Establishing a song’s “feel” is not just the job of the drums. In fact, at least 5 different elements interact to create an overall feel.
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- basic beat (often assigned to the drums/percussion);
- instrumental rhythms in and around the basic beat;
- rhythmic ideas from the melody;
- how frequently the chords change (called harmonic rhythm)
It doesn’t often take much to make the feel of a song apparent. For example, the opening track on Michael Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” album, “Jam,” shows the importance of each element listed above, but does it all with great subtlety:
- Tempo is clear right from the outset, and you can just imagine how nudging that tempo faster or slower than the established tempo of 116 bpm would effect the feel. Slower would sound lethargic; faster would sound frantic.
- The basic beat is a fairly standard dry rock beat with hits mainly on 2 and 4.
- Backing guitar in the song intro makes great use of syncopation, but that syncopation happens mainly in the second half of each bar of music. So every bar features 2 beats of strong on-the-beat backing instrumentation, followed by 2 beats of off-the-beat syncopations.
- When the melody starts, practically every note happens “between the beats”, tricky to perform, but greatly intensifies the rhythmic energy. At the chorus, the rhythm of the melody switches to mainly on-the-beat, and provides a nice sense of contrast to the verse.
- In the verse, chords change every 4 beats, but the instrumentation that provides the chords is so transparent as to make the chords take a back seat to the rhythmic feel of the song.
Why should we dissect a song to this extent? My only purpose in doing so is to point out that the feel of a song is not determined solely by what the drums and percussion are doing. That’s usually a foundation upon which other rhythmic ideas are layered. All rhythmic ideas play a crucial part in establishing a song’s feel.
So now it’s time to look at your song. What kind of feel are you trying to generate, and what’s coming across to your audience? If you’re working hard at it, but can’t seem to establish a feel that’s right, it could be that you’re assigning too much responsibility to one element (often the drums), ignoring the others that also play an important role.
And remember that every song has a feel, even those that are accompanied by a solo instrument. In fact, the smaller the instrumentation, the trickier it can be to establish an appropriate feel, because small changes in that instrument’s approach can result in large changes in the feel.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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