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And finally…

  1. Credibility/Authenticity
  2. you know how you can tell that the Glee version of a song is not the original? It’s not believable. It may be well performed and have very clean and precise production but it lacks authenticity. And, to be fair, that’s not what Glee is about.

    Two cover versions that I will mention later, ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash and ‘Your Song’ by Ellie Goulding could easily have been the original performances. Sometimes you need to add a bit of grit to a performance or recording. Add something that is less than perfect but has humanness. The current crop of megastar pop singers from Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus all have character in their voices that can’t be faked easily. Listen to the way Miley Cyrus goes into the chorus of ‘Wrecking Ball’. That is a great vocal performance and you believe her when she sings it. Same with Sia singing the chorus of ‘Chandelier’.

    As I may have said before, pop music should be treated with the same respect as any other underground, authentic, credible music genre. Good pop music isn’t twee or bland. It should have character and personality and it should be defiant (albeit with a great chorus and a high standard of production). So, if you are going to write a great pop song, look to what credible influences you can incorporate. What styles are emerging from the underground? How can you fuse the sounds from those genres into a pop framework?

        1. Good Lyrics – this is a bit of a subjective one in some ways and, I suppose, a bit obvious. If you have good music and good lyrics, you’ve got a good song. Fair enough. However, what makes a good lyric is a different matter and opinions will vary. Lemmy of Motorhead (amongst many others) believes that rock lyrics shouldn’t be analysed; they should just sound good. John Lennon, who was widely regarded as one of the great pop lyricists, was an admirer of lyrics like ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. And I would agree with both of them to an extent. What a great phrase ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ is, just like ‘Betcha Golly Wow’ or even ‘zig-a-zig-ah!’ Also, some of the things Lemmy has written are absolutely fantastic, they just don’t necessarily make sense. Take this from ‘Eat the Rich’:

    Get a sweet thing on the side,
    Home cooking, homicide,
    Side order, could be your daughter,
    Finger licking good…

    Or, ‘If you squeeze my lizard, I’ll put my snake on you…’ from Killed By Death or ‘I don’t know what I did last night but I sure did it good…’ from ‘Do You Believe’.

    These lyrics may not mean a whole lot on the surface (or even way below the surface) but they are evocative and they’re not obvious clichés and they set up a mood.

    If this is a rallying call or an anthem, you may want to give fairly direct instructions with your lyrics and include words like ‘shout’, ‘fight’, ‘dance’, ‘sing’ or whatever. Making that kind of song overly wordy will not help it – especially in a chorus. However, if it’s a different type of song there are a few techniques you can use:

        • Use the senses – describe what you see, smell, taste, hear, touch and what you feel. The more specific you are, the better usually. Amy Winehouse could have said, ‘sniffed me out like I was booze’ but she said ‘Tanqueray’. It becomes a much more specific and vivid picture.
        • Give a sense of time and place – that could be time of life or time of the day; it could be a particular city or a room in the house
        • Add a sense of movement and action – it will make the song feel less static and give a sense of development. Also, if you use words like ‘sinking’ or ‘floating’, you can almost feel the sensation of that.
        • Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same sound can make phrases more memorable
        • Use metaphors, similes and personification – can be interesting when describing abstract nouns. For example: if fear was a colour, what colour would it be; what would it drink; what would it whisper in your ear; what would it do with its hands; what would it taste like?
        • If you’re describing a character, ask the same sort of questions: what would they wear; what colour would the sky be when they were near; how would they dress; what would they do with their hands etc.?

    Take this verse from ‘Forget Myself’ by Elbow.

    Shop shutters rattle down and I’m cutting the crowd
    All scented and descending from the satellite towns
    The neon is graffiti singing make a new start
    So I look for a plot where I can bury my broken heart

    In just four lines, he uses alliteration (‘shop shutters’, ‘cutting the crowd’ etc.), hearing (‘singing’, ‘rattle down’), seeing (the neon signs, the crowd…), smelling (‘all scented’), a sense of movement and action (‘rattle’, ‘cutting’, ‘descending’, ‘bury’), personification and metaphor (‘the neon is graffiti singing’). This all makes this a very vivid verse (alliteration – go me).

