Rhythm, Energy, and the Body

  • Alison Stone


Rhythm, Energy and the Body is on rhythm in popular music. One layer of sound in popular music is explicit rhythm: a constant layer of 'unpitched' percussion. In relation to this layer, the rhythmic qualities of all the other layers of sound―vocals, melodies, chords, bass-lines, and so on―are heightened, as they emphasise beats that fit in or pull against those emphasised by the percussion. This gives popular music a pronounced rhythmic character, and so it appeals to our bodies, by affording them opportunities to move creatively in time with the music. Examples by Michael Jackson and New Order are discussed.


Rhythmic Pattern Popular Music Popular Song Musical Rhythm Percussion Instrument 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

1 Introduction

Much popular music has a strong rhythmic dimension, as many listeners, musicians, and theorists agree. Because popular music is highly rhythmic, it arouses our bodies. It solicits us to dance and move in many ways, and it affects us corporeally in other ways too: songs can energise, elate, enrage, depress our spirits, or wind us down. These affective reactions have somatic roots, being bound up with changes in levels of bodily energy. To be sure, other kinds of music, including art music, often have somatic effects too. But popular music is particularly noted in this regard, and is my concern here.

Theorists have mostly celebrated popular music’s rhythmic dimension and bodily appeal. 1 Here is Lawrence Grossberg:

As many a rock and roll fan has commented, the power of the music lies not in what it says but in what it does, in how it makes one move and feel. … Rock and roll is corporeal and ‘invasive’ … [and] without the mediation of meaning, the sheer volume and repetitive rhythms of rock and roll produce a real material pleasure for its fans. (1990: 113)

For Grossberg, then, rock’s effects ‘do not necessarily involve the transmission, production, structuration, or even deconstruction of meaning’. Likewise for Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson (1999), some popular music―electronic dance music―acts directly on our bodies by prompting us to dance, bypassing the intellect in a radical subversion of the mind/body hierarchy. I agree that popular music subverts that hierarchy, and does so in part through its rhythmic dimension, but I do not think that this takes place in the ways claimed by Grossberg or Gilbert and Pearson. My alternative account will be developed in this chapter.

I develop this account by responding to an objection to the rhythmic force of popular music which comes out of Adorno’s work. He identifies the rhythmic and corporeal force of popular music but finds it problematic. He claims that popular music has an unvarying ‘basic beat’ with which it dominates listeners. Hence this form of music does not empower our bodies or afford us possibilities for bodily self-realisation but rather compels us to move and undergo certain affective and energetic reactions, while short-circuiting our intellects so that we cannot reflect critically on these processes (see, e.g., Adorno 1976: 29). 2

Adorno alerts us to a real area of concern here. But the problem, I’ll argue in Sect. 2, is actually as follows. In being organised repetitively, popular music is regulated by ‘measured time’ (Abel 2014). This is abstract, mathematical time, made up of discrete, homogeneous intervals or units that can be multiplied or divided indefinitely many times to measure out and co-ordinate repetitions of a song’s elements. This kind of time is part of clock-time, which Adorno identifies―plausibly, I believe―as a construct of modern mathematical science and an integral factor in industrial society. Clock-time has been key to the division of labour and the factory system, enabling productive tasks to be broken down into their components and those components timed, apportioned to different individuals, then co-ordinated. Clock-time has also enabled the scientific measurement and control of natural processes. Thus, popular music’s repetitive organisation makes it potentially complicit with capitalism and the domination that capitalism exerts over the materiality of both nature and individual human bodies. Perhaps in this way, despite what I have argued so far in this book, popular music’s repetitive organisation is, after all, connected with the modern dominance of form over matter, in the sense of the dominance of clock-time as an abstract intellectual construct over material bodies and nature.

I’ll argue, though, that ultimately popular music uses measured time in a way that challenges that dominance. Measured time enables repetitions of songs’ material elements to be mapped onto one another, where each of these elements has its own rhythm. Through measured time, then, these different rhythms become co-ordinated so that some pull with and others against one another. Crucially here, popular music typically has a layer of explicit percussive rhythm, discussed in Sect. 3. The rhythms of the other layers of sound either reinforce or pull against the percussion rhythm and so come to form a force-field of partly conflicting, partly intertwining energies, as Sects. 4 and 5 explore. It is in virtue of these complex rhythmic pulls-and-pushes that popular songs solicit us to move our bodies in time with them, I argue in Sect. 6. But songs do not exert compulsive causal force upon our bodies (as Adorno feared). Rather, we make sense of songs’ conflicting energies at a bodily level: in moving to music we are effectively thinking through its rhythms with the tacit, practical intelligence of our bodies, by modelling movements of our body parts on shifts of emphasis and timing in the music. 3

The measured time that enables this rhythmic dimension to crystallise within popular music, and to elicit the intelligent activity of our bodies, is a formal, abstract construct. Yet this formal, conceptual construct enables the music to take on an energetic character and enables our bodily and material powers to come to self-realisation in our responses to the music. In this way popular music is so configured that form serves matter, and the truth is presented that it is good for formal principles and intellectual forms to facilitate, not suppress, the development of material bodies and their forces. So I argue in Sect. 7.

Having said this, while it is standard that popular music has this rhythmic and bodily character, it is not universal, and different songs and genres realise this character in different ways and to different degrees. For instance, in much 1980s indie rock the bass-lines are indistinct and the different emphases presented by different instruments are half-buried under a thick layer of fuzz or noise, yielding music with little perceptible rhythmic dynamism, to which it is difficult to dance. In what follows, then, I am concerned with rhythmic qualities that popular music has generally, not universally.

2 Beat, Measure, Domination

Post-rock-‘n’-roll popular music typically has a layer of explicit beat. This is provided by percussion instruments and is usually made up of rhythmic cells that are repeated, throughout each song or song section, under varying degrees of modification. It is rare for improvisations to disguise or complicate matters, except in genres that hybridise with jazz―jazz-funk, jazz-rock, and so on. Normally, though, each song has a constant percussion pattern that is maintained throughout.

One function of the explicit beat layer is to spell out and make explicit songs’ metric organisation. An example is the drums in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ (the 1983 single version, also included on Thriller, and subsequently included on Number Ones; see Fig. 5.1). The drum pattern here is the one most standard in popular music. The snare-drum sounds on the even divisions of the 4/4 beat (two and four), the bass-drum on the odd divisions (one and three). Between them the drums thus spell out the 4/4 metre to which ‘Billie Jean’, like the vast majority of popular songs, is set, with each measure evenly divided into four quarter-length intervals of time. By counting to the recurring drum pattern listeners can identify where each measure begins and ends and so how the music is organised (Covach 1997: 11). The hi-hat makes it explicit that each quarter-length interval can be halved again, but the bass- and snare-drums are fundamental in making explicit the song’s temporal organisation. In ‘Billie Jean’s’ long introduction we clearly hear the percussion play this role. The drums are present from the very start, and the bass guitar, bass synthesiser, and cabasa (a Latin percussion instrument) come in on measure three. Staccato chords, played on another synthesiser, enter on the 11th measure. Thus, the drums immediately establish the metric framework with which the other instruments in turn fall in.
Fig. 5.1

Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’, cabasa, drums, bass guitar, and synthesiser, timing ca. 00:20–00:24

If explicit beat spells out metre, reciprocally metre regulates the repetitions of the elements presented at each layer of sound. Metric constraints govern the length of each element (e.g. the length of the bass-line in ‘Billie Jean’) and the points in time when each element begins and ends, thereby ensuring that the elements at each layer of sound are co-ordinated with one another. Higher-level groupings of measures determine the length of each song section and the points at which instrumental patterns change between sections. Let’s refer back to my earlier model of repetitive construction (Table  3.1). The chorus section of a hypothetical song might be constructed out of (1) four repetitions of a four-chord sequence within which each chord is presented for one measure, these aligned with (2) four phrases of melody each four measures long, (3) eight repetitions of a two-measure bass-line, and (4) sixteen repetitions of a one-measure percussion pattern. These repetitions can be co-ordinated due to the background presupposition of a uniform metrical grid against which the timings and durations of all the iterated units are measured out.

