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Bars, Measures, Phrases, Motifs, Riffs, & Licks

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 20091 COMMENT

theory-lesson2Some musical terms are so basic and widely used that we never stop to ask ourselves: “Hey, what is a measure? What is a riff? What is a phrase? What’s the difference between a bar and a measure?” This article should answer all of those questions for you and more.


Summary:
• Bar = measure
Phrase = long(-ish) musical idea
Motif = short musical idea
Riff = lick


Bars & Measures


A bar is the same thing as a measure. What determines the length of a measure can vary depending on the time signature of a song, but generally speaking you’re going to be able to tell by the snare pattern. For most pop applications, you’ll be dealing with either 4/4 or 6/8 time.


In almost every song in 4/4 time, there will be 2 snare drum hits per measure. These hits indicate beats 2 and 4. This is called a back beat. In addition to the back beat, there will often be snare accents, but they will not feel as strong as the snare hits on beats 2 and 4. The back beat is so universal that it almost seems silly to provide examples, but here are a couple for your reference.


“And Then What” by Young Jeezy:



“Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:



In the first example, each measure is almost twice the length of time of a measure from the second song. In other words, the tempo of the second song is considered about twice as fast and you can tell because of how often the back beat repeats.  For hip-hop, claps and snaps may provide the back beat rather than a snare drum.


In a 6/8 song, the strongest snare hit comes only once per measure, on beat 4. Take D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” for example:



Some people think a measure is just the time in which a chord progression or musical idea repeats, but in fact what they’re really thinking of is called a phrase.


Phrases


Phrases are mysterious creatures. The most basic definition is a musical idea. Doesn’t really explain anything, does it? Well that’s because a phrase can be just about anything. They don’t even necessarily have to be repeated. Songs can have phrases within phrases within phrases. To understand phrases, you just have to learn by example.


It can be daunting to understand what constitutes a phrase in Classical or Jazz context, but when talking about pop music it’s a little more intuitive–generally we’re talking about a section of a song with a chord progression, usually one that repeats. For example, the introduction to “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters uses 4-bar phrases:



If you play in a rock or pop band, using the term “phrases” is often much more useful than talking in measures: “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every other phrase” is much more concise and less awkward than “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every 8-bar section.”


Motifs


A motif is any short, repeated pattern. Usually both the melody and rhythm of this pattern are repeated–also known as a lick or a riff. If you have a motif which is purely rhythmic, it can be called a “rhythmic motif”.


“Today” by Smashing Pumpkins uses a 1-bar guitar riff:



During the introduction to “Meant To Live” by Switchfoot, the riff is the same length as the phrases (2 bars):


Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum (TrendWatch)

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 27 - 20092 COMMENTS

Not exactly breaking news, but humor me: scan the Billboard Hip Hop chart and you’ll see that it is hard to find a rap song with a snare drum on the back beat. Why?


tombstoneLet’s go back to the late 90s for a moment. From groups like OutKast, No Limit Soldiers (Master P, Mystikal), and Cash Money Millionaires (Juvenile, Birdman) sprung a new era of southern music which began to seep into America’s collective consciousness. Still, with artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent (and production teams like Neptunes and Timbaland), it would be another half a decade or so before the South virtually became Top 40 rap.


Growing up in Atlanta, I had a somewhat distorted view of the influence of southern rap. In fact, just the other day I was discussing this very topic with a well-known East Coast rap mixer and discovered that songs like “Back That Azz Up” didn’t have the nearly the impact on the national level that they did in Georgia. In fact, he said that Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” was the song that, for him, signaled the entrance of southern music into the mainstream.


Crunk JuiceThe south officially became mainstream with the Crunk movement, which is when all the clapping and snapping started. For me, the turning point was when “Get Low” came out and Lil Jon became The Face of Crunk on the national and international levels.


Which brings us back to the initial question: Why? While the actual reason probably has something to do with tools available, the whims of producers, and the butterfly effect…

A clap or snap provides two distinct advantages over a snare drum (1) It leaves room for other elements in the mix (does not compete with the vocal) and (2) provides a human element.


As Phil pointed out in a previous post, when it comes to a mix, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small. While it may seem that layers upon layers of sounds would lead to a bigger mix, it also leads to a smaller vocal, smaller drums, smaller bass. When you’ve only got a clap, an 808, and a vocal, each of those elements can be huge. Unlike the epic snare drums that typify the rock idiom, claps are humble, unassuming, and fun.


Many people simply do not enjoy instrumental music because there is nothing human to connect with. They need a lead vocal to connect with the song. To a lesser extent, claps and snaps serve as this same kind of human element. (If I really wanted to get academic about this, I could relate this to the call-and-response aesthetic seen in traditional African music… but I’ll abstain.)


Slowly but surely, Crunk has split off into two genres which are in effect today:


“Snap Music”


The first branch is known as snap music. In my mind, snap music is the only authentically southern rap around because it is still exclusively being made in the South (in other words Kanye isn’t stealing it). Here are its signature characteristics, in order of importance:

  • A single-note bassline (no chord progression)
  • Sparse arrangements
  • 808 kick sound
  • Monophonic, short, riff-based melodic elements
  • Snaps on beats 2 and 4
  • Fruity Loops-esque synth patches
  • Syncopated snare-fills

Snap music is a little less produced than everything else on the radio. I’m talking Yung Joc, I’m talking Soulja Boy, hell, I’m talking “Laffy Taffy”:



Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a lot more convenient to snap while dancing than to clap (not to mention cooler-looking).


Mainstream Rap


The other branch is what I would simply call mainstream rap: your Lil Waynes, your T-Pains, your TIs. This style is characterized by the following:

  • Auto-Tune/choruses with singing
  • Claps on beats 2 and 4
  • 808s, either supplementing or serving as the kick sound
  • A melodic bassline (in other words, there is an actual chord progression)
  • Futuristic, techno-like synth patches

This form of southern rap is so far-reaching that virtually every Top 40 artist uses claps, from New York to New Orleans.


Next time you’re composing a track, remember that the samples you use play an enormous role in defining that song’s style and determines the demographic to which your music appeals.


*Note: There are several notable exceptions to this rule right now:


One is Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It,” which utilizes a combination of both a clap and a snare on beats 2 and 4. The tune has reached #6 on iTunes and #1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop chart.


TI’s “Live Your Life” feat. Rihanna uses a snare on the backbeat, but it has a syncopated snare pattern too, which gives the song a kind of majestic, almost military band sound.


Perhaps the most complete exception is “Swagga Like Us,” with only a snare on beats 2 and 4. This choice was undoubtedly very conscious–because of the gravity of this collaboration, they were able to use an unusual instrumental and be perceived as innovative rather than out of touch. I think that it was inspired by the movie Drumline based on the feel established by the kick drum pattern.

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