    10. Sex – being sexy isn’t about getting your bits out in a music video or pouting or singing rude lyrics. It’s about being comfortable and natural in what you are trying to portray. It’s a kind of confidence but it may also be a kind of fragility. A gentle whisper can be as sexy as a funky groove but one is intimate and one is overt. Decide on what is right for the song and execute it as if it were the only way that song could be performed.

    So, if the song is about intimate things; if it is a conversation or a message to someone in particular, make it more intimate and draw the listener in. If the song is more of an outward expression of emotion to the world at large then you must project outwardly. And this isn’t necessarily just the job of the singer.

    A good example is ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. The bass line hits beats one and three of every bar with the kick. It could have just as easily duplicated the main riff or played on every quaver (eighth note) but it is far more potent doing what it does. It adds to the groove and draws attention to the snare by not playing on beats two and four so each beat of the bar thrusts outward.

    ‘Hurt’ as performed by Johnny Cash is equally as sexy and he was 70 and dying but his voice was deep and rich, yet fragile and intimate and the simple arrangement drew the listener in close, like Ellie Goulding’s version of ‘Your Song’. You want the right sex for the song.


    Well, there it is. It took me hours to write and it’s probably all nonsense but there might be something there that inspires you. Let me know what you think. Or don’t. Whatever. Just leave me here in this windowless void not knowing whether anyone’s paying attention. In some ways, I hope you aren’t. Then when I grow up and read this again, I can delete it and no one will know it ever existed.


Following on from the previous bit, here’s the next 4 points explained. A bit.

4. Groove – the groove of the song is about more than just the drums; it’s about the interplay of a group of instruments. The first rule of getting the groove right is: get the tempo right. If parts feel too rushed or as though they are dragging, then the tempo is wrong. Often this can be dictated by the lead vocal part. Listen to the way the words are sung. Does it sound laboured or hurried? The second rule is: don’t play too much! Think about complementing the other parts and not showing off.

Know when to work with the pulse and when to go against it.

For example, ‘Family Affair’ by Mary J.Blige is almost constant quavers (eighth notes) throughout and follows the pulse very strongly, whereas a lots of EDM tracks will have a 3 over 2 polyrhythm. For example, the chorus of ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit (‘If you gave me a chance I would take it…’) is predominantly 3 over 2, as is ‘London to Jamaica, LA to Africa…’ by JLS from ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ or the lead synth part from ‘Dinking from the Bottle’ by Calvin Harris & Tinie Tempah and countless others. This syncopation only works because the pulse is very strong in the drums (mostly kick and snare).

Many reggae tracks will have a ‘one drop’ drum pattern, where beat three is emphasised by the kick and snare drum playing together; the guitar will emphasise beats 2 & 4 and the organ will support that but also play left hand on the quavers either side of beats two and four. Check out ‘Is This Love’ by Bob Marley, for example. Also listen to how consistent the percussion and bell patterns are.

Having this solid platform that is fairly constant and provides a lot of the feel, allows the listener to focus on the song on top of that. You also need to learn to needs to be bang on the grid, when to push and when to lay back. Have a listen to songs with a great groove and listen to what the drums, bass and any other rhythmic parts play.

5. Melody/Hook – now, this is probably the big one. Hit singles are usually packed with hooks, arguably more now than ever. There have been articles over the last couple of years ‘proving’ (based on scientific research or something) that all pop music sounds the same nowadays because it has become harmonically more simplistic, in that there are tonnes of songs that have four or fewer chords all the way through. What they don’t consider in this research is the number of hooks or the groove or the amalgamation of different styles that are in there.

Most big hits now will have at least two major hooks. One of these may be an instrumental hook – think Avicii ‘Wake Me Up’ or the aforementioned ‘Drinking from the Bottle’ – or it might be someone shouting ‘Oh!’ a lot – as in ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry, ‘Best Song Ever’ by One Direction, ‘Pompeii’ by Bastille (which is more of an ‘Ay-oh!’) or ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ by Taylor Swift (‘Oh! Oh! Trouble! Trouble!…’) Many songs will also have strong hooks in verses or, more often, pre-choruses. Repetition is key here but, also, simplicity and clarity. You want people to be able to sing along (or shout along) and get the words right (where there are any) and you want the melody line to be memorable.