Previously, I argued that repetition enables musical materials to exercise a kind of agency in contributing to the generation of songs’ meanings. But perhaps in another way repetitive organisation does dominate the musical materials, by providing a quasi-mathematical ‘grid’ into which they must be fitted before their connotations can interweave. Further, the measured time that’s put to work in this ‘grid’ is a scientific and mathematical construct: it is abstracted from the uneven, qualitatively varying lived time of human experience and from the uneven temporal processes that we experience in nature. This is not to say that mathematical time does not really exist, only that it is different from time as we experience it in our own lives and in nature as we inhabit it. For purposes of controlling natural processes, time is reduced to successive units of identical duration―‘nows’―each infinitely divisible; we can reckon and calculate with these so as to intervene effectively in natural processes. The musical result is metre, where a measure is the basic temporal unit, each of these units can be divided (e.g. into four quarters), and those divisions can be subdivided again ad infinitum. In the other direction, measures can be added endlessly to build up compositions of any length―extending, in the final analysis, to ‘the pitiless eternity of the clockwork’ (Adorno 2002: 279). Either way the presupposition is homogeneous time: time cut up into atomic components, all identical.

So much for the problem that repetitive organisation seems to be connected with measured time and so, potentially, industrial capitalism and its domination over the materiality of nature and of human bodies. I will now argue that in its typical approach to metre and rhythm popular music actually offers a solution to this problem.

3 Explicit Beat and the Backbeat

We should look more closely at explicit beat or explicit rhythm, one of the typical layers of sound in popular music (Moore 2012a: 20–21; Gracyk 1996). 4 It is ‘explicit’ in several respects:
  1. (1)

    The drums that are standardly used in popular music (snare-drum, bass-drum, toms, hi-hat, and cymbals) are ‘unpitched’, as are most of the other percussive media in common use in popular music—hand-claps, floor-stomps, tambourines, maracas, and so on. 5 Being unpitched, these instruments provide only rhythm without also contributing to melody and harmony.

  2. (2)

    Typically the percussion layer does not appear in popular music merely episodically but is a constant presence throughout a song. Some rhythmic patterns presented by percussion instruments may be only episodic: cymbal splashes or drum ‘fills’ marking transitions between sections, for instance, or drum ‘breaks’ (i.e. solo passages). But generally those episodes are just part of the whole percussion layer, which remains present throughout a song. Popular songs with no such layer of unpitched percussion, such as the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’, are rare. Somewhat more common are songs that feature percussion only for some sections—for example, the first verse and pre-chorus of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ (on Hunky Dory) contain no drums. Most often, though, percussion is there throughout.

  3. (3)

    The percussion normally presents a short rhythmic pattern or cell that is repeated either for the whole song or a whole section (e.g. when different rhythmic patterns are presented in the verse and the chorus). Usually these basic patterns are repeated under variations or with additional episodes such as drum fills. As in ‘Billie Jean’, it is common for a percussion pattern to last for one measure and so be repeated once per measure. Multiple repetitions of these patterns are then assembled to make up the entire percussion layer of a track.

Many permutations exist, though. A song’s basic rhythmic cell may last for more than one measure, as with the instantly recognisable synthetic bass-drum rhythm that opens New Order’s 1983 track ‘Blue Monday’ (later included on the compilation Substance) (Fig. 5.2). Longer multi-measure percussion patterns are less common but do occur; one instance is in U2’s ‘I Will Follow’ (on Boy; Fig. 5.3). As in this case, longer, multi-measure rhythmic patterns tend to consist of varying iterations of a shorter pattern. In ‘I Will Follow’ the odd measures iterate a basic snare-and-bass-drum combination, while measure two presents it in altered form and measure four presents a variation on the altered pattern in measure two―an ABAC design.
Fig. 5.2

New Order, ‘Blue Monday’, drums, timing ca. 00:00–00:03

Fig. 5.3

U2, ‘I Will Follow’, drums, timing ca. 00:15–00:21

  1. (4) 

    In the context of this overall approach to explicit rhythm, popular music tends to emphasise the backbeat—that is beats two and four in each measure in 4/4 time. 6 The standard way that this is done is by the snare-drum sounding on beats two and four and the bass-drum on one and three. Because the snare-drum is smaller than the bass-drum its sounds have higher frequencies (although no precise pitch) and therefore stand out more, so that the snare’s whip-crack sound cuts through the texture more audibly than the duller thud of the bass-drum. The prominence of the snare-drum can be increased further by other means, such as its being struck more forcibly, mixed louder, treated electronically, recorded with echo, or a combination of these. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ emphasises the snare-drum beats so heavily that they sound like explosions.

This bass-and-snare-drum combination is pervasive in popular music, but only under countless variations. Measures of 4/4 time can be subdivided into eight parts with additional drum sounds then placed on some of these subdivisions―generating, for example, a double backbeat (Fig. 5.4). Or additional bass-drum beats can be inserted, yielding, for instance, the Motorik beat (Fig. 5.5), much used in ‘Krautrock’ and intended to evoke the mindless automatism of motorway driving (see Stubbs 2014b). By sub-dividing the 4/4 beat further, additional possibilities for variation can be produced. Each quarter-note beat can be divided into three parts (so that the metre is effectively 12/8) or the beat can be subdivided into 16 parts, generating the very busy and complicated rhythms heard in funk (Brody and Campbell 1999: 129), often sampled and looped to make up the percussion layer in rap. One of the songs most often so sampled is the Winstons’ ‘Amen, Brother’ (the B-side of their 1969 single ‘Color Him Father’), specifically the first one or two measures of the ‘Amen break’, the song’s four-measure-long drum solo, source of the archetypal ‘breakbeat’. The hi-hat presents eighth-notes, but the distribution of bass- and snare-drum sounds presupposes a sixteenth-note subdivision of the beat (see Fig. 5.6). Changing which percussion instruments or parts of the drum-set are used, for instance by using only tom-toms, yields further variations on the standard popular music beat, as does the use of time signatures other than 4/4―most often 3/4 and 6/8―although 4/4 remains overwhelmingly common. And, albeit rarely, songs can include changes in metre, or measures can be unexpectedly dropped or added.
Fig. 5.4

The double backbeat

Fig. 5.5

The Motorik beat

Fig. 5.6

The Winstons, ‘Amen, Brother’, drums, timing ca. 01:26–01:28

We can identify further sources of variation from Charles Keil’s picture of ‘groove’ (Keil and Feld 1994). Although groove is variously defined, theorists agree on the basic phenomenon: variations over time on a repeated rhythmic pattern (see Abel 2014: 18–24; Butler 2006: 5; Middleton 2006: 145–6; Roholt 2014: 10–11. Sometimes, under these variations, the basic pattern itself gradually evolves over time, as in James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’). For Keil, music more specifically has groove when:
  1. (a)

    It includes some instruments that sound out a steady beat—say, four beats to the measure on the bass-drum—while other instruments sound slightly ahead of or behind that same beat—say, the snare-drum sounds slightly before or behind beat two in each measure—thus ‘leaning’ forwards or backwards (Keil and Feld 1994: 61–62; and see Roholt 2014). The ‘timing discrepancies’ that interest Keil are minute—as when a forward-leaning snare-drum regularly sounds on, say, what is effectively point 1.9 in the measure or even 1.85. It’s unlikely, though, that a human drummer would exactly maintain a steady beat on 1.85. Micro-variations are bound to occur, and for Keil these micro-variations give songs lived vitality and rescue them from monotony;

  2. (b)

    Music includes timing discrepancies or nuances whose ‘feel’ is irreducible to the measurable temporal alterations at work (Keil and Feld 1994: 54). Yet Keil acknowledges that measurable alterations are at work (154–6), and I find it helpful to approach timing nuances in such terms. Suppose that in a 4/4 song the snare-drum repeatedly sounds not on but before beat two. If we subdivide the measure further, into eight parts, we might now find that the snare sound occurs on beat two of eight—or, if it now falls between beats two and three, we could subdivide the measure again, into sixteenth-notes. This might now locate the sound on either beat three or four of 16—or if it still falls between beats, we could subdivide the measure into 32 parts. And so on. With the minute discrepancies that interest Keil, many levels of subdivision of the beat are necessary to capture precisely where sounds are placed. But even when we find the right subdivision, our original song spelt out a 4/4 beat, so the snare-drum sound (in my hypothetical example) remains discrepant with respect to that beat. Timing nuances arise, then, when one instrument presupposes a finer-grained subdivision of the measure to the others.


