The following information on how singers can communicate with their bands is an excerpt from the Berklee Online course Music Career Essentials for the Professional Singer, authored by Ashlee Varner, which is enrolling now.
As a band leader or singer with professional ambitions, you’ll need to work with other musicians, and what is most essential for communicating and collaborating is that you expand your vocabulary to describe the sounds we hear in music. Here we’ll focus on the vocabulary used to describe specific rhythmic elements that make up a particular groove. We’ll identify and demonstrate the pulse, meter, and subdivision of a song and how these relate to genre classification. Then we’ll apply your aural transcription skills to create written notation for what you’re hearing. This is an important skill for singers to develop, not only to expand your transcriptionist skill set, but also to have a more efficient way of communicating to your rhythm section or producer what you want to hear. From an educational perspective, this type of transcription and analysis will also provide you with a better understanding of what has been done in music historically, what elements are common within and across various genres, and may also provide creative inspiration for your own writing and arranging. So let’s get into it!
Duple/Quadruple Straight Eighth and Straight Sixteenth Grooves
We find duple and quadruple straight eighth and straight sixteenth grooves in many genres. Although the subdivision stays the same, the way that the rhythms are dispersed throughout the instruments of the rhythm section may differ, depending on the genre. You may also find that some music is not so easily distinguishable and may need to be described by specific instrument rhythms. As you listen, you will start to differentiate between specific performances of styles and grooves.
Quadruple Straight Eighth Grooves
Quadruple straight eighth grooves refers to music with a repeated four-beat pulse. The pulse is represented by a quarter note, with rhythms that may be subdivided evenly into straight eighth notes. Listen to the following excerpt:
“Shivers” by Ed Sheeran (Pop)
Notice the straight eighth groove is mostly heard in the ticking sound, similar to a hi-hat sound. You can hear a clap sound on beats 2 & 4. There is a very produced kick drum sound on beat 1 of every other measure. There are no chords at the beginning, only a string synth sound played in short rhythmic hits that the singer glides over, and outlines the harmony one note at a time.
As the groove continues, a synthesizer plays held chords (or pads), then changes texture to one held note for the chorus. The guitar plays individual notes until the chorus, where the texture changes to strummed chords as rhythmic hits (different rhythms from the short one-note string rhythms). Check out the texture of the string sound in relation to the guitar rhythm on the chorus.
Now, check out Jason Aldean’s “If I Didn’t Love You.” Decide which instruments you hear playing the eighth-note groove.
“If I Didn’t Love You” by Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood (Country)
Notice the straight eighth groove in the first verse is mostly heard in the guitar. The guitar is playing short repeated eighth notes. Another guitar plays long held notes one at a time after the singer comes in. In this groove, the claps fall only on 4, not on the typical backbeat, or beats 2 and 4.
On the prechorus, the guitars strum, holding each new chord, and the piano enters playing a high range two-note ostinato that occasionally adds an extra melody note. By the chorus, the eighth note pattern can be heard in the vocal melody, occasionally in the guitar melody, and is also played on a cymbal. The snare drum is playing 2 & 4 and the kick drum plays the 1 & 3.
Comparing the genres, they use different devices to start with thinner textures. In “Shivers,” the texture stays thin because the music doesn’t have any chords playing yet. In “If I Didn’t Love You,” the texture is thin because the guitar chords are not held and the clap sound only occurs on the 2 & 4. Both songs use a rhythmic melody in the chorus to help distinguish the changes in the harmony.
By the chorus, both songs have a thicker texture because they combine both rhythmic strumming patterns and long held chords either in guitars or the synth. The full groove does not enter until the chorus. The pop song uses more synthesized sounds, with the acoustic guitar providing a bit of rhythmic material. The country song relies more on the drive of the electric guitars.
Check out these other examples for more straight eighth subdivision grooves:
- “Memories” by Buju Banton featuring John Legend (Reggae)
- “Every Little Thing” by J Boog featuring Fiji (Reggae)
- “The Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud and João Gilberto (Bossa Nova)
- “The Story of Us” by Taylor Swift (Pop)
Quadruple Straight Eighth or Sixteenth with Clave
The clave rhythm has deep roots in Caribbean music traditions. The rhythm has become common in many genres throughout the history of popular music.