6. Familiarity – the reason that hooks are so important is that they provide something that can be latched onto fairly instantly. This is also why lots of hit records sample riffs and hooks from other hit records. Consider Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ for example, which uses the riff from ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ by Abba. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to have replaced that riff with something new and original (and then no one would have had to have paid royalties to Abba) but that pattern gives the listener something instant to hang on to. But familiarity in a bit hit song doesn’t have to be as obvious as that. It’s more about adhering to stylistic and structural norms or conventions. I say this with a word of caution because I will almost contradict this in point 7.

Most of the biggest hit singles of the last couple of years have followed pretty much the same structure as each other and they tended to stick to the same dynamic shape as each other – although, to a degree, this was genre dependent. Hip Hop songs tended to have three verses and a simple verse/chorus structure but EDM and pop/rock songs were similar in the way they approached the structure.

Take ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry. This song had the same basic 4-bar chord progression running through it and the structure was Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus/Chorus pt 2 (‘Oh! Oh!’ bit)/Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus/Chorus pt 2/Breakdown/Chorus/Chorus pt 2.

‘La La La’ by Naughty Boy ft Sam Smith has virtually the same structure, except it starts with Chorus pt 2 (the ‘La la la’ bit).

‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii also has a 4-bar repeated chord progression. Its structure is Verse/Chorus/Instrumental Hook/Verse/Chorus/Chorus/Breakdown/Instrumental Hook. In this song, the chorus and instrumental hook both act as two parts of a chorus, with the instrumental part being more climactic than the sung chorus. With the exception of a missing pre-chorus, the structure is very similar to the other two songs. The dynamic shape is also very similar. These are three of the top six selling singles of 2013.

Virtually all of the biggest selling singles of the last few years have been in 4/4 time and most have had a strong pulse with the snare on the back beat (beats two and four). There are also certain textures, timbres and rhythms that help define different music styles that have been used. Sticking to these conventions will help the listener understand what they are listening to. They can attract a listener to a song instantly and they become convention because they work! On the other hand…

7. Novelty – by merely sticking to conventions, however well you understand the intricacies of the genre, what you are creating is a pastiche. Unless you add something new or different, you are not going to make a great record that stands out from the crowd. And if your record doesn’t stand out, it won’t get played and it won’t sell.

By ‘novelty’ here, I’m not referring to novelty records (although most of the biggest selling singles of all time could be considered novelty records – most of the top ten selling singles in this country were either charity records, commemorative records, songs from film or TV, or things like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’ ). ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is a classic example of something that mixed the familiar with the novelty. This is essentially a simple folk record but it stood out from the rest of the charts with its bagpipe chorus. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the 3rd biggest selling single of all time in this country, is also a novelty in terms of its structure, dynamics, vocal and instrumental arrangement but it is full of excitement, energy and hooks.

But what you should perhaps consider is not, ‘how can I make something that’s totally original?’ but ‘how can I add something different and interesting to make track?’


So, after laying my cards on the table the other day with my top ten list of stuff to make a great hit song, I thought I’d better start explaining what I meant. Unfortunately, when I came up with the list I hadn’t really thought about it that hard so the following explanations are a bit off the cuff. I’ve included the first three points here and there is a lot of crossover in these points but I’ve tried to cover some different angles.

