Start Off Beat – Song Writing Quick Tips 9
1… 2… 3… 4… The band comes in and everybody dances along. This is what we normally expect when a song kicks off. The chorus hits on the downbeat, the verse hits on the downbeat and everything is hunky dory. But what if I told you that your song can start off beat? Don’t you think that would open a whole new world of rhythmic opportunity? Chances are, you’ve already heard this effect in action. Today I’m going to show you step-by-step how to start off beat and what songs use this technique so you can impress your friends fast.
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Start Off Beat Like The Police
We’ve all heard “Roxanne” by The Police. It was #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979-80. In case you haven’t heard it, the intro guitar starts with quarter note stabs. This is actually a bit unusual for Reggae. While I understand that The Police are generally considered New Wave, their Jamaican influence is undeniable. Let’s take a quick listen to this iconic track before we continue:
This kind of rhythm pattern is pretty conventional in the way that it starts. Though we expect a reggae groove to be on the upbeat, we can tack on to this marking with no problem. Even so, The Police being the musician’s musicians that they are, weren’t meant to rest on their groove laurels. Just two years later, they turned the beat around and made their song start off beat.
“Spirits in the Material World” is one of my favorite songs by this British band. The album from which it comes, Ghost in the Machine, has such strange artwork and it haunted my prepubescent mind. Apparently the name pays homage to a book and the LCD shapes are supposed to represent the band member’s hair styles. Who knew?
But as they say, “Never judge an album by its artwork,” so much more interest lies below this release’s surface. Remember how “Roxanne” is just quarter note stabs which start on the downbeat? Well, what if we preclude that with a short drum fill and follow it up with regular upbeats? That might be interesting.
Before I describe exactly what’s happening, let’s take a quick listen to this cut. I want you to tap your foot along with the beat. Pay attention to whether you feel the same pattern as “Roxanne” or not. Listen through to the first chorus and, in addition, find out if your pulse matches that downbeat when it comes.
A Troubled Evolution
So how’d you do? Spoiler alert: if you thought the groove was the same, YOU’RE WRONG! This song has been perplexing audiences for 35 years now. What I really love about this is that, while this beat is highly technical, it still was a massively popular song. Radio played it and everything! We’ve come a long way, haven’t we Cardi B?
At the beginning of this article, I promised you that I would tell you step-by-step how to implement this groove trick in your own music. Before I do that, we need to first understand it. Get out your calculator because we’re about to start counting!
I’m going to post some sheet music. Nevertheless, if you’re not a music reader then do not fear! Hopefully I can explain it simply enough so anyone can understand. Let’s begin with how the song actually goes:
Behold The Codex
Listen to the song again while looking at this. After that, let me walk you through this music transcription. Even though it doesn’t look like the song starts off beat, there are a few details that make the magic happen.
Right off the bat you should notice that the first measure is an anacrusis, or ‘pick-up’ measure. In this case, its value is two beats long. Ordinarily that wouldn’t throw off the whole train so then why does it?
The secret here is in the accents. If you notice, the second and fourth eighth notes get the power. This kind of rhythmic syncopation is totally normal but, when you start the song off like this, your ear believes they’re the strong beat and that the sixteenth-note triplet is an anticipation. The snare on the final eighth-note doesn’t help any as usually it’s on beats two or four.
In the actual first measure is where we literally start off beat. The fact that there’s a rest at the technical beginning of the section probably doesn’t help our case. When you combine the anacrusis with a downbeat rest, you throw your audience for a loop.
Another strange facet of the intro to “Spirits in the Material World” is how Stewart Copeland, the drummer, puts the kick drum on the second and fourth beats. Normal drummers put the bass drum on beats one and three and the snare on two and four. Even in Reggae, your kick marks the downbeat and the snare or kick hit on beat three.
When you listen to this intro, make sure you count it as “three-AND-four-AND” and really emphasize those ‘ands’. If you count it as “THREE-and-FOUR-and” then you’ll totally miss the point and you’ll never catch the groove. For the second measure, emphasize beats two and four but keep counting eighth notes.