In sum, Keil’s work allows us to adduce several further ways in which popular music’s standard beat can be varied: through timing nuances, consistently maintained or not; through small variations adding up to longer-term shifts in a rhythmic pattern; and through different instruments presupposing finer- and coarser-grained divisions of the beat.

Popular music’s standard beat, then, is usually present under variations―so much so that even a song that presents that standard beat unadorned and without variations counts as just one more variation on the normal pattern of variation. Why do these variations matter? We can extract an answer from Dick Bradley’s account of rock-‘n’-roll. Rightly treating it as fundamentally derivative of rhythm-and-blues, he says of rhythm-and-blues that:

The setting up of a regular, more or less homogeneous rhythmic ‘background’ and a partly or wholly improvised foreground of one or more instruments and/or voices, set against the background, offers … an image … of ‘individual’ actions in the context of the shared experience of externalized, alienating time. By ‘externalized time’ I refer to … the mediation of the clock … [as] a precondition for the economic system of capitalism. (1992: 48)

That is: for Bradley, the standard beat upheld by the rhythm section of a rhythm-and-blues band enacts measured time, a concomitant of capitalism. Yet:

Against a stretched-out, unyielding temporal background―the beat―the singer, guitarist, horn-player or whoever, uses … anticipations of the beat, delays, accelerations …, melodic improvisation … and … freely varied timbre/sound production, to detach his or her … sound from the beat, cutting across or against the beat. (49)

That strategy continues in rock-‘n’-roll, for Bradley, so that the beat ceases to be alienating and is made into a resource against which individuals can realise themselves freely and creatively (50). In the contributions of vocalists, lead guitarists, and so on, a musical symbol is created of individual freedom from oppressive clock-time (51; for a similar view, see also Tagg 1997).

For Bradley, that freedom is symbolised by the rhythmic, melodic, and other variations that vocalists or ‘lead’ instrumentalists effect against the constant beat. But we can also apply Bradley’s argument to the beat itself. Yes, we might say, the snare- and bass-drums (or other percussion instruments) present a standard beat and it does presuppose clock-time, but that standard beat is only realised under countless variations. The variations on what each percussion instrument is doing, and how and when it does it, embody the freedom of individuals to modify and inflect the standard beat.

Moreover, there is another stronger sense in which popular music’s standard beat establishes an alternative to clock-time―not only in the endless variations on the standard 4/4 bass-and-snare beat but in the standard 4/4 bass-and-snare beat. To see this, let’s turn to Gracyk’s account of explicit rhythm. Following jazz historian Gunter Schuller (1986: 8), Gracyk describes the popular music backbeat, which descends from early jazz, as a ‘democratised beat’. By stressing the beats that are ‘weak’ or ‘back’ within Western metre, jazz and popular music side with the underdog, with the beats that have been assigned subordinate places in the metric hierarchy. To explain this I need to clarify the notions of rhythm, metre and beat.

The definition of rhythm (in and beyond music) is contested, but I take it that a musical rhythm arises when there is a series of connected sounds in which some stand out over others―some are ‘strong’ and others ‘weak’ in some way. Several factors, not just volume levels, make for strength or weakness. 7 A rhythm, then, is a pattern of stressed and unstressed sounds. Metre, for its part, is ‘bonded rhythm’ (Sachs, quoted in Hamilton 2007: 136): a system for organising and imposing regularity on rhythmic patterns so that the strong and weak points regularly fall in certain places relative to one another. Not all music is metric (much song that follows the varying emphases of speech is non-metric) and different metric systems exist in different cultures, but my concern is with metre in its Western form as it has crystallised from 1600 onwards, since this kind of metre is what popular music generally presupposes. In this system, points (or ‘pulses’) in the flow of time to which the music unfolds are measured out evenly and used to demarcate the music into measures each containing a given number of pulses. The first pulse―or beat―in each measure is strongest. 8 This is because it marks the boundary between measures, the start of each measure and each multi-measure section, and the point from which to count out the time to which the music is set. While the first beat in each measure is thus accented, musicians may or may not physically stress it (subtly or conspicuously).

Beats, then, are on the one hand the points or pulses in time that mark out the divisions of the measure to which a song is set. In this sense, beats need not be explicitly sounded out; concomitantly, music can be metric and have a definite pulse without having any explicit beat layer. On the other hand, in popular music, there normally is a layer of explicit percussive rhythm―what I’ve called the ‘explicit beat’ layer―and so it is normal that at least some of those pulses are overtly sounded out. Standardly, when the metre is 4/4, the bass- and snare-drums distribute between them the task of sounding out the four pulses that divide up each measure. Thus, implicit pulse becomes explicit beat and the standard shape of the explicit beat in popular music is the bass-and-snare 4/4 combination.

Metre, then, establishes a hierarchy between the beats in each 4/4 measure, with beat one on top, and behind it beat three, then two, then four. 9 Because it stresses the backbeat, popular music’s standard beat embodies a rejection of that metric hierarchy, re-emphasising the beats that are marked metrically as weak. 10 Implicitly, then, popular music’s typical stress on the backbeat subverts the hierarchy bound up with metre and by extension rejects the broader power relations, of industry over people and science over nature, which are effected through measured time.

One question arising here concerns genres that re-emphasise the downbeat―‘the one’, in James Brown’s words―notably funk, and some rap. The analysis so far would suggest that such music restores hierarchy and metric form, but if anything funk and genres influenced by it are even more rhythm- and body-focused than other popular music genres. We’ll be in a position to explain this in the next section, so I postpone this issue to Sect. 4.

However, Gracyk’s phrase ‘democratised beat’ is potentially confusing, as Mark Abel points out (2014: 49–50). Aren’t the formerly weak beats simply raised to dominant position, rather than all the beats being equalised, as ‘democratisation’ suggests? The answer depends on whether popular music, despite stressing the backbeat, still also presupposes that there is an accent on the downbeat, that is beat one. In that case beats one (and three) would be privileged metrically while beats two (and four) are privileged in actual practice―resulting in rough overall equality. But does popular music presuppose that the downbeat is accented? Joel Rudinow argues otherwise, stressing popular music’s African rhythmic influences:

Western musicology has been given to theorizing the back beat as a ‘displacement’ of accent from presumed normal expectations … and thus as an instance of ‘syncopation’, which is in turn understood to be basically a matter of upsetting rhythmic expectations … however, the presumption as to which expectations are ‘normal’ is objectionable from the point of view of ethnomusicology … unlike European and European-derived musical traditions, African-derived rhythmic organization does not always accent the reference beat (the one) … [which] need not even be enunciated … it would be a misleading and objectionable presumption to theorize the back beat as essentially or necessarily a ‘displacement of accent’ or a ‘departure from normal rhythmic expectations’. (2010: 121–2)

In short, perhaps post-rock-‘n’-roll music simply operates with a new norm on which beats two (and four) rather than one (and three) are accented. John Mowitt likewise suggests that ‘standardization has effectively effaced the backbeat’s status as a syncopation’, which he calls the ‘becoming-“normal” of the backbeat’ (2002: 32). That is, the emphasised backbeat is the new norm.

I disagree. Contrary to Rudinow, popular music inherits and works with Western metre as well as African-derived rhythmic practices. And Mowitt himself says that the backbeat remains ‘strictly speaking’ a syncopation (32), presumably in that the beats it stresses are not metrically accented. I believe, then, that popular music does accent the downbeat, even as it also institutes a new norm to stress the backbeat. As a result the two forces―metric and rhythmic, structural and practical―become pitted against one another to generate conflicting energies. To see this I need to show how metric accent is presupposed in popular music, which entails looking beyond explicit beat to the rhythmic aspects of other layers of sound.