  1. Energy/Conviction – a great song can be laid back and relaxed but it must be delivered like you really mean it. It must have the right kind of energy for the purpose of the song. So get the tempo right and get the feel right and perform it with absolute conviction. Any song should be treated like it’s the best song in the world by the performers, the producer, the mix engineer and pretty much everyone at every stage of the process. It may not be the best song in the world but it will be a better song for believing it is! ‘Something in the Way’ by Nirvana was almost whispered but it was the right kind of energy for the song. 
  2. Excitement – try writing a song that is exciting. Make that your only priority and see what you come up with. Forget trying to be clever or technically brilliant or fitting in to a particular style, just write something that’s exciting. When making the ‘In Rock’ album, Deep Purple had an agenda that only ‘exciting’ songs were allowed on the album. It worked for them. You can create excitement with tension and suspense. Consider how the ‘drop’ works in dance music. There is usually a moment of calm, a building of tension and then an explosion of sound. The listener knows it’s coming and sometimes a little delay before it happens can make it even more explosive. Some songs are just exciting right from the beginning. Something like ‘My Generation’ has an explosive abandon in the way it’s performed and the way the instruments work together – ‘Black Dog’ works in a similar way. Energetic vocal followed by explosive riff. ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks demonstrates in its introduction how one drum hit can create excitement.  You hear that two chord guitar riff going back and forth and then there’s a ‘bang!’ on the snare drum and we’re in. Not all big hit songs are exciting. It’s not a prerequisite; but it could be the thing that makes your track jump out of the speakers ahead of everyone else’s.
  3. Emotion/Passion – OK, so a hit song doesn’t need to be exciting – ‘All of Me’ by John Legend isn’t particularly exciting – but if it’s emotional and heartfelt and demonstrates some sort of passion for something then it has a much greater chance of resonating with people. That doesn’t have to be in the lyrics, though it can help; it could be in the way the drums are hit; it could be a note bending slowly upwards on a guitar; it could be a big, phat synth part; a chord change; it could be anything and everything, from the writing to the performance. So, how can we convey emotion in our music and lyrics?
  • Use emotive words – abstract nouns that describe feelings like pain, love, joy etc.
  • Use verbs that give a sense of movement (floating, sinking, falling, flying).
  • Use appoggiaturas (a note that is not in the chord, resolving to a note in the chord at the start of a bar) – they create tension and suspense and have a yearning quality.
  • Large interval leaps are common in ballads, less common in more aggressive and faster paced vocals.
  • Switch chords from major to minor and vice versa – for example, if you are in the key of G, try going to a C minor instead of a C major. Notice how that changes the mood.
  • Change the rhythm or number of kicks and snares per bar.
  • Create tension and release it – suspense and resolution. Lovely.

This is one of those questions that is asked over and over and is never really answered properly. In fact, it’s probably unanswerable, which begs the question, “Why am I bothering trying to answer it?” I don’t know, to be honest. The idea just came to me in the shower.

People would disagree on which songs are great and which aren’t anyway.

I’ve written some specific things on musical techniques that could be used to make your songs work but this piece is less about the technical and more about other, perhaps more intangible stuff.

So I’ve come up with a list of 10 things. There is some crossover with some of these things. I could have made this list bigger or smaller quite easily but I thought ten was a good number. Not all great hit songs have all of the elements but most will have quite a few of them.

The order is inconsequential. It’s just what order I remembered them when I started writing them down after I got out of the shower.

In the next post, I will be starting to explain each of the ten points.

  1. Energy/Conviction
  2. Excitement
  3. Emotion/Passion
  4. Groove
  5. Melody/Hook
  6. Familiarity
  7. Novelty – something new
  8. Credibility/Authenticity
  9. Good Lyrics
  10. Sex


Sex Flares

Posted: November 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

New video by my band Cushion

How to Write a Power Ballad

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

I wrote the following for a lesson on song structure and functional harmony. What follows could apply to a range of styles of music. The principle of the structure applies to a lot of pop music (and rock music). And the relationships between chords will still have the same effect in other styles of music. One of the important relationships discussed here is the relationship between chord V and chord I and how this can provide tension and release. There is mention of ‘Reach’ by S Club 7, which follows the same structural and harmonic rules. I may write that one up soon.

Few styles of music can be as beautifully formulaic and powerfully predictable as a power ballad. But don’t think that I mock. Oh no, for the craft of writing power ballads requires skill and great understanding; and the resulting product invokes the deepest of emotions from the listener. Though you may have complete disregard for this graceful and elegant art form, when you are in love or broken hearted, the strains of a good power ballad in a private moment will surely send you to tears and feed you in your hunger.

So, how do the greats write their power ballads then?

If it were that simple, we’d all be doing it wouldn’t we? Well, the answer is probably, ‘no’, as most people never have any desire to write power ballads but, nonetheless, it is not simple but it is a craft that can be learned by those with a good understanding of chords and melody; and it can be performed by musicians with a good sense of discipline along with a vocalist with a powerful voice and a good range. The power ballad is the vocalist’s tour de force. It is their opportunity to show the full gamut of what they do – the quiet intimate moments, the gut wrenching emotion, the powerful sustained notes and the big push at the top of their range. (Also, it can make them look really cool on stage as they strike lots of different poses.)

Remember, not every power ballad follows exactly the formulas that I’m about to mention…but they should.