That’s What You Thought
At this time I want to show you what everyone mistakes this rhythm to be. Don’t feel bad, it was confusing to me for the longest time. It’s better that we understand how this part doesn’t go as it’ll help us implement these techniques more clearly.
As you can see, the anacrusis here is five eighth notes. You can also call it ‘a measure of 5/8’. Contained in that is an anticipation triplet, a rototom accenting beat 3 and a snare on beat 4. When we analyze it like this, it makes total sense we hear it this way.
Following the initial pick-up measure, the synth has quarter note stabs just like in “Roxanne”. The kick drum is a delayed accent on the regular strong beats: 1 and 3. Moving on to the third written measure, drummer boy Copeland throws a little open hi hat on the ‘and of four’. The only thing is, this is all an illusion and a lie.
Leading Me On
Follow this hackneyed, mistaken groove to the end of the verse and you’re in for a surprise: the chorus! If you think the verse is like the latter example, you’ll find that the chorus doesn’t come in on the downbeat. The chorus has to come in on the downbeat! OK, obviously that’s not true but I think that if they had this wonky verse then a wobbly chorus then they wouldn’t have had the hit that they did.
That brings me to an interesting point which is that you need to balance these techniques. Like I talk about in my rhythmic dividing article, too many musicians who are new to funky rhythms and meters go too far. If you analyze great songs, like the ones you sang growing up, you’ll notice that they only use weird rhythms sparingly.
As with any musical device, contrast enhances the effect of its counterpart. The fact that this song has a chorus which arrives on the downbeat offsets that the verse’s first downbeat is a rest. You don’t need to play in syncopated polymeter 11/16 time signature to raise eyebrows. The Police with their “Spirits in the Material World” show that. Start off beat but arrive with your toe down.
Time To Dominate
Now Stewart Copeland in his arguable prime is one thing but what about other styles of music? Can we take this principle of rhythmic misdirection and apply it to, say, Death Metal? I’m glad you asked because Morbid Angel likes to start off beat as well.
Now I realize this might not be your cup of lamb’s blood. Even so, since Metal is so distorted, the harmony has to remain simple. That’s one third of your musical potential sacrificed. In order to adapt, this aggressive macro-genre has compensated by upping its rhythmic and melodic ante. Yes, blast beats and guitar solos rule the roost.
Since these vikings in black tend to be so rhythmically astute, we can learn something from them. If you’re into Metal then I’m preaching to the choir. On the other hand, if you’re more of a Mainstream Country or Pop aficionado, let me wade you into the shallow end of Morbid Angel’s catalogue. Check out “God of Emptiness” here:
I Offer Fantasy
This toe-tapper is as almost as basic as it gets. The whole band comes in on the downbeat. While this is a tried-and-true and very strong way to begin a song, we need the utmost funk. We get that when we start off beat.
Notice how we not only begin on the downbeat but that the drums, via toms and ride cymbal, only serve to keep our head bobbing in the down direction as if nodding obediently to an invisible master. Nonetheless, the angels morbid have tricks up their sleeve to generate rhythmic interest. Notice when the double kick, and later the toms, play steady sixteenth notes. They do so in 6/4 time. Again, not quite off beat but definitely a way to keep things interesting.
All this is just to acclimate you to the style. Clearly, these Evil Ones are hip to mixing up their rhythms. Just like in our first example, “Roxanne”, this track was released earlier in Morbid Angel’s career. Later, in 1995, they began to start off beat.
Time to jump into the deep end. To that end, I want to use their track called “Dominate” from their album Domination. The way they use unusual accents makes me strongly suspect that “Spirits in the Material World” was a huge inspiration to them, funny as that seems.
As before, I want to first question your assumptions. Does it sound to you like the first note is the downbeat of the whole song? Again, that puts you in the square category. Shall we take a peek at the transcription?
Here you can see that the song is a bit quicker than the other’s we’ve looked at. In my video, I was counting this at half tempo. Sorry but I just don’t write that many songs above 200bpm! At the same time, we need to make sure we identify our tempo correctly or all of this will get stupid confusing fast.