The 3-2 Son Clave:
Sometimes, the 3-2 son clave pattern makes it difficult to hear the underlying straight eighth subdivision. It falls within the straight eighth subdivision, but in many popular styles, the clave rhythm can be heard more predominantly than a recurring straight eighth rhythmic pattern, making the clave sound like its own groove category. Keep in mind, though, that subdivisions are the division of the pulse, not the specific rhythmic patterns used over it. While the rhythmic pattern can help a singer decide how to describe the subdivision, it may not sound exactly like the subdivision rhythm. For example, here’s how the clave fits into the straight eighth pattern:
In many popular post-1900 music styles, you may also hear a partial clave pattern, or the first part of the 3-2 son clave, repeated.
Listen to these songs. Count straight eighths with them as the clave plays. What instruments are playing the clave rhythms? Are there any instruments that are playing straight eighths rhythms?
“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran (Pop)
The percussion and the vibraphone sound are both playing this partial clave rhythm for most of the song. As the percussion rhythms become more complex, they still accent the continued partial clave rhythm. Determine whether it’s straight eighths by listening to the vocal melody of the singer. “I’m in love with the shape” provides a mix of straight eighth and sixteenth patterns.
Although the melody can be used as a reference to determine the subdivision, the groove description is determined by overall rhythm and subdivision of the instruments. Although the melody uses a mix of straight eighth and sixteenth patterns, which could fit within a straight eighth or straight sixteenth subdivision, the underlying groove is a straight eighth clave. Check out this next selection:
“Down” by Fifth Harmony (Pop)
This song starts with snaps on 2 & 4, while the percussive synth sound plays the full 3-2 son clave rhythm almost exactly. We use the same technique to determine the subdivision. Listen to the percussion and the vocal melody, and how the singer interacts with the rhythm. This melody includes both straight eighth and straight sixteenths rhythms, but because the instruments on the track never change to a steady sixteenth subdivision, it’s still considered a straight eighth clave.
Quadruple Straight Sixteenth Grooves
Like quadruple straight eighth grooves, quadruple straight sixteenth grooves also refer to a repeated four-beat pulse, except in this groove, each quarter note is subdivided into sixteenth notes. Listen to the following track:
“New Rules” by Dua Lipa (Dance/Pop)
The beginning of the song is based on the partial clave rhythm in a straight eighth subdivision. This turns into a straight sixteenth groove in the chorus. You can hear the sixteenth groove in the electronic hi-hat sound (sounds a bit like a mix of the jangle of a tambourine with a focused hi-hat sound). The kick drum is heard on beat 1, the + of 2, the + of 3, and the “e” of 4. An electronic snare drum sound is heard on the 2 & 4. There is a pulsing beeping horn-like synth sound that continues on every beat that the singer navigates through. The clave sound continues in a synth keyboard/vibraphone-like sound. A choir-like synthesized pad lies under the rhythms.
Compare this groove to the textures of this next track:
“Sometimes” by H.E.R. (R&B)
The song begins with the chorus, in which the guitar pivots between melodies and strumming chords on beats 2 & 4. The first verse adds an electronic kick drum that falls on the backbeat, or 2 & 4. and electronic snare/clap type of sound on 2 & 4. In the next section when the singer sings, “Now I know that things change,” the drums become more active, playing the sixteenth groove on various parts of the kit, with most of the activity on the kick and snare drum.
By the second verse, the groove changes to straight sixteenth notes on the hi-hat. The straight sixteenth rhythms are also split between the snare on beats 2, 3e, 4, and the kick drum on beats 1, a of 2, + of 3, and the e of 4. As the song grows in the improvised section on the bridge, the cymbals are played in straight eighths to give the build some energy, adding straight eighths on the kick drum at the highest point of energy.
Both songs start with a thinner texture rhythmically before they transition into more consistent sixteenths later in the groove. This is typical of many straight sixteenths groove songs. Some will start with the full groove, but many progress from quarter notes or eighth note grooves to a full sixteenth note groove throughout the song to add energy. The sounds that represent the kick drum usually fall on at beat 1 in the full groove and snare drum/claps fall on the backbeat, or beats 2 & 4 in the full groove. These sounds function similarly in the genres we’ve listened to so far. Both songs keep some complexity of rhythm beneath the sixteenths. On “New Rules,” the clave rhythm continues. In “Sometimes,” the guitar rhythms and fills continue.
Check out the other examples for more straight sixteenth subdivision grooves, and pay attention to how the singers interact with the rhythms:
- “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals
- “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE
- “You Want My Love” by Earth Wind & Fire
- “Sauce” by Remi Wolf
- “This Love” by Maroon 5
- “Sweetest Thing” by U2
- “Love Foolosophy” by Jamiroquai
- “Amber” by 311
- “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson
- “Le Freak” by Chic
Changing and Hybrid Grooves
You may have noticed in your own music that grooves may change throughout a song. The groove might start with a verse in straight eighth subdivision and move to straight sixteenth subdivision during the chorus. Sometimes the drum groove is even more basic in the beginning of the song and the sixteenth groove does not include consistent sixteenth notes. The groove change may create an increase in energy in the chorus.
