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Groove

What lives between the lines.

So much history in the grooves of trees.

The term Groove is used in a few different ways. Some use it to refer to the feel of the music by itself. Others use the term to refer to the overall rhythmic impact of the music, including the patterns and instrumentation. A drum groove might refer to the patterns in the all the pieces of the drum kit and also how they feel together and the overall impression that they make upon the listener. In my opinion, if we want to really learn how to make our music feel good, we probably need to more narrowly define this concept, so as to make it a bit more useful and actionable in practice.

At the moment, it could be interesting to explore this concept of Groove as a series of relationships, or causes and their effects. What concrete thing can we do to the music and how will that change how it feels.

So, Groove, ultimately, really is the feel of the music. If a song makes you bob your head without your own consent, or a beat makes you tap your foot without you even realizing you’re doing it, then you have been grooved. It’s one thing to write a melody, but its another thing entirely to make that melody feel good. A musical idea can be presented in an infinite number of ways, and the groove is a very important aspect of the performance, one which will add a tremendous amount of depth and dimension to the music.

Theory of Groove

This is a working theory, so it will most likely change over time, so, you know, check back often :-)

Macro vs Mirco

One important idea to kick off our discussion of groove is the idea of macro variation and micro variation. This can help break down a larger concept into more meaningful sub sections, and groove will benefit from this particualrarly well. When using the concept of macro vs micro we are referring to note length, and what comes of variation at different note values. We can also be referring to velocity, or how intense each note is.

Macro Variations

The pattern of a groove itself is where macro note values come into play. Essentially all of these note values would be considered macro note vlaues:

  • Whole Notes

  • Half Notes

  • Quarter Notes

  • 8th Notes

  • 16th Notes

  • 32nd Notes???

One could make the arguement that a 32nd note is transitioning into micro value territory, but there are still very valid uses of 32nd notes that will change a pattern, especially if played at a slow enough tempo. The big idea is that our human minds cna easily distinguish between and 8th note and a quarter note, fro exmaple, and moving sounds around using note values of these sizes will gives us completely different patterns, rather than making more subtle changes to what would seem to be the same pattern.

Micro Variations

If the pattern of the groove is created with macro note values, then the feel of the groove would be influenced by micro note values. Concepts like pocket and swing and even randomization are firmly in the domain of the micro.

Those kinds of note values would be:

  • 32nd Notes???

  • 64th Notes

  • 128th Notes

  • 256th Notes

  • 512th Notes

  • 1024th Notes

  • etc...

It’s not all that common in practice to actually count these values out specifically, unless you are using a modern DAW or Notation application that has support for these kinds of values, like Ableton Live, for example. Instead people think in percentages or some other more lose metric, or just, you know, feel it. I do think that it is of value for us to explore these ideas with exact values for now, and after you have become acustomed to them then please choose which ever mindset works best for your approach. Science craves precision, after all :-)

Taxonomy

So, if you haven’t guessed it already, we can break up the elements of groove into larger categories with sub items in them. Maybe something like this:

  • Constants

    • Tempo

    • Time Signature

    • Sounds

  • Pattern (Macro)

    • Patterns

    • Accents

    • Syncopation

  • Feel (Micro)

    • Pocket

    • Swing

    • Imperfection

Constants are the things that are set by the entire piece of music. They don’t necessarily need to stay the same throughout an entire piece of music, but in many examples they never really change either. One can also change the tempo of a piece of music without necesarily changing the pattern or feel of a groove either. Tempo changes would indeed have an effect on the overall groove, but would not change those things specifically, just how we percieve them.

How these ideas are conceptualized and categorized might shift around a bit over time. But this list as it stands is certinaly not a bad place to start. Use these ideas in isolation or in combination to make the juiciest jams of your life. So, without further delay…

Tempo

The first thing to consider when creating a groove is the tempo of the music. As mentioned before, tempo is not really part of the groove proper, but the speed of the music will have a large impact on how the groove is percieved by the listener. At it’s most basic, the same exact pattern can potentially feel very different at a slower tempo then at a faster tempo. The tempo will affect the energy of the groove in drastic ways as well. We often consider different tempos to indicate different genres of music in some musical subcultures as well.

In the following sound clip the exact same groove will be played at four different tempos. It will be evident that the energy and the feel of the groove change drastically when the tempo changes, even though the groove itself remains identical from tempo to tempo. Here is maybe a losse genrefication of these tempo canges as well, although by no means the only way to llok at it:

  • 70 BPM - Dubstep half-time

  • 95 BPM - Golden age of Hip-Hop

  • 128 BPM - House of many styles

  • 174 BPM - Drum and Bass Maddness!

Same pattern, different tempos.

RYKR logo.

The question that we need to define is what does tempo do to the feel of the music. In my estimation, tempo generally seems to have an effect on the overall energy of the track, as well as helping to emphasize or de-emphasize other manipulations of the groove in other ways. The slower the tempo, the less the energy, but also, the heavier the groove, potentially, as the macro and mirco variaitons have more time to sink into our listeners minds.