The structure is very simple. Remember listening to ‘Reach’ by S Club 7? The structural formula is the same: you start with your intro, then a verse, a bridge (or pre-chorus), a chorus, verse, bridge, chorus again; then we have the middle 8 (which can include a solo or a breakdown) and a key change into the final choruses.

This is how it works:


The intro could work in one of two ways normally. It should be kept fairly short and should either consist of half a chorus with no vocals but high impact, or a bar or two on the first chord played by one instrument -simple as that.


OK. The purpose of a verse in a song is to tell the story. This is the most narrative part of the song both lyrically, melodically and harmonically. It’s also the most intimate part of the song, so the singer should hold back and sing in a comfortable part of his or her range. When Jon Bon Jovi sings, ‘Romeo is bleeding, but you can’t see his blood…’ he’s almost singing to you. His range is similar to his speaking range, the level is low and the pitch rocks up and down like a boat on a gentle stream. Or something.

Despite the gut-wrenching sadness of many power ballads, many are in major keys. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume the key of our mythical power ballad is G, just because it’s a convenient key to work in, especially on guitar or piano. The first chord of our verse is very important and can only really be one of two chords – either it should be chord I (G) or its relative minor, chord vi (Em). ‘Rule the World’ by Take That goes with the minor first chord, as does ‘Love Song’ by Tesla. This can establish the melancholic feel of the verse. Many other songs will start with chord I. Your second chord is equally important. Again, this is usually one of two chords and it is usually a minor chord. If you start on your chord I, you may then move to the relative minor (something you can’t do if you started on the relative minor) or you may move to chord iii (Bm). If you started on the Em, then a move to Bm is the best bet – both ‘Rule the World’ and ‘Love Song’ make this move. ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie both move from chord I to chord iii. The number of songs that go from chord I to chord vi (the relative minor) is almost infinite. Check out anything by Diane Warren, ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘Stand by Me’ by Ben E. King. The rest of the verse chords are up to you.

Pre Chorus

The pre-chorus of your song should be fairly short, usually about four or five bars (and using five bars may be significant). It should provide tension and drama in the build up to the chorus. There needs to be a sense of movement in the progression from the verse to the chorus so we shouldn’t start our pre-chorus on chord I. The best choices for your first chord are chord IV (C) or chord ii (Am), which is the relative minor of chord IV. The other important chord in our pre-chorus is the final chord. There really should be no argument about this. THE PRE-CHORUS SHOULD END ON CHORD V (D). This is to provide the ultimate tension as chord V wants to resolve back to chord I. We can increase the tension by extending the duration of this chord for an extra bar (hence the 5 bar pre-chorus).  The melody should start to move upwards, like the tightening of a string, as the tension increases and increases; the heart beats faster, the sweat pours, you know it’s coming and you are about to burst, the blood’s pumping, you’re shaking…’I’ve got you and you’ve got me so…’


The release, the ultimate impact and drama. The start of the chorus is the ultimate peak of your song. Your melody should be near the top of the range at the beginning of the chorus – maybe not the first note but somewhere near – and the first chord of the chorus should be your chord I so that you have the perfect cadence from the end of the pre-chorus into the chorus. The other alternative is to start your chorus on chord vi (the relative minor) and this will give you the dramatic effect of one of those big 1980s power ballads like ‘Alone’ by Heart. You can keep the chord progression for the chorus fairly simple, three or four chords and keep the progression strong with a good sense of resolution. Make your melody memorable. This is the part that people need to be singing long after the song has finished. It doesn’t need to be too wordy.

In terms of your dynamics, there should be a definite build from the verse to the pre-chorus to the chorus. This can be achieved in terms of the instrumentation as well as how the instruments are played. The drummer can move from a side stick in the verse to the snare in the pre-chorus to big cymbal crashes in the chorus, or move from a half time feel in the verse to add pace. Missing out the kick on beat three, or a snare drum can also add impact. The bass player should work closely with the drummer and the kick and bass should lock in. If you are recording this, try side chaining the gate to make the rhythm section sound tighter. Keep the instrumentation simple and sparse in the verse but build it up over the next sections.