4 Sources of Rhythmic Tension

The percussion layer of popular music may be explicitly rhythmic, but all its other layers of sound are rhythmic too―necessarily so, for rhythm is fundamental to all music. Rhythm can exist without melody or harmony but not the other way around: any melody unfolds a pattern of notes where, even if none are physically stressed more than the others, some still stand out due to their longer duration, raised pitch, harmonic function, and so on. More specifically, in popular music, each layer of sound is typically made up of repetitions of small elements, each with a rhythm that is reiterated―unchanged or varied―each time that the element recurs. These rhythmic qualities tend to be pronounced in popular music, partly because instruments are played in quite percussive ways, and partly because of the role of repetition, which means that rhythmic patterns recur and recur again and so build up momentum.

Also, most importantly, the rhythmic qualities of popular song elements are enhanced by their relations with the songs’ explicit beat layer, because these elements come either to pull rhythmically against the emphases presented by the percussion or with those emphases. Given the norm that the snare-drum beats are stressed, reciprocally at least some other elements tend to pull against the snare-drum and with the bass-drum. Because the bass-drum typically sounds on beat one of each measure, the instruments that reinforce the bass-drum are pulling the emphasis towards the beats that are metrically accented.

Going back to measures 11–12 of ‘Billie Jean’ (Fig. 5.1), the snare-drum heavily and prominently stresses the backbeat. But every other instrument that features in these measures pulls against the snare-drum and pulls, to at least some degree, with the bass-drum. First, the bass guitar: although each note of the bass-line is stressed fairly evenly, a slightly greater stress falls on the notes occurring on beats one and five, in time with the bass-drum beats. The bass-line thus exemplifies the norm for ‘the bass player [to] center his part around the rhythmic pattern played in the bass drum, making sure to stress those notes rhythmically while filling in other notes in order to create an interesting bass line’ (Covach 2006: 217–8). In ‘Billie Jean’ the first bass note in each measure, on beat one, stands out further by being on the tonic pitch F♯ and being reinforced by the first stabbing synthesiser chord in each measure. The backbeat remains most emphasised overall, but the bass guitar and synthesiser create a significant counter-pull towards beat one, helping to prevent the backbeat from becoming mechanical or militaristic.

Moreover, the bass guitar and synthesiser parts indicate that metric accent is presupposed, for each cycle through their repeated elements begins on beat one of the measure. The synthesiser signals this with eighth-note tonic chords on the first beat of each measure, at once cementing the tonic and confirming the metric accent. Likewise, each iteration of the bass-line begins on beat one of the measure; this is signalled by the bass-line starting out from the tonic at this point. Moreover, the bass-line divides into two halves: the first rises by an octave; the second descends by a (major) perfect fourth then rises back to close on the dominant, marking the end (‘question’). This division of the bass-line confirms the metric accent, since beats one and three are accented as marking the start of each half.

This illuminates a broader way that popular music presupposes metric accent. Chord cycles generally begin on beat one of a measure and chord changes generally occur at that point too. The norm for chords to change on beat one is observed in many of the examples considered earlier, such as ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ (Fig.  3.4) and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (Fig.  3.5). Of course there are variations: in ‘Sh-Boom’ (Fig.  3.3) each new chord begins slightly behind beats one and three in the measure. But overall beat one is central to the movements in the layer of harmonic filler and so to songs’ harmonic organisation. We might wonder whether the timing of vocal phrases likewise reflects metric accent. Broadly it does, but less plainly than that of chords, for vocal lines more often anticipate or hold back relative to beat one. In the earlier examples, Berry’s and Bono’s phrases consistently start after each corresponding chord.

‘Billie Jean’ illustrates something else too. The synthesiser and bass guitar lines don’t only reinforce the bass-drum; they also stress the second ‘half’ of each second beat in 4/4 time, a point in time not enunciated by either the bass- or snare-drums. The bass-line puts a slight emphasis at this point in that it returns to the tonic pitch here, while the second synthesiser chord likewise sounds here, whereas we might have expected it to sound later, on beat three. Now, we might think that here the bass-line and synthesiser chords ‘lean’ slightly ahead of the bass-drum with which they remain broadly aligned. Indeed the unstable, hurried chord creates a sense of tension and contributes to the song’s qualities of anxiety, nervousness and agitation (as do the scratchy, uncomfortable sound of the cabasa and the pacing quality of the bass-line as it restlessly ‘walks’ up and down). 11 Overall, then, the track has a ‘forward-leaning’ groove with connotations the reverse of the relaxed, laid-back qualities of ‘backward’-leaning grooves.

Moreover, the syncopated chords in question (on ii) can be seen as occurring on beat four of an eight-beat division spelt out by the hi-hat, cabasa, and bass guitar. This is not the sort of minute timing discrepancy considered earlier, yet something interesting is going on. To represent matters in binary terms:

(a) Bass-/snare-drums:

1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0

(b) Keybd:

1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0

(c) Bass guitar:

1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0

Returning to the idea that the popular music beat is ‘democratised’, the unexpected placements of sounds in (b) and (c) introduce a further type of democratisation. Any 4/4 measure can be subdivided indefinitely many times, but initially into eight equal parts. Thus

1 2 3 4
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

Each eighth-note pair (1-and) adds up to a quarter-note beat (1) at the higher level, where each quarter-note beat begins on the first of each eighth-note pair, giving it priority. This norm filters down from the higher-level prioritisation of beat one. Here, then, is another hierarchy implied in metre, which can be subverted by beginning a sound on the second half of any quarter-note beat (whether or not the sound runs on into the next beat). The same kind of subversion or syncopation (call it ‘timing displacement’) can be accomplished at any subdivision of the beat: the finer-grained the subdivision, the more possibilities for subversion. 12

These kinds of syncopation presuppose measured time and metric hierarchy just as the stressed backbeat does: the norm must be presupposed to be subverted. Thus, popular music presupposes metric hierarchy in a particular way: it uses that hierarchy, playing it off against the stress on the backbeat and against timing displacements to create a dynamic pull of energies between different beats―those that are metrically accented and those that are rhythmically stressed or sound in unexpected places. Metric accent is mobilised into a resource for producing dynamic pulls and counter-pulls of energy within a song.

We are now in a position to answer my earlier question regarding genres that re-emphasise the downbeat, that is, beat one. This re-emphasis can be clearly heard, for instance, in James Brown’s ‘Make It Funky (Part 1)’. The bass-drum sound on beat one is stressed more heavily than usual, and, because the iterations of both the horn riff and the scratchy guitar riff also begin on beat one, the combined effect is to emphasise beat one above beat two, the latter nonetheless being sounded by the snare-drum. Thus, ‘Make It Funky’ does not abandon the standard 4/4 bass-and-snare combination altogether: the snare-drum still sounds on beats two and four, while the bass-drum sounds on beat one and after beat three (leaning backwards). But the bass-drum is struck more forcefully than normal, and the weight of the other instrumental parts is piled towards the first bass-drum beat to a degree that overturns the usual predominance of the snare-drum beats. The energy is pulled heavily off beats two and four, but the snare-drum’s sound―its way of cutting through the texture―pulls the energy back to a significant degree towards the even beats. Thus, we have here an intensified version of the normal popular music practice of playing off overt rhythm and metric accent against one another, exemplifying the norm to use metric accent to produce rhythmic dynamism. This helps to explain why funk, and other genres and tracks that stress the downbeat, do not thereby cease to be rhythm- and body-based. On the contrary, they take even further than other popular music genres the strategy of mobilising metric accent to produce rhythmic dynamism.

