The backbeat: a literature review

This is part of a research project I’m doing for my Psychology of Music class at NYU, thus the formal tone.

Update: here’s the finished product.

The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.

Friends don't let friends clap on one and three

On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.

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What does the human brain find exciting about syncopated rhythm and breakbeats?

Predictable unpredictability.

The brain is a pattern-recognition machine. We like repetition and symmetry because they engage our pattern-recognizers. But we only like patterns up to a point. Once we’ve recognized and memorized the pattern, we get bored and stop paying attention. If the pattern changes or breaks, it grabs our attention again. And if the pattern-breaking happens repetitively, recursively forming a new pattern, we find that extremely gratifying.

The Amen break

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

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