Rhythm is one of the essential ingredients when making literally any type of music. Unless you make ambient, drone music–but otherwise, it’s an essential ingredient.
But how we define rhythm can sometimes be a little muddy. Different musicians from different genres will give you a different description when you ask.
Rhythm could be just the musical groove that you just feel, or it could be the pattern the drums follow throughout the song.
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What is Rhythm?
Generally speaking, rhythm is how we organize, identify and follow musical patterns as they move through time.
There are a number of different components of rhythm, like how fast or slow the song is moving, how we count the beats and sections within the parts and where certain notes come in and out within that pattern.
Theory Elements of Rhythm
Don’t worry, we won’t get too technical. But it is important to understand these terms if you’re really interested in diving into understanding rhythm.
Musical time signature is how we measure the amount of beats within measure. Basically, it’s how many times you can confidently stomp your foot before reaching another phase within a song.
Time signature is represented by two numbers, take for example 4/4. The first number dictates how many times the primary note is repeated within the measure, and the second note tells us what length of note.
Most popular music, regardless of genre, is in 4/4 time. This means that there are four quarter notes within each measure, so you can tap your foot four times before starting over.
You might occasionally hear a song in 3/4 time, which would mean that there are only three quarter notes per measure. This is generally called the Waltz signature, as the most common form of music in this time is waltz.
There are plenty of others, like 5/4, 6/8 or even 7/8. The first number can really be anything, while the second number has to reflect a note of a certain length and is generally in numerals of four.
Tempo is, simply put, the speed at which the song is being played. It’s measured in beats per minute, or BPM. You’ll usually find something between 80 to 140 BPM in music on the radio, though some thrash metal at 210 BPM might slip through from time to time.
Strong Vs. Weak Beats
Strong and weak beats are used to create a little complexity in the pattern. Strong beats are usually where you would instinctively clap- Down beat, third beat. Think of an anthemic rock song and picture where the drum and snare are- Those are your strong beats.
Weak beats include all of the spaces in between the strong beats, generally hi-hats and other percussion in our imaginary stadium rock anthem.
As we’ve discussed, rhythm is measured with a grid of quarter and or eighth notes.
How close the notes in your rhythm perfectly lines up with this grid is the level of quantization you use. If you’re penciling notes into the key roll in FL Studio then you’re completely quantized- Totally lined up with the grid.
Quantization can work for you or against you, depending what genre you want to create. EDM bangers and rock music benefit from a stronger amount of quantization so that they keep the beat strong- Other genres like hip hop and jazz want less quantization so that there’s more swing within the song.
Syncopated beats are accented notes that don’t fit within the typical rhythmic grid of quarter notes. It puts notes on what are usually weak beats for a little extra flare.
Syncopation can be a little tricky for beginner musicians, but they can be a very exciting addition to your track if you can work them in.
Accent beats are just notes played in the rhythm that stand out. They can be on the downbeat or syncopated, but they’re emphasized within the measure.
Polyrhythms can be very difficult to pull off, but when done properly create a pretty killer sound. Essentially, a polyrhythm is when you overlap two different time signatures.
It turns into a bit of math, but imagine that you overlap a bass line in 4/4 and a keyboard part in 3/4. They would only line up every 12 measures- But the complex patterns they create along the way can be very interesting to the ear.
In most Western music that hits the radio, there’s only a handful of rhythms that they all share. Our ears are just used to hearing them, so they can be more pleasant and entertaining to listen to compared to something from another culture.
Unless you’re into jazz or math-rock you’re probably among the people that prefer these rhythms, whether or not you’ve actively recognized them.
Four on the Floor
Four on the floor is a classic pop and rock rhythm, but it’s used in a wide variety of genres.
It’s in 4/4 and puts the kick on the down beat, the snare on the third beat and a high hat keeping the quarter notes steady. It’s a steady rhythm that can be heard on songs from the last 100 years of popular music.
Take AC/DC’s classic hit Back in Black- the hi-hat counts us in and then the drummer keeps a steady four on the floor.
One of the reasons this drum rhythm has been so popular is that it lets the other instruments develop more interesting, syncopated rhythms around it without getting too cluttered.
James Dewitt Yancey, otherwise known as J Dilla, was a prolific and incredibly influential producer in the world of hip hop. He used drum machines and samples to create beats and soundscapes that still reverberate through the genre today.
The Dilla swing refers to the minor amount of drag or rush that he would impart to his notes. To drag a note is to be slightly behind the beat, to rush is to be a little a head of it.
Dilla found a sweet spot with his drums just off the grid, creating a sense of tension and release. This sound is still commonly heard in hip hop tracks like Duckworth by Kendrick Lamar, produced by 9th Wonder.
Calypso music is an afro-caribbean style that built what’s now a pretty common rhythm in Latin and American music.
Calypso style rhythms include a four on the floor feel with just the kick, and the snare is playing the 8th note before every other kick, and the quarter note between the others.
It might be a little tricky to understand without writing it out but a popular example is One Dance by Drake.
The triplet has been around for a very long time, but as far as its popularity in contemporary music there are some debates as to who really brought it into the mainstream.
Three 6 Mafia make claims that they pioneered southern trap back in the early 1990’s, which revolves around a distinctive triplet rhythm in the hi-hats.
More recently rap trio Migos have blown up the rhythm in their vocal performances in hits like Bad and Boujee.
Wherever it came from, it’s pretty unescapable now, especially in major trap hits. A triplet is a note that plays in 4/4 time, but stretches out the notes so that three take up the entire measure. It’s debated whether or not this is a polyrhythm.
No matter how exactly you describe it or what style you use, rhythm is the foundation of just about every type of music across the planet.
We hear similar rhythms shared across totally different genres all the time- It’s the backbone of the music we know and love.
Using different styles of rhythm and knowing the ins and outs can help make you a better musician, so try exploring genres of music outside of your usual comfort zone and see what you find.
You never know what combination of rhythms and melodies are going to be the next popular sound.