Hit me with your rhythm stick
April 12, 2015 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn how to make pop songs with strong groove. (Aiming to make classically structured, actual pop songs, with the groove arising through syncopation repeated and varied through all sounds/instruments, not just the percussion). What are some good songs to study? Can you point me to other kinds of resources that describe and parse what I mean?

Any genre would be helpful, but am most interested in examples that more song-like than not. Classics welcome, as are contemporary songs (I actually have some catching up to do, so newer songs might be good).

I used to have a grasp of basic theory; I could try to wake that up, if there are musicological things I should read. (I could probably do with some more general pointers on songwriting, too).
posted by cotton dress sock to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Almost all of Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads.
posted by The Deej at 10:26 AM on April 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would think tunes that emphasize a shuffle groove could fit this definition.

A song such as Lido Shuffle

with Jeff Porcaro's amazing feel on it .
posted by gregjunior at 10:52 AM on April 12, 2015

Best answer: James Brown arrangements have to be on the curriculum for this — especially way his guitar, horn and bass parts interlock with each other. On a lot of his songs, each individual instrument's part is fairly sparse, but they fit together in such a way that there is is something happening on every beat. (You'll hear something similar in Talking Heads songs from their funk-inspired era, actually, but they were pulling a lot of that stuff from James Brown and you might as well get it from the source.)

Another thing that's good to listen for if you're making pop music is the way the texture of his arrangements change between the bridge and the rest of the song. Sometimes it's a very subtle change in one or two parts, sometimes it's a total shift in the whole texture, but it's always instantly noticeable that you've arrived in a new section of the song — even without a big obvious hook or anthemic chorus hitting you over the head. It's like looking up and noticing that it's gone from cloudy to sunny — you're still sitting in the same place doing the same thing, but everything feels slightly different. Pay attention to the things that get retained going from the verse to the bridge as well as the things that get changed.

Yet another thing to listen to in his arrangements is the way that within a section there will be minor changes in some parts from one bar to the next — especially in the bass and drums, but sometimes too in the horn and guitar parts. Unlike the changes that happen at the beginning of the bridge, these changes don't really alter the feel or the atmosphere of the song. What they do instead is keep you interested, while maintaining the illusion of a totally repetitive, unchanging texture. Minor variations like that are so crucial in groove-based music.

OK? Ok, now go listen to Blurred Lines or SexyBack (or Stop Making Sense, or almost anything by Prince or Michael Jackson, or…).
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:27 AM on April 12, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Weirdly, another band that I love listening to for this stuff is the Cure. I'm not sure I'd call most of their best-known stuff "groove based" (though songs like Close To Me certainly are) but even in Full-On Goth Mode they use a lot of the same tricks — layers of interlocking instrumental parts, small hard-to-notice changes in a few parts to keep repetition interesting, larger changes that noticeably affect the feel of the song to mark new sections. It's a good blueprint for pop music arranging in general, independent of style.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:39 AM on April 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Stevie Wonder is a good model:

He's Misstra Know-It-All
Boogie On Reggae Woman

A nice groove from Kava-Kava: Funked Up And Freaked Out
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:44 AM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the mid 1980's a genre emerged that used syncopation a lot, often called "Latin hip hop" or "freestyle". Most of those songs were very "pop" too, e.g.:

"Let the music play" - Shannon

"Bad of the heart" - George Lamond

Let me be the one - Sa-fire

As for pop production, analyse "Pop" by N'Sync. Even if you hate that song, it does everything right. Of course it was produced by BT, and he knows his stuff.

Another resource I can't recommend enough is the brilliant book (both electronically and in print) "How music really works" by Wayne Chase. It talks about everything related to producing music and it helps you find a strategy from lyrical ideas to a finished song. Good luck and have fun!
posted by hz37 at 12:48 PM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My sense is that a lot of what makes a groove effective comes from the microscopic nuances of the timing of the notes within the basic metrical scheme, rather than from the patterns themselves. There's the concept of playing "in the pocket" that speaks to this. Playing in the pocket is playing right where the (abstract) beat or metrical unit is. This is contrasted with playing "out of the pocket". I.e. playing not exactly where the metrical unit is but still so close that traditional musical notation won't capture it. (So it's a much more subtle phenomenon than syncopation, which involves shifting of notes within a metrical scheme from one unit or beat to another.) To my ear a groove intensifies as the different instruments are played in more complex degrees of out-of-the-pocket-ness, especially in relation to each other. This includes where the degree of being in the pocket is different for the different instruments.