Time Signature

How we interpret the tempo of the music rhythmically falls on the Time Signature. A tempo alone does not give us much information to help formulate our patterns, but a time signature helps us by giving our minds a little bit of structure through the use of accents. Listen the the following sound pattern. There no changes in amplitude in the sound being played, so it’s up to the listener to decide

Sounds

We would be remiss if we didn’t start with the sounds themselves, because if there is no sound, there is no music. The sound itself can have a strong impact on the feel of the groove, because every sound has it’s own shape, or Envelope. This is essentially the amplitude of a sound over time, and it can be simple, like an organ, which can only be on or off, or it could be complex, like a heavily modulated synth sound, which can twist and turn and convolve many times over the course of it’s life.

In our investigation into the elements of groove we will start simple by using basic transient percussion sounds, which have a straightforward shape. In the following examples, we will use drum sounds in combination to create a drum kit. Our kit will consist of an acoustic kick drum, and acoustic snare drum, and an acoustic hi-hat cymbal. We will use them in combination to create our drum pattern.

Patterns

After we have established our sounds, we can move on to the next piece of the puzzle. The patterns themselves. What is the kick doing? The snare? the hi-hat? A good collection of patterns will go a long way to making our music groove. The pattern itself will effect what we can do with the groove of the music with what it contains or does not contain. Let’s explore that idea by playing with some very basic patterns.

The Kick

We will start our pattern exploration with one of the most basic and universal drum sounds out there. The Kick. Gonna keep it super simple as well and literally do the simplest thing we can do, which is to put one kick drum on each beat of our pattern.

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This is about as basic as a pattern can get without causing too much confusion in our minds. If we have less kicks than we might end up feeling the music at half the tempo it is written at. In this case we have one kick per beat at our current Tempo(BPM), so as to clearly indicate the intended Tempo of the music.

Four on the Floor

This simple pattern of a kick drum on each beat of the measure is sometimes casually referred to as “Four on the Floor”. It creates a very stable and predictable pulse for the music, and is very easy to follow along by almost everybody. AS the tempo speeds up, the drive of a 4OTF pattern can become exhilarating, especially if it is being driven through your body thousands of watts of sound at a concert or festival environment. But even this powerful pattern of big bad kicks feels a little lonely without a little sizzle to go along with it.

Enter…the snare drum.

The Snare

Our next sound will be a Snare Drum. It produces a metalic sound with a long metallic decay, due to the way that it is contructed. We don’t necessarily want to re-create the same pattern that we made with the kick drum, however, as we want these patterns to allow these two sounds to compliment each other. This brings up the question of where should the snare go, which then leads us to a fundamental concept of groove.

In Music there is a general notion of the idea of dualities creating an ever evolving experience as we listen.

The Back Beat

The back beat is the general speed of the cadence of the music you are listening to in the drum beat itself. We often measure the back beat by the placement of the snare, and we can usually make a solid assumption about the tempo of the music from this. For example, in most popular forms of music the audience will generally ‘feel’ the tempo of the music based on the back beat, which we generally measure in quarter notes. So in a standard measure of 4/4 time, the back beat would be considered the second and fourth quarter notes of the measure, and if we place our snare hits there, then the snare is effectively representing the back beat of the groove of the song.

In this example the kick is placed on beats one and three and the snare is placed on beats two and four. Most listeners will bob their head or tap their foot along with the snare on beats two and four, and this will establish the most basic of grooves in the listeners mind as well as establish the feel of the tempo for them.

You may have not noticed it, but you were most likely bobbing your head downward on the kicks and upward on the snare, but doing two full head bobs in the space of one measure. You may not have, as you may be some kind of monster, but most likely the former is the case for most people.

You may have not noticed it, but you were most likely bobbing your head to the beat, and you were probably bobbing your head with each beat in the measure, so you bobbed with kicks on one and three adn the snares on two and four. You may not have been bobbing your head, but instead you were tapping your feet. You may not have been moving at all, but that means that you are monster and you may need professional help.

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Putting the snare on beats 1 and 3 feels rather awkward to our modern ears, especially since we have grown up listening to the snare on 2 and 4, creating the sense of a Back Beat, which divides each half of the measure into two pieces and places emphasis on the second half of the half…Let’s try that again, but with the snare on beats 2 and 4.

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This probably feels more natural to our ears relative to todays popular music, as the backbeat is probably the most prominent rhythmic device used to establish the sense of Groove in our music.

The Hi-Hat

The Hi-Hat is another sound we can add to the pattern to add more interest to the groove.

Push and Pull

One of the most fundamental concepts in groove and indeed in music is the idea of tension and release. In Harmony we often refer to this as dissonance and consonance, or in any of these other ways:

  • Tension and Release
  • Dissonance and Consonance
  • Call and Response
  • Consequent and Antecedent

In rhythm we refer to this concept in a few different ways as well, but in relation to the placement of beats in a unit of time:

  • Front Beat and Back Beat
  • Strong Beat and Weak Beat
  • Down Beat and Up Beat

We can imagine this kind of relationship playing itself out all over our music, and on many different levels. It affects rhythm, melody, harmony, in fact, it really affects everything that is going on in our music, basically all of the time.