The Middle 8

The purpose of the middle 8 is to add a twist to your tale. It is a fulcrum point, like in a story when a new event happens that alters the progress of the hero or some new piece of evidence is uncovered. This is usually based around the same tonal centre as the rest of the song but often a different mode. Try going to the bVII chord (F) or the bIII chord (Bb). This will add a sense of drama to your middle 8, a sense of movement and the feeling that we are saying something esle.

The Key Change

Or the Stand-Up-Off-Your-Stool Moment.

This is the moment of highest drama within the song. It usually occurs as you go into the final chorus and is a shift upwards so that the vocalist is stretching his or her range. The key change should therefore reflect the movement upwards by shifting up by a semitone or, more often, a tone. The most ham-fisted example of this is Shayne Ward’s ‘That’s My Goal’, which starts the first line of the chorus, then stops, then jumps into the new key. A more satisfactory method would be to finish your middle 8 on chord V of your new key so that the transition seems more natural. So, finish on an E chord, then you can play your final choruses in the new key of A.

The final chorus (es) should have confetti coming down from the ceiling, explosions, fists clenched, tears, bright lights, the kitchen sink. In fact, replace your snare drum with cannon fire. It can only be a good thing.

By the end you should be physically and emotionally drained.



If you want a simpler chord progression, you could use the three chord I – IV – V trick. Use chords I and IV as the mainstay of the verse and use chord V for dramatic impact, as in ‘Sugar Mice’ by Marillion. Or you could just use a simple chord progression like I – vi – IV – V or I – V – vi – IV and use the melody to demonstrate changes in mood or lifting of tension. Check out how ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘With or Without You’ by U2 do this. Though the verse, pre-chorus and chorus all have the same chord progression, you can clearly hear the development between sections in something like ‘Bleeding Love’, as Leona Lewis starts singing the verse on the root note, the pre-chorus on the third and the chorus on the fifth, which gives us a sense of lift and drama with each new section.

Everybody Dance

I was going to write about disco. The main reason I was going to write about disco was because I love it. I’ve been teaching my disco lesson for about 12 years now, on and off. It’ slightly different every time but I’ve wanted to get across the important points about how the different parts work together. I’ve also been convinced that it’s going to be useful to someone someday because it’s bound to have a bit of a resurgence. And now it seems that may have finally happened. With Daft Punk getting to number 1, the BBC showing ‘The Joy of Disco’ and Nile Rodgers documentaries and Chic touring incessantly – not to mention the stellar success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album.

But I decided not to write solely about disco and to make this a fairly general thing about dance music and what are the important factors that make it work. This applies to pretty much all contemporary forms of pop-based dance music from disco to house to reggae to rock bands like AC/DC (for more on them see my previous post on the ‘International Write and Record an Album in a Month, month’ page on Facebook). So here goes…


1 The pulse

In dance music, you must have a strong pulse. This is the heartbeat of the song and the thing that will get you nodding your head, snapping your fingers, stamping your feet or shaking your leg. When people talk about the beat, this is what they mean. The tempo of the pulse can help determine your reaction to the music. Let’s say a resting heartbeat is about 80 beats per minute, anything above that may excite you while you are resting. It will try and push your own heart rate up. If you are already dancing, your heart beat will be much faster so you will need to have a song that is going at a faster tempo to keep your adrenalin going. If you’re at a rave and you’ve just taken a load of dodgy jelly beans then you may need the tempo to go up to 130 bpm or over to satisfy your new puppy-like desire for bouncing around. However, if you’ve been smoking banana skins (or whatever it is that people do these days) and you’re lying back on your sofa with your feet up, eating chocolate and the only dance move you can manage is a barely perceptible nodding of the head, then a hip-hop track at 80 or 90 bpm may be enough.

The pulse will usually be provided by the kick drum, though there are variations on this. With house or disco and some reggae tracks, you may get a kick drum on each beat. The low thud, just like a heartbeat, helping you to keep time; relentless and consistent. With other styles, the kick will accent the first and third beats of the bar and the snare backbeat will fill in the gaps. Funk has a heavy accent on the down beat (beat one), whereas one-drop reggae will leave this beat free so that you almost fall into the rest of the bar and the kick drum will accent beat three.

Quite often, the bass part will support the pulse – just listen to ‘Good Times’ by Chic to hear how that infamous bassline by Bernard Edwards supports the pulse on those first three beats before playing the other fancy bits before doing the same thing in bar 3 of this 4 bar riff (John Deacon’s bassline for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ works in a very similar way ). Cliff Williams from AC/DC will usually double the pulse by playing 8th notes in his bass parts (take ‘Down Payment Blues’ for example).