There's an amazing funk groove in the Meter's recording Cissy Strut whose amazingness seems to be due to this. My ear hears it as partly due to the drummer playing behind the pocket.

Conversely, the accompanying horns in this Skatilites song sound a bit ahead of the pocket, to me. Someone correct me if they hear it differently. In any case the rhythmic richness that makes grooves great is going to come from such subtleties of performance.

I have to mention too an old R&B recording I've been fascinated with recently -- Tee Nah Nah from Smiley Lewis -- that sets up a really evocative sort of lumbering groove with very simple and in themselves square elements. The timing of the bass instruments seems key. And check out the economical use of the horns to punctuate.
posted by bertran at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I haven't read it yet, but this book has been getting a lot of mention in electronic music circles recently. Ableton sponsored it, but it is supposedly quite full of useful information and not a big gob of advertising.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:03 PM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Cars' first two albums (The Cars and Candy-O) received criticism at the time they were released for having, more or less, hacked the pop music formula and thereby somehow cheated to find such success with audiences. I remember hating these albums when I was a kid, but then I got into music and developed a deeper appreciation for them. My partner and I still totally geek out on them from time to time, and the older I get the clearer the pop-structure hacking becomes.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:56 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

A follow up:

looking around the web it seems musicians use the term 'in the pocket' to refer to when all the rhythm players are synergizing to create a groove, by whatever means, and 'not in the pocket' to mean that this isn't happening, or that a player isn't contributing to the groove. They talk about playing 'ahead of the beat', 'behind the beat', 'pushing the beat', etc. to refer to the phenomena I was pointing to, above, of variations in the exact placement of notes that contribute to the groove. 'Tight' playing is when all the rhythm instruments are exactly synchronized, but this is not always desirable. My point could maybe be formulated as: dynamic grooves come from playing that is not rigidly 'tight'.

There's a very interesting thread on the whole topic here. Scroll down especially for the contribution of Max Valentino. He touches on the problematic tendency of digital production to seek to maximize tightness.

There are also some youtube videos that address these questions somewhat:

The secrets of the pocket
Playing on/ahead/behind the beat
posted by bertran at 11:40 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The groove itself, and the song composition as written, and the front performance, are three separate components of a song.

The title song mentioned here, 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', is a perfect confluence between the bandleader Chaz Jankel and the singer Ian Dury.

A good groove comes from having good musicians with a talented bandleader/arranger.
posted by ovvl at 6:05 PM on April 14, 2015

"Perfect Way" by Scritti Politti
Most of The Police's material
"The Ghost of Genova Heights" by Stars
"Freewill" by Rush
posted by 4midori at 9:25 AM on April 18, 2015

(late answer, this question was still in my head)

Groove based songs are very riff-oriented, and tend to avoid lots of fancy chord-changes. They are often built on a bottom riff on a single chord, and when there is a chord change it often hits right on the bridge and is very emphatically laid down.

Funky-era Talking Heads (Remain In Light) came out of Eno & Byrne's previous experiments (My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, Fear Of Music) where they were layering samples and harmonies onto multi-track tape, and realized that this process was much more painless if they mostly stuck to one chord songs. When they composed 'Remain In Light', they were directly influenced by wanting to make music in the style of Fela Kuti, who was originally influenced by James Brown, and the circle of groove is complete here.

Fela Kuti is like the ultimate groove composer. His songs are based on simple riffs with subtle beats, and then call and response riffs layered over top. Vocals are sometimes like an afterthought, an announcer who comes in between the sax solo and the keyboard solo to remind us what the theme of the song refers to.
posted by ovvl at 4:07 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

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