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It's All About The Backbeat

nico7martin / Flickr / Creative Commons

American pop music isn’t about notes or chords or virtuosity. At its core is rhythm. And the defining aspect of pop rhythm is the “backbeat," the accent of beats two and four of a 4/4 measure.

I can’t think of anything more ubiquitous. It’s the factor that drives rock, soul, country, hip hop, jazz, even bluegrass. You’ve been indoctrinated in the backbeat. It is something deep inside all of you.

The backbeat is effective because of the satisfying tension between snare and bass drum. The bass drum gives the fundamental downbeat, but beats two and four are given to the loudest drum, the snare. The syncopated effect can be audacious, like the iconic drumbeats at the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life.”

Bands without drums have to make do with other instruments for the backbeat. Bluegrass usually assigns backbeat duty to the mandolin. A capella gospel choirs clap on two and four. Old-time upright bassists do it when they slap.

Everybody can feel the backbeat: just clap along with Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” You wouldn’t dare clap on one and three, would you?

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.