2 The backbeat

The backbeat is what happens on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. These beats are normally emphasised by the snare drum. (On visiting Manchester Music Base, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford described it as ‘the tyranny of the backbeat’.) The snare drum may be supported by handclaps, either real – as in disco – or electronic – as in house or hip hop (check out the handclaps in ‘Turn Me On’ by David Guetta ft Nicki Minaj ). Having a strong kick drum on beats one and three and a snare drum on 2 and 4 gives the piece a sense of a marching left-right-left-right rhythm. This is what gets you walking to the dance floor. Got a good strong pulse and backbeat? You’re halfway there. You’ve got the audience stomping and clapping already. All you need now is to fill in the gaps.


3 Off-beats

This is where the hi-hats come in. Often, anyway. Listen to Tony Thompson’s playing for Chic (or Sister Sledge or whoever), even if the hi-hat patterns are fairly intricate 16th patterns, he still accents off-beats, or there is the classic groove to ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba,  where the shakers do this job. You hear this all the time in house music, with a really strong four to the floor kick, snare and claps on the backbeat and hats on the off-beats.  You’ll notice none of the proper drummers try to do silly demisemiquaver hi-hat patterns. This is because they are not white boy music students trying to show off. The octave bass can often fill this role as well, such as Bernard Edwards’ bass in ‘Dance Dance Dance’, where you play the low octave on the beat and play the octave above on the off-beat.

In some types of music, other instruments are used to accent the off-beat, such as the guitar in ska. Bands like Mumford and Sons will do a similar thing by providing a strong pulse with a kick drum and making the guitar accent against that. Just listen to the way the guitar in ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii does exactly the same.


4 Syncopation

Syncopation is basically stuff that works against the pulse and the accents will land sometimes on the beat and sometimes off the beat. This could be a rhythmic chord part, such as a guitar (often in disco) or a piano (often in house music) or a synth; a percussion part; or even the lead vocal. Let’s take the ‘classic’ (and, by classic, I mean ‘not classic’) ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ by JLS . The main chorus vocal has a very distinct pulse of its own that conflicts with the main pulse of the song. Try tapping the pulse of the song with your right hand and the pulse of the vocal line with your left (or the other way round if you’re left-handed). You may find (if you do it properly) that for every 3 taps of your right hand, you will have tapped your left hand (the vocal hand) four times. This could be described as a four-over-three polyrhythm and it is extremely common in contemporary dance music, especially different types of house music.  The left hand and right hand only meet on ‘LONdon to jaMAIca, La to aFRICa…’ and thereby accent the wrong part of Africa, making it sound like a FREAK a. Quite often you will hear these syncopations taken from Latin American rhythmic patterns, such as the Cuban clave patterns or the Bossa Nova. The rhythm guitar part in ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross plays the reverse (2:3) Son clave pattern to great effect. 


5 Other stuff

It helps if you have a good sing-a-long vocal with a strong hook. If people can sing or shout on the dance floor, they get more excitable and a sense of camaraderie and team spirit ensues. Like football fanaticism but with more rhythm and no opposing team. Lyrics about dancing, music and escape from the humdrum monotony of modern life are often a key element. Check out ‘Lost in Music’ by Sister Sledge .

It also helps to divide those parts up between different instruments. People seem to assume to play a funky bass line or a funky guitar part or drum pattern you have to play loads of notes to have a strong pulse and syncopation but if you have a full band you can keep each instrumental part pretty sparse, then the different instruments don’t sound like they’re racing against each other. Listen to how simple the bass line is on ‘Superstition’, for example. It basically plays the root note on each beat, emphasising the pulse; it doesn’t play the complicated riff that lots of people assume it plays. . Or listen to the simplicity of the guitar and drum parts in ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ by James Brown .

It’s always worth going back to ‘Good Times’ by Chic. Check out from 3:12 where the track breaks down and you can hear the role each instrument plays: including the accents on the hi-hats; the electric piano playing the sustained chords on the first beat of every bar from 4:04; and the piano that comes in at the end of each bar from 4:40.


Anyway, hope that helps!