The time has come once again to communicate that which has not been previously communicated. At least, not by me. And, at least, not to anyone that actually wanted to have to listen to it.
My iPod has been directing me towards a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Phoenix recently, so I have been thinking a lot about misdirection. When I refer to misdirection, I’m not talking about all those phone numbers you got at the bar, and when you called them, it was a dry cleaner.
I’m actually talking about playing tricks on your brain, and those of other people, using rhythm. The type of musical part where you think you’re bopping your head in time with the beat, and then something happens and you realize “z0MG what have I been doing all this time? That’s not even the beat”.
More explicitly, you brain assumes the location of the downbeat based on the musical cues you hear, but is proven wrong when the accompaniment starts to fill in (i.e. more cues are added).
How does this happen? What assumptions is the brain making, and how can we misdirect this? Why would we even want to?
Well, we want to because predictability is boredom. Every song should have an underlying thread of predictability, just to inspire confidence in the listener that they are in tune with the song, that they “get it”. Then you should always do something to convince them that they were WRONG, and that will keep them from taking you for granted, like your pets and loved ones do.
So how does misdirection happen with beat?
This comes back to pulse. Pulse refers to the underlying, unchanging strobe of music of consistent tempo. It’s a musical term, and a medical term too. It’s also something that can be related to nearly universally. I was going to phrase this differently, but spellcheck says the word I would have needed doesn’t exist.
Pulse is easy to create. If you program a sound to occur at evenly spaced intervals, you have created a pulse. Dance music loves evenly spaced intervals for their kick drums (downbeat), and highhat (up beat). Your brain does not have to make too many assumptions in order to find the pulse.
Samba & other forms of Latin music, on the other hand, does not have an easily defined pulse. Your brain is required to evaluate the contribution of all instruments and make assumptions in order to find the pulse. This might not be obvious by listening to a Samba beat, but if individual instruments are stripped out of the mix, it becomes more and more difficult to find the pulse.
So this brings us to how to execute misdirection.
The foundation of misdirection is to create a rhythm that implies that the pulse is at a specific tempo / time signature / downbeat, using a partial set of rhythm instruments. And then with the main instruments (kick & snare), structure the main beat at an entirely different tempo / time signature / downbeat.
Jimmy Tamborello loves making us think the upbeat is the downbeat. Good examples are Nothing Better by The Postal Service, and Fear of Corners by Dntel.
Phoenix has a really good example of a 3/4 to 4/4 bait and switch. The song Lasso starts with a 6/8 drum part. (How do I know it’s 6/8? because Jasun told me for 6/8, you count 1, 2, 1, 2 with each beat made up of three notes). Once the main kick & snare come in, they play 4s, and the 6/8 drum part is relegated to the horrible horrible horrible state of being hemiola. Oh god not hemiola! They can put a man on the moon, but they still haven’t figure out how to clear up this bad case of hemiola. Oh, the huge manatee.
A far less interesting lesson from this study on pulse and misdirection is the case of poor pulse. This is an affliction as well, suffered by many bands and / or young songwriters. They find themselves in a situation where they have created a groove that lacks a defined pulse – you can’t dance to it. There simply aren’t enough pulse-enforcing hits to give their listeners enough cues.
Well the solution is simple: just add a drum beat (a hat, or kick) at regular intervals, or increase the volume in the mix of the one you already have. You don’t have to make dance music, but don’t let your pulse instrument switch too regularly between the roles of up & down beat.
That’s it, that’s all.