5 ‘Blue Monday’

In this section, I want to substantiate my overall claims regarding the dynamic tension between metre and rhythm in popular music by using a second extended example: New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. Vocalist Bernard Sumner says of ‘Blue Monday’ that ‘I don’t really regard it as a song [but] a machine to make people dance’ (Sumner, in Bewarp and Crona 2013). More prosaically, ‘Blue Monday’ is an early piece of electronic dance music with a machine-like, unemotional character. It deserves consideration here partly because it is often assumed that rhythm properly speaking―perhaps contrary to mere beat or lifeless succession―arises only where there is organic flow (see, e.g., Scruton 2007). For instance, Joel Rudinow holds that music cannot fully possess rhythmic energy unless it embodies nuances imparted by performers in their unique individuality (see Rudinow 2010: 115). Similarly, Mark Abel states that music made on computers can only ever have a poor groove, if it achieves any groove at all (2014: 255). This is surprising, since computers permit ever-increasing levels of timing nuance to be factored into music (see Gilbert and Pearson 1999: 124). But even in the absence of any such nuances, electronic music can still have rhythmic dynamism. ‘Blue Monday’, made when computer-based music technologies were less sophisticated and timing was relatively rigid, shows that this need not rule out rhythmic dynamism. Indeed the track responds to these constraints by foregrounding its own synthetic and mechanical character, yet in a way that creates a propulsive rhythm.

For manageability’s sake, let’s concentrate on the first of the song’s three sections, which lasts just over two minutes (see Table 5.1; the whole song lasts seven and a half minutes). 13 Allan Moore describes ‘Blue Monday’ as having ‘arch’ form: its middle, vocal section lies between its two outer sections (2012a: 175). The first section’s form is ‘accumulative’, according to Mark Spicer (2004: 39–42): its subsections are demarcated by the additions and disappearances of various instruments which gradually build up overall.
Table 5.1

New Order, ‘Blue Monday’, first section, structure




1 (Opening)


The distinctive two-measure synthetic bass-drum pattern (Fig. 5.2 above) is repeated four times before any other instrumentation enters. This sets the scene for other instruments to become situated in relation to this beat



Four further repetitions of the bass-drum pattern occur while a two-measure, very flat keyboard pattern with a squelchy, percussive sound and added echo fades in, establishing that the song is in the Dorian mode on D, and running through a set of pitches that anticipates the synth-bass line



A synthetic snare-drum now enters, playing on beats two and four of each measure, plus hi-hat, playing even sixteenth-notes

The keyboard reaches full volume, maintaining the same melodic pattern as before, with some slight rhythmic variations

A two-measure-long synthetic bass pattern enters, alternating between an F–C–D sequence―as shown below―then a G–C–D series

Open image in new window


According to the band, this bass-line re-uses the one from Sylvester’s 1978 disco single ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. But it is common in disco more broadly for bass-lines to present alternate octaves to an eighth-note rhythm―the very pattern into which the synth-bass settles in the next subsection of ‘Blue Monday’. Versions of this ‘high-energy’ leaping octave pattern are also widely used in electronic dance music, in ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Paparazzi’ among others, for example



Unaccompanied drum break



The synth-bass and drums (but not the keyboards) resume, with the synth-bass now cycling through the same series of pitches but set to a simplified eighth-note rhythm. The bass-drum now sounds on just beats one and three of each 4/4 measure while the hi-hat sounds on the even halves of each of these quarter-note beats. Thus by now the beat is relatively close to the standard popular music beat, but for the placement of the hi-hat sounds

Open image in new window



The bass guitar is now added, playing two very simple phrases that return relentlessly to the tonic:

Open image in new window


From this point onwards the tom-toms appear intermittently, playing fragments that echo all or part of the rapid, sixteenth-note phase of the earlier bass-drum pattern



Another drum break occurs while the synth-bass cycle continues



The drum pattern resumes (but not the bass guitar). Added to this and to the ongoing synth-bass are choir-like harmonies, derived from a sample of Kraftwerk’s ‘Uranium’ (on Radio-Activity). From measure three a sustained, descending keyboard melody comes in, onto which (from measure 11) is superimposed a second higher-pitched keyboard melody, again descending but for a sharp final rise. Immediately that this subsection ends, the song’s middle, vocal section begins

Despite the complex process by which the instrumentation accumulates, many of the constituent musemes are minimal and simple. This reflects New Order’s debt to punk―out of which they emerged, initially as Joy Division―while rhythmically and formally the track owes much to disco―in which long, highly repetitive tracks were common―and, in its frank embrace of the machine, to Kraftwerk. 14

The track’s opening subsections enable us to see how some of the song’s component layers of sound interweave rhythmically. Let’s focus on measures 27–28 (Fig. 5.7). By this point the drums are presenting an identifiable variation on the standard popular music beat, although the snare-drum is less prominent than normal and the bass-drum is relatively loud and conspicuous. The bass-drum beats are very evenly stressed, as are the synth-bass and keyboard synthesiser notes; this reflects the band’s stated intention to create a robotic, machine-like track. There being no significant differences in stress, by default the backbeat is emphasised―by the snare-drum on beats two and four of each measure―but so are the sounds that fall on the first beat of each measure, by virtue of being accented metrically. The metric organisation and, with it, accent is clearly identifiable because the sounds are so evenly stressed that they become quite metronomic. Without this effect of the song’s metric organisation the emphasis on the snare-drum beats might become rather static and militaristic, having no counter-force pulling against it.
Fig. 5.7

New Order, ‘Blue Monday’, drums, synthesiser, and bass synthesiser, timing ca. 00:47–00:49

Thus ‘Blue Monday’ achieves a compulsive rhythm―already at this point in the track, as throughout―despite stressing each division of the beat very evenly. In punk rock, the same flattening-out of stresses tended to yield music that contained little rhythmic differentiation and too unbroken a wall of noise to be danceable. In ‘Blue Monday’ the evening out of stresses works very differently, leaving a single central tension between metric accent and backbeat. ‘Blue Monday’ ingeniously strips the popular music approach to rhythmic tension down to its essence: rhythmic emphasis versus metric accent.

‘Blue Monday’ makes little use of timing discrepancies―although one significant discrepancy occurs later in the track, which arose by accident, but which the band retained. 15 But on the whole, reflecting the song’s machine-like quality, its elements occur squarely ‘on’ the beat. Yet there is one important timing displacement to note. From the fourth subsection onwards the hi-hat sounds on the second half, not the expected first half, of each quarter-note beat. The hi-hat thus sounds ‘after’ the beat from the perspective of the metric division spelt out by the bass- and snare-drums, adding an aspect of syncopation.

A different kind of syncopation is created by the interplay between the synth-bass and the bass-drum. Because of the unusual bass-drum pattern, which effectively means that this part speeds up and slows down alternately, some but not of all the synth-bass notes coincide with the bass-drum beats. When the bass-drum is slower-moving, the shorter synth-bass notes fall between the drum sounds; but when the bass-drum speeds up, some of its beats fall between the synth-bass notes. Here sounds are not placed unexpectedly relative to the metre but rather weave between the sounds presented at another layer of the texture. But this is a still a kind of syncopation, and (I think) is what blogger Aaron Lariviere means when he says of ‘Blue Monday’ that the ‘synthetic bass line almost imperceptibly pulls against the beat, making a mostly static rhythm feel propulsive’ (Lariviere 2013). Specifically, while the synth-bass and bass-drum are broadly aligned at the metric level, nonetheless the synth-bass pulls against the bass-drum by alternately speeding ‘ahead’ of the bass-drum then slowing down ‘behind’ it. Again, ‘Blue Monday’ achieves this propulsive result by juxtaposing two instrumental layers both containing solely components that occur ‘on’ the beat (i.e. occur or start on the first half of each beat). 16

In sum, popular music typically creates rhythmic tension (1) by mobilising the tension between emphasised rhythm and metric accent, (2) by timing some sounds and silences in unexpected places relative to the metric division of the beat, and/or (3) by so timing sounds and silences at different layers of the texture that they weave in and out of one another. The goal of creating tension is the important thing; the means by which tension is created are miscellaneous. Those means can be electronic and artificial; organic flow and spontaneity are not necessary for rhythmic energy.

Admittedly, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Blue Monday’ alike are highly danceable, and we might wonder how far their features generalise to popular music overall. It is because they are highly danceable, though, that they bring the rhythmic character of popular music into relief. Many other songs and genres realise this character less fully than ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Blue Monday’, but that is compatible with it being typical of popular music as a form to contain rhythmic dynamism. Central here is the presence of an explicit beat layer to which every layer of sound becomes related, so that songs become fields of energies pulling and pushing with and against one another. We apprehend the music in this way insofar as we come to enact its rhythmic tensions with our bodies and their energies and so experience the music as sharing in the character of the bodily movements and energies that it incites. Or so I argue next.

