V - - - - - | V - V - - - - V - - V - - V - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

And then bring in the other strong rhythmic element, the funk guitar, and it’s this:

| - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ - | - - - - ^ ^ ^ - - ^ - - ^ - ^ -
| - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - - | - - - - * - - - - - - - * - - -
| g - g - g - g g - g - g - g g - | g - g - g - g g - g - g - g g -
| - - - - n n - n - n - n - - - - | - - - - n n - n - n - n - n - n
| V - - - - - - V - - V - - - - - | V - V - - - - V - - V - - V - -
| 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + - | 1 - + - 2 - + - 3 - + - 4 - + -

It’s a lot of information to take in, and this is why often when people relisten to songs that they first heard a while ago, they often hear elements that completely skipped them by the first time.  Perception of rhythm is as much about how the brain processes rhythm as it is about the rhythms themselves.

Through these examples I’ve ignored so far the existence of “drum fills”.  Drummers don’t just tend to play the beat all the time, but often add extra hits, usually at the end of a number of bars, often to highlight and/or build up to a transition between two different sections of music, this is especially common in rock drumming but exists in other styles as well.  In k-pop “live drums” are rare but drum fills are still often recreated electronically to serve the same purpose and you’ll hear them all over k-pop including in most of the examples above.  I’ve also ignored some other stuff that pertains to rhythm, like odd time-signatures, “swing” and “polyrhythm”, as well as rhythm in k-pop songs that don’t follow typical pop rhythmic conventions, but I’ll cover that stuff later.  This is just the very basics for now, and it probably bored the crap out of anyone who already knows all this stuff, but it’s important in this series to lay the groundwork before I can talk about more complex things.  Happy listening, and music theory class will return soon!

4 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 3 – rhythm super-basics

  1. Pingback: Mel in Anime Land Diary | Year 2, Week 21 – Mel in Anime Land

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