Listen for an example of this in the following excerpt. When the drums enter, the kick drum plays every four beats, which is referred to as “four on the floor.” It’s a great way to create anticipation for a bigger section. When the song reaches the chorus, the kick drum hits on 1 & 3, while the claps fall on 2 & 4. You hear the hi-hat break into sixteenth rhythms. When the intensity pulls back for the second verse, the hi-hat rhythms are broken up into a mixture of sixteenth notes and eighth notes.
“Green Light” by Lorde (Pop)
So, as a singer or band leader, how do you describe the groove to your band? In this case, you wouldn’t use a general subdivision. You could describe the overall groove (e.g., groove on the choruses) and allow the instrumentalists to make choices to build to the groove. If you wanted to give a more detailed description, you could specify where each groove happens (e.g., a groove for the verse, another for the chorus) and/or describe each pattern specific to sections.
If you have any uncertainty, when you are listening, ask yourself if it would sound closer to the original groove if the drummer played an eighth- or sixteenth-note groove. That gives you a starting description. If it’s too complex, the best way to communicate could be through written notation, beatboxing, or having the band listen to the track before rehearsing. As a singer plays more and more with the same players, the group will develop their own language to communicate these things.
Duple/Quadruple Swing Eighth and Swing Sixteenth Grooves
Quadruple Swing Eighth Grooves
A quadruple swing eighth groove is heard in music that has a repeated four-beat pulse, but is subdivided into three eighth-note triplets. The word “swing” implies that the first two triplets are tied together.
Many people hear the word “swing” and think of jazz. However, a swing eighth subdivision can be heard in many genres, such as reggae, pop, blues, and country. Listen to the following song:
“One Love/People Get Ready” by Bob Marley & the Wailers (Reggae)
The swing eighth groove can be heard in the drums and the keyboard in the intro, while the harmony instruments mostly play on the backbeat (beats 2 & 4) only. Use these accented parts of the beat to determine how to count the pulse and place the quarter note beats, 1 2 3 4, correctly. After the singer comes in, notice that the swing eighth subdivision can predominantly be heard in the vocal line and a faint tambourine-like sound low in the mix.
Occasionally, the swing eighth groove also can be heard in the bass line, keyboard, and guitar.
Now, check out “Cowboy Casanova” by Carrie Underwood. Notice the way the groove is organized in comparison to Bob Marley’s tune. Similarities? Differences?
“Cowboy Casanova” by Carrie Underwood (Country)
Notice the swing eighth groove is heard in various places throughout the groove. In the first eight measures, you can hear triplets in the drums. Then, you can hear the swing eighth rhythms in the violin melody. During the first verse, the swing rhythms are dispersed between the hi-hat and kick drum. The kick continues to play the swing eighth rhythm throughout the song.
Throughout the song, the swing eighth rhythms remain consistently in the vocal melody and the drum set rhythms.
Although the textures of the reggae and country examples are completely different, we find that the swing eighth groove can consistently be heard in a drum or percussion instrument, as well as the vocal line. As you listen to more examples, you will find that the way they are dispersed is not always the same in every song or genre.
For example, in these two selections, you heard the swing eighth in the tambourine in the reggae song, but in the kick and hi-hat in the country song. You may hear the swing eighth subdivision performed by a guitar and/or bass in a boogie woogie or blues shuffle, as in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.”
“Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (Blues/Rock)
Quadruple Swing Sixteenth Grooves
A quadruple swing sixteenth groove is a repeated four-beat pulse that is subdivided first into two eighth notes, then, into three sixteenth-note triplets for every eighth note.
Check out the other examples for more swing eighth subdivision grooves:
- “Is This Love” by Bob Marley & the Wailers – swing eighth (Reggae)
- “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters – swing eighth – shuffle (Blues)
- “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra (Jazz)
- “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King (Rock /Pop)
Quadruple Swing Sixteenth Grooves
In this groove, each quarter note pulse is subdivided into four sixteenth notes. I refer to this groove as the “Fresh Prince” groove. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a TV show that originally aired in the US in the 1990s and featured a swing sixteenths theme song rapped by Will Smith. If you rap a few lines of this and it fits into the groove, it’s probably a swing sixteenth groove. As you listen, you will find other swing sixteenth groove songs to use for reference. Listen to the following excerpt:
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (Hip-hop)
Listen to “How Deep Is Your Love” by PJ Morton. See if you can replace the melodies that the singers have laid down and rap a few bars of the “Fresh Prince” theme over it. You will need to rap at a slower tempo!
