The Backbeat

It would be difficult to argue that the backbeat is not a ubiquitous element in contemporary (mostly popular) music, so ubiquitous as to be nearly inaudible. There was a time when jazz musicians like Taj Mahal found it necessary to lecture a white audience on where to put the backbeat when clapping (or, like Harry Connick, Jr., to subtly add one more beat in an improvisation so that the white audience’s strong-beat claps become backbeats). But now, backbeats are everywhere, and form the basic currency for admittance to any serious attempt at music sales.  If an audience cannot figure out where to clap, it’s not for lack of exposure.

The dominance of the backbeat in contemporary music, across a wide swath of genres and marketing niches, reminds me of sugar for some reason (or  boingonium).  You have to look long and hard to find any examples of popular contemporary music that do not have the backbeat as a prominent feature. This kind of a challenge makes me think that maybe it would be fun either to find examples of backbeats in non-contemporary popular music from a long, long time ago (or classical music from a century or two in the past), or to find examples of contemporary popular music that do not contain a prominent backbeat. You might call it two sides of a contrarian coin.

Old Backbeats

If you search the internet (YouTube) for performances of the mid-13th century English rota Sumer is icumen in, you might find this: Kalabalik – Sumer is icumen in.  Or perhaps you would look for L‘Homme armé, or the Empire Brass recording of Rameau’s Tambourin (18th Century).

Of course, I suppose finding the backbeat as part of modern interpretations of old popular tunes and dance pieces isn’t so remarkable. Maybe finding classical pieces that feature “backbeats” as a natural part of the compositional fabric would be a bit more interesting. One of my favorite examples of this is found in the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony 9 – Allegro assai vivace – Alla Marcia.  Classical composers often used syncopation and offbeat accents as a means of heightening tension or increasing musical drama. In the Baroque era, chains of suspensions in a sequence created such an effect; Bach often employed this device in his concertos: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (I), Concerto for Two Violins (III), Keyboard Concerto in D minor (I). Chopin often used syncopation and hemiola-like effects (grouping notes rhythmically in a way that contradicts the underlying meter) in his piano music, and a striking example of emphasizing beats two and four is found in his Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1.

New Non-backbeats (or nearly so)

It might be easier to find old music containing some semblance of a backbeat than to find new music without it. But it is possible. Sometimes even contemporary Christian musicians find a way to avoid backbeats (or at least a way to treat them in a subtle, creative way). For example, it’s easy to be drawn to Audrey Assad’s version of How Can I Keep From Singing, even though the backbeat is either absent or incorporated in a very subtle manner (can a real backbeat be subtle?). If “popular” music is to avoid the backbeat, it most likely will not happen in mainstream pop or rock, but in the specialized niches and backwaters of creative jazz or folk / world musicians (“ethnic” music). For example, Brad Mehldau’s treatment of the Beatles’ Blackbird features a bit of a soft backbeat on snare in the middle section, but the subtle use of brushes throughout the arrangement downplays any backbeat emphasis, and yet the arrangement sounds fresh and new, rather than just another “trad-jazz” cover.  Snarky Puppy’s Tio Macaco is a contemporary Latin-jazz piece heavy on percussion but almost entirely free of a backbeat (offbeat syncopations, yes; backbeat, no).

Notwithstanding Taj Mahal’s lectures, I find it interesting that a lot of traditional African drumming rhythms are subtle and complex, and more or less lacking in the use of backbeats. In fact, I think it fair to say that many of them contain no real semblance to a backbeat-based pattern. Here are some examples:

As the backbeat gained prominence and came to dominate American (and eventually global) popular music, the more subtle rhythmic variations of various folk-culture traditions seem to have faded into the background. That is to say, even if present, the more subtle variants serve as a kind of background to the backbeat. The backbeat is what sells.

Why has the backbeat become such a pervasive feature of contemporary music? I dunno . . . I think it’s so ingrained in the psyche of the DIY music-making culture, and the major pop-music factory-studios, that very few people stop to analyze it, let alone attempt to avoid it. No doubt, if you slap that rhythm track on an otherwise mundane, run-of-the-mill arrangement, you can raise its value in the marketplace. Just add sugar (or boingonium).