I get that not all of you are guitarists. To that end, let me explain a few notation details. Clearly, there’s a melodic component here as well but we will ignore that for now (D Phrygian sounds evil!).
Once again we begin with an anacrusis. In contrast to our English example, this one is a measly one beat in length. That’s really all you need to start off beat! The fact that this song is so fast adds to the illusion that we’re just one eighth note out of kilter. Surprise!
The second point lies in the palm mutes and slides. A palm mute is exactly how it sounds: your hand meat muting the strings. Other instruments can mimic this with a dark, staccato articulation. The last detail I want to emphasize is the slides. Though they occur on a technically strong beat, beat three, because we started in a strange way, they don’t sound to be located there.
Beyond the actual transcription, let’s dive into the illusion created by the pick up measure. The point we’re making here is that by using rhythmic displacement and syncopation, we effectively start off beat even though we’re not. Here is how the track sounds to the unsuspecting ear:
As a little aside, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I wrote a riff that went exactly like this. I hadn’t realized that I stole it from Morbid Angel, honest! Sadly, I wasn’t hip enough back then to understand that I was playing the lame version of the riff. Stupid preteen brain!
One thing I want to point out is the weird measure of 5/4 at the end. When the riff is metered this way, that last beat makes absolutely no sense. Besides, when the massive growl comes in, it would start off beat and not in the funky way that we want. Again, you need to make sure that when you use this technique it has the effect you desire.
Throw Us Off
The main way you can implement this technique is by displacing your accents. Take a basic riff and either give it an anticipation or make the regular strong beat a weak one. That’s all there is to it: put the strong beat when your head goes up.
In the case of “Spirits in the Material World”, the drummer takes a phrase which would ordinarily be heard as starting with a sixteenth note triplet anticipation. That’s basically just one eighth note. You need to be aware of where your head is bobbing. For this reason, I previously mentioned the importance of knowing your tempo.
Of course, it’s the same phrase no matter how you count it. Even so, when you line it up as they have, you actually end up with one less eighth note. You don’t really start off beat, you just move the strong metric beats to the unaccented parts of the phrase. Go back and compare the two transcriptions and you’ll see what I mean. Try to make a few phrases that follow this function.
In the case of Morbid Angel’s “Dominate”, the tempo is nearly double of The Police track. Rather than displace an eighth note to start off beat, they displace a quarter note. Other than that, they’re using the same principle: take a basic phrase but line it up opposite to the bar.
Naturally, due to years of practice and cultural influence you play your instrument a certain way. How you play your instrument determines how you write, to a large extent. Without doubt, when you write a riff, you probably accent the measure’s strong beats unconsciously. However, if you want to start off beat you need to realign things.
First write the riff then secondly write it out. Make sure you have your tempo perfectly placed. After that, it’s just a matter of putting your naturally accented parts on weak beats i.e. when your head goes UP. For a slow song, that might be just one eighth note difference. Faster songs, if they make your head bob at half-speed, need a quarter note displacement. Try it out!
Another Answer Reviled
Guys, and my 25% constituency of gals, I want to take this time for thanking you for reading this long post. I’m doing my best to make these articles are a one-stop-shop for answering your burning questions on music. The saying goes, “Cheap, fast, or good – pick two!” Well, good isn’t a disposable option and I know a lot of musicians are either cheap or broke. All that leaves us with is fast which means we have time to dig in.
Don’t rush your process of acquiring skills. Remember, deliberate, i.e. slow and focused practice is what makes you improve. Even if you have a teacher, no one can do the work for you. All I can do is give you the right answer; you need to program your fingers.
I’m going to figure out a way to send out these posts each week or every month in my newsletter. When you join the Hexie Dose Newsletter, I’ll not only send you updates when I publish content, usually Monday 4PM, PST, but also my original music for free! Hopefully, that’s an offer you can’t refuse. Either way, I’ll be here next week. I hope you can start off beat by then!