6 Body Music

Critics and defenders of popular music agree that it acts on our bodies and does so due to its rhythmic dimension. But what is the nature of this action? A common assumption is that the action is causal, so that popular music’s rhythms affect our bodies much as one rolling billiard ball knocks into motion another with which it collides. However, this cannot possibly be how popular music’s rhythms affect our bodies, because our bodies are not mere causal mechanisms. We are agents, and bodily agents. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it, the body is ‘our grasp on the world and the outline of our projects’ (1988: 66). 17 Beauvoir means that I don’t use my body as an external vehicle for executing my plans, much as I use a car or bicycle for getting to work. Rather I, as body, decide what projects to pursue just in deciding how to do something physically by forming a bodily sketch or outline of the action, which I then execute. But if my body is thus a location of agency and not a mechanism, then efficient causation cannot be the route along which musical rhythms affect us somatically. How then do these effects occur?

For Beauvoir and like-minded phenomenologists of embodiment such as Merleau-Ponty (2002), I undertake my projects as inherently bodily projects that involve me-as-body navigating and negotiating the world and its physical constituents. To do this, I-as-body must first make sense of the spatial dimensions of the surrounding world from the perspective of my possibilities of movement. I do this sense-making tacitly, not primarily by making explicit calculations but by practically attempting actions, correcting and adjusting my movements, and eventually forming habits, such as the postures by which I keep a bicycle balanced upright. There is, though, a secondary perspective that we can each take on our bodies―regarding them as if from the outside, as objects. For Merleau-Ponty, I adopt this perspective when breakdowns occur in my habitual routines: if something malfunctions, say if I become ill, I turn and look at the body that from the primary first-person perspective I am (2002: 157). In turn the secondary perspective makes possible a tertiary perspective in which, having objectified my body and its processes, I approach their properties in increasingly abstract and scientific terms, thereby producing scientific biological knowledge of the body as a physical system.

Now, my bodily agency can be variously interpreted. For the early Sartre, I freely envisage possible actions and in their light I confer meaning on the world around me (Sartre 1993: 628). If I choose to take an uphill walk, a nearby hill becomes an opportunity or challenge, not an obstacle or indifferent natural feature. Plausibly, though, the relation between environment and activities is more reciprocal than this. Environments, situations, and objects are not formless until we frame possibilities; rather, any environment presents determinate possibilities to begin with. A steep hill does not offer the possibility of a casual, effortless stroll. Objects and situations afford us definite possibilities of action. 18

From this perspective music affords various possibilities of action, and the possible actions afforded by popular music in particular include singing or singing-along; imitating performers’ gestures and behaviours; playing along, if one has the skills; moving in time; dancing; exercising; and regulating one’s emotions (by listening to certain songs to cultivate a given mood). Bodily movement is central to all these activities. Playing, performing, and singing-along involve repeated bodily movements, and uses of popular music in exercise depend on its propensity to energise us. Emotional regulation, too, has a bodily component, being bound up with music raising or decreasing our levels of energy.

The movements that popular music encourages us to make do not reduce to dancing. There is an immense variety of ways of moving to popular music, with dance practices themselves ranging from the anarchic to highly structured and rule-governed dance routines (e.g. the Macarena), from individual to collective behaviours, and from the restrained and decorous to the ecstatic and euphoric. Other ways of moving to (popular) music fall short of dancing proper: bobbing one’s head, tapping one’s fingers or feet, jiggling slightly while performing tasks around the house, or making gestures such as punching the air or leaping. And some popular music genres affect people energetically in ways that do not obviously constitute dance: for example, punk rock is highly energising, but that energy is most readily discharged in pogo-ing, jumping around, or in aggressive gestures, rather than dancing in a structured sense. Head-banging to heavy metal is similar.

Focusing on bodily movement rather than dance more narrowly, then, how specifically does popular music afford possibilities for movement? A clue comes from a remark of Bill Haley’s about rock-‘n’-roll:

I felt that if I could take, say, a Dixieland tune and drop the first and third beats, and accentuate the second and fourth, and add a beat the listeners could clap to as well as dance this would be what they were after. (Gillett 1983: 24)

Haley’s remark relates to the norm for different layers of sound to emphasise different beats, and put sounds and silences in unexpected places. This invites listeners to align movements and gestures of their different body parts with these differences of emphasis or timing in the music, for example by clapping hands on beats two and four (with the snare-drum) while separating the hands on beats one and three (with the bass-drum). Someone might do this while, say, first centring their pelvis on beats one and two then thrusting out their hip on beat three and four. Schematically, we align different body movements with different divisions of the beat and make each movement when the emphasis falls in a given place. As we move, we exert energy. We feel the energy in our bodies shift from one place to another, as different body parts are tensed and relaxed in moving them.

For the most part we do not consciously plan these gestures, although that can happen. But generally moving to music is exemplary of activity carried out at a directly bodily level without deliberate mental control. Moreover, there is no set way in which particular rhythmic patterns must become mapped by bodily movements. Here the intelligence of the body gets freely to work, devising endless ways to map rhythmic shifts corporeally (and usually incorporating social and cultural mediations so that particular dance styles carry social connotations). Crucially, through the music offering us possibilities of movement, we gain a possibility of bodily self-realisation and empowerment instead of merely suffering the effects of compulsive force. Our bodies are enabled to exercise agency by generating meaningful patterns of movement. In addition, our bodies are enabled to exercise their latent intelligence in making sense of music’s rhythms by generating these patterns. By virtue of its pronounced rhythmic qualities, then, popular music appeals to our bodies as perceptive agencies, an appeal to which we respond intelligently―by making sense of the music’s rhythms in our bodily movements―and creatively―by finding individual and endlessly variable patterns of movement that map those rhythms. This is a positive value of popular music. But, contrary to Grossberg, the value is not that popular music exerts brute effects on our bodies and bypasses our intelligence outright. Rather, popular music invites us to participate in its rhythms, and to move with them, exercising the intelligence latent in our bodies.

Earlier, I’ve argued that popular music has value in presenting us with truths about the importance of materiality. Here, though, it seems that popular music instead invites us to use our bodily intelligence, rather than presenting the truth that that intelligence exists and is the root of the explicit intellect. In the last section, I want to clarify how it is that, by being so configured that it typically makes this invitation, popular music does present a truth that form can and should facilitate the self-realisation and creativity of the body.

7 Form, Rhythm, and Materiality

To return to our earlier problem, the rhythms of popular songs presuppose measured time: popular songs are constructed repetitively with homogeneous time serving to measure out and co-ordinate the repetitions of their elements. But the repeated elements have their own rhythms and take on rhythmic functions vis-à-vis the explicit beat―supporting it, pulling against it, or alternating between the two. Thus, measured time enables the rhythms of each layer of sound to come into dynamic interrelation. The pull of stressed backbeat against metric accent presupposes metre; the tensions produced by unexpected placements of sounds or silences rely on the metric subdivision of the beat. Thus, measured time is used in popular music to intensify its rhythmic quality and consequently the invitation to movement that the music makes to our bodies. As such, too, measured time is used to further the realisation of the intelligence and creativity of our bodies in moving in response to the music. This way of employing measured time subverts the power relations that are embedded in clock-time insofar as it organises scientific inquiry and industrial social life. Whereas ordinarily clock time is an instrument by which material nature is analysed, controlled, and dominated, in popular music measured time becomes a resource for creating force-fields of energy that empower and restore agency to human bodies. 19

Here popular music is typically configured in a way that favours materiality. This is because its form―here in the sense of the measured time that regulates songs’ repetitive organisation―does not dominate songs’ materials. Instead, this form enables the materials―the elements repeated at each layer, each with its own rhythmic quality―to interlock rhythmically. Specifically, form as measured time enables the materials’ differing rhythms to pull variously with and against each other, generating energetic dynamism. In this respect the music solicits our participation―indeed, often compels that participation, not by having brute causal effects on us but by offering us an opportunity to exercise our bodily intelligence. In sum, popular music form enables our bodies to achieve a level of self-realisation.