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You will notice that the hi-hat is doing the exact same thing as the kick, only adding another layer of frequency on top of the kick. Let’s change that around by introducing a new rhythmic value to our pattern. That of the 8th Note. We derive 8th Notes by dividing a quarter note in half

Let’s move the hi-hat to upbeat 8th notes instead and see how that makes the groove change.

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When we do this the feel of the groove starts to change to something a bit different. It feels a bit more bouncy and playful. Not quite the march like feeling that we were getting from before.

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Accents

The next thing we can do to add more groove to the loop is to change the velocity of the notes. But we don’t want to do it randomly, which is not what a drummer, or any player, for that matter, would do. Instead we want to think in terms of a pattern of different levels, something alogn the lines of loud soft, medium, soft. Try saying this phrase outloud:

“Chick uh chick uh”

It is most likely the case that you emphasized the “Chick” syllables more than the “uh” syllables. It is also posiible that you empahsized the first “Chick” more than the second “chick”, due to our ploclivity to want to empahsize the beginning of a sentence. We can take this patterns of emphasis and translate it to level, something along these lines:

“Chick uh chick uh”

“Loud soft Medium soft”

This is similar to the way that people might describe the sound of a train moving…

“Chug ug chug uh”

where a person will usually emphasize the “Chug” and de-emphasize the “uh”. Both of these nemonic patterns are similar in how they translate to understand accent in musical phrases, as they both generally translate into a:

“Loud soft Medium soft”

…kind of pattern.

We can now take that pattern of accents and apply that to the hi-hat in our drum pattern. We will start to hear and feel the these pattern of accents move the music a little bit more, making it pump and breathe, like so:

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Micro Patterns

These are small consistent patterns that you might apply to an instrument like a hi-hat on a drum set.

Macro Patterns

These are patterns that are larger in scope and time than micro patterns. If a micro pattern repeats every quarter note, then a macro pattern may repeat every whole note, or in other words, last for a whole measure.

Pocket

Not everything has to be on time. And when you put your beat in the pocket, it never felt so good to be so late. Late late late late…

…late…

…but not too late 😜

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Swing

If you want your music to bounce and shimmy, then swing is your style.

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Notice that swing is the delay of the start of every other note by a certain amount. Take a look at the hi-hat pattern

Combinations

With our understanding of these subtle but effective groove techniques, let’s take a look at what happens when we start to combine them together.

Accents with Pocket

Now, we can add our accent pattern back in and see how the combination of some packet and an accent pattern can really make the groove feel good.

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Accents with Swing

When we put accents and swing together we can really start to feel and hear the groove come to life. Keep in mind that the pattern is the same, but now the feel has been heightened considerably.

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Accents with Pocket and Swing

And finally lets put all three of these piece together and see how this would feel if we care firing on all cylinders.

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Listening to all of these different concepts layered on top of each other it is clear that the performance of the pattern is important to the overall feel of the music, and is is not necessary to use all of these concepts together at the same time. In fact, all of these concepts can be used or not used, relative to the artistic intuition of the artist. But hopefully this journey makes it clear that any and/or all of these concepts in combination can do much for the feel of the music that we create.

Error

To err is to be human, and in our failure to be perfect, and are real and alive and human. What we don’t want is to create completely randomized variations without any relation to intent. The thing is, when people are playing music, they really are trying to play in time and as close to perfect as possible, but this is something that is just not possible any person to do.

Randomization

To re-create the concept of human error and imperfection we often reach for the term Randomization, but to be perfectly honest, what is happening is really anything but random. What is generally happening instead is small imperfections in timing relative to the Intention of the performer.

Do I need to do all this?

The order of the elements of groove doesn’t matter very much. This is an important concept understand, because ultimately what matters is the destination and not the journey. What I mean is that all of the elements are basically equally important, because the thing that is missing is the thing that will people will notice. It’s ultimately really hard to say that one of these items is more or less important than another, because at the end of the day people notice the thing that’s missing and forget about the things that are there. One word to try to order these things, I would imagine that the patterns would be the first thing, but at the same time if the patterns are great and at all the other pieces are missing, it will suffice so dear the day, and this is a common concepts that really needs to be drilled into one head, is that where you start is really of no importance at all, it’s always about the end of the journey and the destination and arriving that in the best possible way. I will keep coming back to this idea of a time, because I think it’s really important to understand James people often confuse inspiration with the finished product. I need inspiration to do what we want to do it in a day because America nearly as much as getting to where we need to get to because that middle ground is with people really get messed up. You can have the most best idea in the world and fire you into doing something to get stuck on the way to cant finish the job and make a complete piece of art, then what have you really done other than add more adjust to your hard drive.

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