Songs talk about “The Beat” all the time. There are so many references that I couldn’t fit them all here, but I’m sure you’ve heard a band or artist mention a beat at some point. This is occasionally a point of confusion for some writers or clients who aren’t terribly familiar with a song’s beat, so let’s talk about it a little bit.
How to Stick to the Beat
As a session singer, it’s my job to find the beat of the song. If you’re hiring session musicians, you might think you don’t need to know the beat very well. After all, that’s *their* job, right?
While that’s technically true, you’ll avoid confusion and potential mistakes by having a rough sense of where the beat is. I would say roughly 50% of my clients have a good sense of beat. This means a LOT of the time, I’m trying to find the beat on my own. Often it’s easy, but sometimes I’m not sure where the notes should fall, when I should come in, or how long the pauses should be.
Important Tips for the Beat of Music
Most songs work on 4/4 beat, which basically means that each measure of the song counts to four before starting over again. This can get very complicated, so let’s keep it simple. Most likely, you have a song which has drums or some type of percussion on it. Pianos or guitars an also provide percussion and rhythm, but for simplicity, let’s use drums.
If you’re a songwriter and guitar player and you’re working on a demo, PLEASE WORK TO A METRONOME. You need to do this in order to understand where your song goes too long, what phrases don’t fit well, and where you might run into trouble later. When you go to hire session musicians, you have no idea how grateful we are to hear a metronome. Even if you aren’t perfect with your rhythm, if you have the tempo to keep you on track. It is SO MUCH easier for your session musicians to work with a song when we know what the beat is supposed to be.
Exercises for Learning the Beat
Play a metronome online, or play a drum loop and pick a beat. You do not have to dance (although you certainly can). Your job is to clap only on beats two and four. You are simply finding the groove. Keep doing this until it feels natural. Do it with several songs and different styles and rhythms.
This is a great video that explains how to listen for the beat in different songs:
It’s okay to be confused
Consider the many types of beat terms: Upbeat, Downbeat, Backbeat, Hyperbeat, and you find songwriters getting confused. After all, they just wanted to write a hit song, and now some jerk producer is asking them whether to accent the upbeat or downbeat. Who cares??
First, don’t let studio people intimidate you. A lot of them love to do that, and they shouldn’t. Find people to work with who make it simple and fun for you. If they ask questions you don’t understand, you should feel totally comfortable expressing that.
Back to the Beat: If you have a spare 16 minutes, here is a video explaining upbeat and downbeat:
It’s actually a dance instructional video, so if you watch it you might acquire some additional skills to impress people! But maybe not because I am still a terrible dancer after having watched it.
So here’s what you need to know about the beat:
It’s important (duh) and it’s okay to not know what you want. If you do know what you want (or have a loose idea), you’re much better equipped than many others. Again, reference songs are super helpful to your producer! Find a song (or songs) with beats you do like and use those as examples.
A lot of studios I work with add the beat after everything else is done. They do everything to a click track and then shape the beat to enhance the song. Obviously, there are people who do it the opposite way and feel that the beat should come first. There is no “right way” to create your music! So if you really don’t know what you’re looking for, let your producer know. Play around with drum samples and loops (even if you’re hiring a real human drummer) and see what sounds best. This is a great way to learn about beats too and you’ll begin to notice how the beat can change the entire song. Also, pay attention to different genres and see if you can notice common beats within that genre. This will help you figure out your own beat based on the genre you’re creating!
This post was originally published on 05/09/2016