These claims interweave with those of Chaps.  3 and  4. There I argued that matter-form relations are so configured in popular music that form, in the sense of repetitive organisation, enables songs’ materials to come together and interact to generate forms in the further sense of songs as meaningful wholes. In that way popular songs typically present the truth that form depends on and arises from materials and, indirectly, that meaning and thought depend on and arise from bodily forces. In this chapter I have, in part, provided more sense of how repetitive organisation plays this enabling role. Repetitive organisation is measured and presupposes metre and metric hierarchy, but it also enables elements to interrelate rhythmically, which is part of how they coalesce (when they coalesce): their different emphases need to interlock so that they form higher-level rhythmic patterns. This process involves meaning.

Take ‘Billie Jean’. The standard bass-and-snare combination, along with the hi-hat sounding eighth-notes, creates a sense of normality and mainstream life. This is the more so since an eighth-note subdivision of the beat is common in rock, in contrast to the finer-grained subdivisions common in funk and genres influenced by it. However, the uneven, hurried rhythm of the staccato synthesiser chords, with each second chord sounding ahead of its expected placement, suggests nervous anxiety, like someone worrying, anticipating the future in advance, or unable to suppress a nervous tic or gesture. This reinforces the already restless quality of the bass-line, which resembles someone pacing. The result is that the percussion contrasts in quality with the bass-line and chords. The cabasa mediates between the two, presenting eighth-notes with a scratchy, uncomfortable sound. The overall connotation is that ordinary, mainstream life is being disrupted by a problem, that the protagonist is being pulled off track.

Alternatively, consider ‘Blue Monday’. As we’ve seen, the track uses sounds that are almost always ‘on’ the beat and largely operates with a single tension between rhythmic emphasis and metric accent. It thus generates rhythmic dynamism on a highly machine-like and regular basis. In this way, its overall meaning is to explore the rhythmic power of machinery, including its power to compel us into movement. This is cast positively, as a way that machines can liberate us from our minds, offering escape. The celebration of the machine is encapsulated in the title, which comes from the phrase ‘Goodbye Blue Monday’ in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, ‘a reference to the invention of the washing machine, which improved housewives’ lives’, according to New Order’s keyboardist Gillian Gilbert (Simpson 2013). The lyrics describe coldness and distance, an absence of emotion, again suggesting that machinery can release us from emotions and introspection into the realm of bodily movement. But we can also hear the positive value accorded to the machinic in the song’s rhythmic character, as highly machine-like and artificial rhythms are used to generate much dynamic energy.

In this chapter I’ve also dealt with a second way that popular music affirms materiality, in addition to the fact that popular songs as meaningful wholes emerge out of their material components. Popular music also affirms materiality in that it uses measured time to intensify songs’ rhythmic qualities and energetic character, in turn affording us opportunities for creative, intelligent bodily movement. It may be objected that nothing is ‘affirmed’ here at all. Certainly it is not typical of popular music as a whole to set forth explicit statements about rhythm, energy, or the body (although some songs carry complicated sets of connotations about these matters, as with ‘Blue Monday’). Nonetheless, implicitly an affirmation of the importance of materiality is made just in how popular music is configured.

Here, let’s recall again Hegel’s view that art-works can present the truth in how their materials are organised into whole forms. For Hegel, when form effortlessly orchestrates materials into a balanced whole―as in ancient Greek sculptures of the gods―then the truth is presented that form does organise matter, and that the idea gives rational structure to the world’s materials. By analogy: when measured time as a formal scaffold becomes a factor in generating rhythmic intensity, energy, and appeal to the moving body, then the truth is presented that form can facilitate the agency of our material bodies and that it is good that form do so. By implication, form need not suppress or restrict our bodies and it is undesirable for it to do so. This truth is presented in that popular music offers us instances, or examples, of cultural creations in which form is employed to promote the intelligent movement and thus self-realisation of our bodies.

Finally, I hope that this chapter has clarified how popular music’s matter-form configuration pertains to the concrete materiality of the human body and does not only involve materials in the more abstract sense of small-scale repeated elements of songs. However, fully to see the connections between these senses of materiality in popular music, we need to think about the nature of the processes by which material components generate meaning, including the affective character of that meaning and how song words contribute to it. These are the subjects of Chaps.  6 and  7.


  1. 1.

    However, Tagg criticises pro-body views (e.g. Tagg 1994, 2012: 101ff). Among those taking pro-body views are Baugh (1993), Echols (2010), Hesmondhalgh (2013), and Middleton (1990).

  2. 2.

    ‘[O]ne gets into a “jam”, into rhythmic problems, which can be instantly disentangled by the triumph of the basic beat’, Adorno complains of jazz (1991: 105). This ‘basic beat’ permeates and is rigorously maintained in swing jazz, he holds, being merely disguised by the improvised passages, but not really challenged (e.g. 2002: 470). This is unfair to swing jazz, but the issue about ‘beat’ is broader and others object to this ‘beat’ as well. Scruton calls beat the ‘last sad skeleton’ of rhythm, rhythm denuded of life and reduced to bare temporal succession (1997: 502), while for Bloom the rock beat has the crudity of sexual intercourse (1987: 73). Jacques Attali, too, complains that pop’s rhythms―of ‘exceptional banality … not all that different from military rhythms’ (1985: 109)―enshrine the power of social order.

  3. 3.

    Roholt makes a related argument concerning groove, which he identifies as the feel of timing nuances occurring over time with respect to a repeated rhythmic pattern (2014: 38). For Roholt (i) how a groove feels is crucial, and timing nuances are made so as to create a certain feel; (ii) we understand grooves through bodily activities―finger-snapping, foot-tapping, and so on; (iii) the groove’s feel therefore has a bodily character, because ‘the feel of a groove is the affective dimension of the motor-intentional movements’ of listeners (105). Hamilton’s related argument is that musical rhythms are already apprehended as moving: bodily and musical rhythm are constitutively connected (2007: ch. 5).

  4. 4.

    ‘[R]hythm … emerges as a distinct “layer” in jazz and rhythm and blues, notably through the use of identifiable (repeated, musematic) syntactic units by drummers’ (Middleton 1990: 281). This continues into rock-‘n’-roll.

  5. 5.

    Percussion in popular music is usually ‘unpitched’ in the following sense. When struck, a drum (say) vibrates in several different ways simultaneously, at frequencies that do not stand in mathematically simple relations to one another, as do the frequencies that are produced when one plays pitched instruments, where each of these ‘harmonics’ is a whole-note multiple of the ‘fundamental’ frequency that defines the pitch―for example, C1, C4, and A3. When frequencies stand in mathematically awkward relations to one another we do not hear them as having any definite pitch.

  6. 6.

    Rudinow and Mowitt trace the rock-‘n’-roll backbeat to Earl Palmer, who drummed with Little Richard among others (Mowitt 2002: 26, 81; Rudinow 2010: 120). Abel explains the backbeat differently (2014: 52).

  7. 7.

    ‘Rhythm may be defined as the way in which one or more unaccented beats are grouped in relation to an accented one [and] … such factors as duration, intensity, melodic contour, regularity, … play a part in creating an impression of accent’ (Cooper and Meyer 1960: 6–7). Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983) distinguish phenomenal accent (stress), metric accent, and structural accent (where a sound is highlighted by its place in pitch relations).

  8. 8.

    ‘Meter is the measurement of the number of pulses between more or less regularly recurring accents. Therefore, … for meter to exist, some of the pulses in a series must be accented―marked for consciousness―relative to others. When pulses are thus counted within a metric context, they are referred to as beats. Beats which are accented are called “strong”; those which are unaccented are called “weak”’ (Cooper and Meyer 1960: 4).

  9. 9.

