rhythmic dividing

Song Writing Quick Tips 8 – Rhythmic Dividing

Let me stop you.  I know you have a song you’re working on and you want to spice up the groove.  While you’ve got a number of ways to do that, rhythmic dividing is the most straightforward.  Other techniques include using odd time signatures, funky syncopation (which is a kind of rhythmic dividing), and compound polyrhythms.

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Three Dragon Music

In Crescendo Mountains, only three beings reign: Melody, Groove, and The Wild Card.  When I took the Music Production Analysis class from Berklee Online, they warned us about these creatures.  They said, “Many sorcerers with names like ‘Hi Hat Crispiness’ and ‘Aetherizer’ will try to deceive you into believing their importance.  BEWARE for they are merely illusions!

Alright, they didn’t say that, though that would have been cool.  They just tried to make us focus on the important bits.  With that in mind, we need a solid groove to cast our spell.  To that end, let’s overview a few simple methods we can use immediately. 

rhythmic dividing
Talent is for pussies!

The first way I’ll show you is regular rhythmic subdividing in a 4/4 framework.  After that we’ll peek at a basic, but well-known, example of an odd time signature phrase.  Another example I’ll give you is how you can use rhythmic subdividing on a macro level.  Lastly we’ll wrap up by exploring how to combine ideas for an interesting result. 

On account of me being mostly self-taught, I have developed some peculiar nomenclature for some musical concepts.  I’ll do my best to keep things standard.  Check out this glossary so we can be on the same page:

  • Polymeter – Phrases out of sync with the bar.
  • Polyrhythm – Phrases in sync with the bar. 
  • Sub-grooves – Either of above inside main groove.

Basic Rhythmic Dividing

At its most fundamental, rhythmic dividing is about going from clapping your hands every quarter note all the way toward something Meshuggah might do.  If you don’t know who they are, just remember some music you couldn’t find the beat to then multiply by 15. 

I’m sure most of us have heard “Raging Fire” by Phillip Phillips.  This song uses rhythmic dividing inside of regular old 4/4.  I count the main groove as 3+5.  Take a listen:

1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5

But doesn’t that add up to eight beats?  Well, yes but it’s still basic as most musical phrases are two measures long.  Every two bars, this pattern resets.  Contrast this to polymeter when we look at it later.

 Ain’t Enough Four Me

Let’s cruise on over to Odd Time City.  Here’s where you find drug-addled semi-geniuses searching their pockets for an earthly possession, usually a lighter.  When they aren’t jonesing, they’re wracking their brains creating wild boundless riffs.  Sadly, most these riffs suck because usually simple is better. 

Every so often one of them strikes Acapulco Gold.  We’ve all heard “Money” by Pink Floyd, right?  I know my guitarist readers, the ones writing spaghetti riffs, are rolling their eyes.  For the rest of you, have a hear:

The cash register sound is beat 5.

Interestingly, Roger Waters made that intro loop on tape.  In a barn.  WITHOUT referencing the track.  Smh, I wanna be a genius 😤  Regardless, that riff is in 7/4.  That’s 4 quarter notes when you tap your toe at the rate of the first two notes.  Check out my nifty transcription, probably in the wrong key:

rhythmic subdividing
Red marks the strong beats.

I put the strong beats in red here.  In 4/4, the strong beats are numbers 1 and 3.  Notice how you have to skip your headbanging for every repetition.  The rhythmic subdividing here is using 3 quarter notes plus 4 to break up a measure of 7 quarter notes.   

A Measure Of Excitement

You can apply your metric shifts on a larger scale too.  Besides expanding a single bar, you can expand or contract an entire section.  For instance, a blues usually has 12 bars, right?  Well, what if you did two iterations of 6 measures?  You still get 12 bars but now you have to think of new ways to fill that space.  Check out what I did for my chorus of “Try Not To Waste It”:

Try To Get It

The chorus is 12 measures long composed of two 6 measure sections.  Doing this gives a sense of urgency by way of unbalancing your expectations.  Try adding more or fewer measures to your sections to hear what kind of effect it has.

Remember to lead with the melody or lyric.  In fact, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes makes extensive use of it.  Check out the short intro and the extended bridge.  Note the words she sings at these times:

‘I need love’: short intro.  ‘The only thing that keeps me hangin’ on’: extended bridge.

The Five Metric Ton Grudge

Any TOOL fans among us?  If you’re like me, you love not only listening to this band but also geeking out to their stupendous use of meter.  Indeed, I already wrote a 3-part analysis of Maynard’s construction of “Judith” which, sadly, went down with my old site.  Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see me reupload that.  

Anyway, the rhythmic dividing going on in “The Grudge” is cool for several reasons.  Not only have they created serial rhythmic interest but they’ve also done so in parallel.  First let’s have a listen:

The toms, man.

The toms kick off each phrase before the verse.  They play the first four eighth notes of every bar and loudly every two bars.  Maynard comes in on one.  Look at my analysis:

Rhythmic dividing
Red dots: phrase start.  Red lines: quarter note pulse.

In the above graphic, I show the first 5/4 measure “The Grudge”‘s first verse.  The top line is the melody and guitar whereas the bottom is the bass.  These two parts are saying slightly different things. 

The top phrase is about 6 eighth notes plus 4 eighth notes long for a total of 10 eighth notes whereas the bass is in groups of 5 sixteenth notes.  You could call this an example of compound polyrhythm. 

Strangely, the 5 quarter note pulse is still very present during this section.  You can even take it another step further and say the strong and weak quarter note grouping is S-w-S-w-w.  That’s a lot of rhythmic dividing!

Al Fine

I really meant this to be a short post, even though I knew it wouldn’t.  To be sure, each of these topics can be the subject of an entire book.  In the end, I just want you to see some rhythmic dividing options which may be hiding under your nose.

In case you don’t know, I’m Michael Carrillo aka Hexspa and this is my adventure in art.  I’m always publishing every Monday 4PM, PST so join the Hexie Dose Newsletter for updates and follow me on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook for random goodies I post there as well. 

Let me know what you think in the comment so that I can serve you better.  I’m open to requests for topics, reviews, and cover songs.  Thanks for reading.


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