“How Deep Is Your Love” by PJ Morton (R&B)
Notice that you hear the swing sixteenth groove in the shaker sound as the hi-hat plays straight eighths. The kick drum is playing rhythms within this subdivision. Look at the drum transcription below as you listen to the beginning of the song.
There is no other instrument in the band that plays consistent swing sixteenth rhythms, but every instrument is playing rhythms that fall within the subdivision.
Check out “Deja Vu” by Ateez. In this example, a consistent swing sixteenth groove is dispersed among different drum set instrument sounds.
“Deja Vu” by Ateez (K-pop)
You will notice that this genre includes some trap sounds, so there are some triplet rhythms mixed within the swing sixteenth groove. This drum pattern is found at the 22-second mark in the video.
As you examine your own song choices, and what you want to perform as a singer, listen actively to each instrument texture and identify what sounds and rhythms differentiate genres. For example, ask yourself these questions:
1) What makes this song R&B and not rock or blues? Is it the subdivision and distribution of the groove or the sound of the instrumentation?
2) Do all or most of the songs in a genre have the same subdivision?
3) Is there a particular sound, instrument, rhythm, or subdivision that indicates the approximate year or decade the recording was created?
Check out the other examples for more swing sixteenth subdivision grooves:
- “On & On” by Erykah Badu (R&B)
- “Waterfalls” by TLC (R&B)
- “Boxes and Squares” by Tank and the Bangas (R&B)
Same Song – Different Subdivisions
We have listened to songs in several subdivisions from multiple genres, so hopefully, you have started to gain a better understanding of how subdivisions are organized across the instrumentation. Let’s check out the same song played in two different subdivisions. We’ve already listened to “How Deep Is Your Love” by PJ Morton. Let’s go back to the original recording of the song. Listen and decide first on the subdivision used.
“How Deep Is Your Love” by Bee Gees (Soft Rock)
What subdivision did you hear?
Listen to the PJ Morton version and compare the instrumentation and textures to the Bee Gees version of the same song.
|Bee Gees Version (1977)
|PJ Morton Version (2017)
|Drums: Straight eighth groove; heard mostly in hi-hat and kick drum
|Drums: Swing sixteenth groove; heard in the shaker and kick drum
|Bass: Sustained notes
|Bass: Short, percussive notes
|Guitar: Acoustic guitar strumming; electric guitar hits on 2 & 4
|Guitar: Electric guitar; melodic fills, rhythmic strumming, and arpeggiation
|Keys/Synth: Pads (held chords)
|Keys/Synth: Pads (held chords)
|Strings: Pads (held chords)
|Strings: Mostly melodies in unison; some chords, but built under top melodic line
|Vocals: The singers sing in three-part harmony at forefront of the sound on chorus; lots of unison singing on the verses
|Vocals: Back and forth between unison and three-part harmony (more improvised lines); the singers are heard more than background vocalists
Even though they use two contrasting subdivisions—the Bee Gees version is straight eighths—based on what we’ve observed so far, do these songs fall in the same genre category? Which one?
The Bee Gees version is categorized within a pop or soft rock genre recorded in the 1970s, while PJ Morton’s is categorized as soul or R&B and recorded in the 2010s. Do you agree with the categorization? Do you think it is the singer or the instrumentalists that determine genre?
Keep in mind that some genres are more likely to be associated with specific subdivisions. For example, people think of jazz as predominantly having swing eighth grooves or R&B and hip-hop as having swing sixteenth grooves. Straight eighths and straight sixteenths are found in many rock songs. Although these associations exist and can help you with the process of elimination when determining correct subdivisions, keep exploring. You could find all four of the previous subdivisions in almost any genre.
As you listen to your own favorite songs and continue to discover new music, consider the sounds being used and how you as the singer and band leader would describe them to other musicians. Pay attention to subdivision and organization of the rhythms in the instrumentation. Identify elements that distinguish a particular song as R&B or pop or country or sounds that are more common in particular eras of each genre.
The more music you listen to, the better you will understand groove descriptions and how much of today’s music is a fusion of many grooves developed over the past centuries. And the better equipped you will be as a singer to tell the musicians playing with you what you’re looking for with their playing. You can use this knowledge to transcribe what you are hearing in each instrument, which will also help you more easily communicate textures with your band. And when you’re the singer in a band, communication is key.