    ‘Fundamental to … meter is … periodic alternation of strong and weak beats … For beats to be strong or weak there must exist a metrical hierarchy―two or more levels of beats’ (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983: 19). For them, if we ascend a level―that is, in 4/4, from quarter-notes to minims―the ‘strong’ beats at 4/4 level (one and three) are the ones that remain present at the minim level; hence their strength. Robert Jourdain has a different explanation of the accent on beats one and (less so) three: because three is a prime number we grasp 3/4 metre whole―one–two–three, one–two–three, but because four is divisible by two we hear 4/4 as ‘two groups of beats, with lighter accentuation at the start of the second pair: ONE–two–Three–four … [etc.]’ (1997: 127).

  10. 10.

    In addition, the standard popular music beat ‘democratises’ in that it combines European metre with an emphasis on the backbeat that arguably has African provenance, thus bringing together European- and African-derived traditions.

  11. 11.

    Richard Leadbeater has pointed out that each pair of synthesiser chords falls into a antecedent and consequent pattern: the antecedent is on both the downbeat and the tonic; the consequent―the ‘question’―is both syncopated and on a similarly unstable, querulous ii. In the song’s paranoid lyrics, the protagonist is anxious to deny ‘Billie Jean’s’ claim that he is the father of her child―but, it seems, no denial (‘answer’) is firm enough to quell his anxiety lest, after all, he is the parent (the ‘question’).

  12. 12.

    If metre is triple rather than duple―where each beat is counted out ‘one-and-a’, ‘two-and-a’, and so on―then subversion can be achieved by beginning or placing sounds on the ‘and’ or the ‘a’ of a beat.

  13. 13.

    As noted in Table 5.1, ‘Blue Monday’ is in the Dorian mode. This mode is made up of the pattern of tones and semitones obtained by playing all the white-key notes from D to the D an octave up (thus, TSTTTST). But while the outline of the mode is obtained in relation to the note D, songs in the Dorian mode can take any note as the tonic as long as they maintain the TSTTTST pattern. So a song built on, say, the Dorian scale on E takes E as the tonic and derives the rest of the notes in the key by following the Dorian outline.

  14. 14.

    These debts are acknowledged in that the track not only re-uses ‘Mighty Real’s’ bass-line but also samples Kraftwerk and re-creates the bass-drum beat that features in much of Donna Summer’s ‘Our Love’ (on Bad Girls). The bass guitar line is derived more loosely from a riff in Ennio Morricone’s theme music to For a Few Dollars More.

  15. 15.

    A programming accident led to a discrepancy between the percussion and the rhythmic keyboard line (which begins shortly after the vocals), so that the latter sounds behind the beat. The discrepancy can be heard from 02:15 to 03:19, 03:33 to 05:24, then very briefly afterwards. Sumner discusses it in Bewarp and Crona (2013).

  16. 16.

    In using highly regular means to create rhythmic complexities, ‘Blue Monday’ anticipates much subsequent electronic dance music, in which ‘producers have been able to utilize a few basic units to generate complex dissonances within the seemingly restrictive context of pure-duple meter’ (Butler 2006: 166).

  17. 17.

    I’ve corrected Parshley’s misleading rendition ‘the instrument of our grasp on the world, [and] a limiting factor for our projects’.

  18. 18.

    My understanding of affordance comes from Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. DeNora also uses the concept in music theory (2003: 45), saying that one possibility that music affords us is to ‘entrain our bodily movements to its properties’―not only in dance, which ‘is simply one of the more formalised activities where this entrainment occurs’.

  19. 19.

    For Abel, too, ‘groove music’ critiques measured time (2014: 175, 255; by groove music he means popular music of the twentieth century as a whole). This music elevates metre to its dominating principle, but ‘the very rigidity and regularity of the modern time experience is turned against itself through … syncopation to generate flexibility and unpredictability’ (175).



  1. Abel, Mark. 2014. Groove: An aesthetic of measured time. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  2. Adorno, Theodor W. 1976. Introduction to the sociology of music. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury. Original German publication in 1962.Google Scholar
  3. ———. 1991. The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. ———. 2002. Essays on music, ed. Richard Leppert. New translations by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  5. Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The political economy of music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Original French publication in 1977.Google Scholar
  6. ———. 1993. Prolegomena to any aesthetics of rock music. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51(1): 23–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beauvoir, Simone. 1988. The second sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. London: Picador. Original French publication in 1949. English translation originally published in 1953.Google Scholar
  8. Bewarp, Anders, and Henrik Crona, dir. 2013. The story of Blue Monday [film]. Nordvision. Accessed 8 Apr 2015.
  9. Bloom, Allan. 1987. The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  10. Bradley, Dick. 1992. Understanding rock ‘n’ roll: Popular music in Britain 1955–1964. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Brody, Michael, and James Campbell. 1999. Rock and roll: An introduction. New York: Schirmer.Google Scholar
  12. Butler, Mark J. 2006. Unlocking the groove: Rhythm, meter, and musical design in electronic dance music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Cooper, Grosvenor W., and Leonard B. Meyer. 1960. The rhythmic structure of music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  14. Covach, John. 1997. Progressive rock, ‘Close to the Edge’, and the boundaries of style. In Understanding rock: Essays in musical analysis, ed. John Covach, and Graeme M. Boone, 3–32. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. ———. 2006. What’s that sound?: An introduction to rock and its history. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  16. ———. 2003. After Adorno: Rethinking music sociology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Echols, Alice. 2010. Hot stuff: Disco and the remaking of American culture. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  18. Gilbert, Jeremy, and Ewan Pearson. 1999. Discographies: Dance music, culture and the politics of sound. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gillett, Charlie. 1983. The sound of the city, Revised edn. London: Souvenir Press. Original publication in 1970.Google Scholar
  20. Gracyk, Theodore. 1996. Rhythm and noise: An aesthetics of rock. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Grossberg, Lawrence. 1990. Is there rock after punk? In On record, ed. Simon Frith, and Andrew Goodwin, 110–123. London: Routledge. Essay originally published in 1986.Google Scholar
  22. Hamilton, Andy. 2007. Aesthetics and music. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  23. Hesmondhalgh, David. 2013. Why music matters. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  24. Jourdain, Robert. 1997. Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  25. Keil, Charles, and Steven Feld. 1994. Music grooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  26. Lariviere, Aaron. 2013. The 10 best New Order songs. At, Jan 25. Accessed 6 Apr 2015.
  27. Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. 1983. A generative theory of tonal music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  28. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. The phenomenology of perception. Trans. Colin Smith. Reprint edn. London: Routledge. Original French publication in 1945.Google Scholar
  29. Middleton, Richard. 1990. Studying popular music. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  30. ———. 2006. Voicing the popular: On the subjects of popular music. London: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  31. ———. 2012a. Song means: Analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  32. Mowitt, John. 2002. Percussion: Beating, drumming, striking. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Roholt, Tiger C. 2014. Groove: A phenomenology of rhythmic nuance. New York: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  34. Rudinow, Joel. 2010. Soul music: Tracking the spiritual roots of pop from Plato to Motown. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  35. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1993. Being and nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge. Original French publication in 1943.Google Scholar
  36. Schuller, Gunther. 1986. Early jazz: Its roots and musical development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Scruton, Roger. 1997. The aesthetics of music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. ———. 2007. Thoughts on rhythm. In Philosophers on music, ed. Kathleen Stock, 226–255. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Simpson, Dave. 2013. How we made Blue Monday. Interview with Gillian Gilbert and Peter Saville. The Guardian 11 February. Accessed 2 Apr 2015.
  40. Spicer, Mark. 2004. (Ac)cumulative form in pop-rock music. Twentieth Century Music 1(1): 29–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. ———. 2014b. How Motorik infected the mainstream. The Quietus 7 August. Accessed 25 Mar 2015.
  42. ———. 1994. From refrain to rave: The decline of figure and the rise of ground. Popular Music 13(2): 209–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. ———. 1997. Understanding musical time sense – Concepts, sketches and consequences. Accessed 15 Apr 2015. Revised, expanded version of a 1984 article.
  44. ———. 2012. Music’s meanings: A modern musicology for non-musos. New York/Huddersfield: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alison Stone
    • 1
  1. 1.Lancaster UniversityLancasterUK

Personalised recommendations