The cultural context, the basic beat, the rhythm, and the sound

Rhythm, sound, and cultural context

Relevance, limitations, and future research




This study of rhythm, sound, and movement in electronic dance music was structured in four parts, paralleling the work of a music producer: I began with an introduction to the cultural context, continued with the initial determination of a basic beat for the track, moved on to the construction of the rhythmic patterns, and concluded with the sounds and the mix. While this division hopefully clarified the different areas of interest related to this study, it did not allow for an in-depth discussion of their relationships. Here, then, I will unite cultural context, basic beat, rhythm, and sound in one final analysis of a groove from an electronic dance music track, while also summarizing the contents of this study along the way.


The cultural context, the basic beat, the rhythm, and the sound


The corporeality of listening must be acknowledge in analyses of dance music cultures, and 1990s club culture particularly favours the dancer and dancefloor, in accordance with traditions that can be traced back to the early New York clubs of the 1970s. This focus on corporeality influences this music’s overall structure, build-up sections, and breakdowns, as well as details of the grooves that in turn inspire movements on the dancefloor.


Music designed for dancers and the dancefloor also depends for its ultimate success on the positive perception, fair or unfair, of its credibility or authenticity, which in turn involves choices about “correct” music equipment, effective (and preferably obscure) samples, the appropriate music venues, the proper influences, and so on. The sudden downfall of disco also alienated participants of club culture with regard to the musical mainstream and made them suspicious about any attention from major record labels or other commercial interests. Producers therefore tend to avoid the trendiest choices of music equipment or musical features, for example, instead presenting themselves as motivated solely by great dance music. The analysis that follows will explore rhythmic elements and aspects of sound as well as authenticity issues within the dance music culture.[1]


rhythm, sound, and cultural context


Contextual background and vocal contribution

Jump n’ Shout was the third track on Basement Jaxx’s first full-length album, Remedy, which was released on XL Recordings in 1999.[2] The track was also released on a maxi-CD and a twelve-inch vinyl disc. In addition to the production work of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx, Slarta John (Mark James) contributes to the track with vocals in the style of “toasting.”[3] The album in fact features several novel fusions of genres; Ratcliffe and Buxton favour an eclectic style that broadly answers to the club-cultural demand for innovation.[4] Toasting also serves to acknowledge the Jamaican music styles (dub, ragamuffin, dancehall) that have influenced several electronic dance music genres. I discussed the importance of “insider knowledge” to the DJ/producer in relation to the many genres and subgenres of dance music in chapter 1, and Ratcliffe and Buxton demonstrate theirs in this track in particular.


In toasting, only single words and short phrases emerge clearly from the vocal lines, which allows the voice to function in this case as an instrument.[5] This emphasis on a rhythmic rather than semantic contribution from the voice is perfectly in keeping with electronic dance music’s interest in the dancer (rather than the listener) and the dancefloor. In addition, the title of the track is repeated several times, comprising a call to body action by what sounds like a group of people who are actually jumping at the time. The notational representation (including this phrase) in figure 9.1 demonstrates how it reinforces certain beats of the poumtchak pattern: Jump (down), n’ (up), Shout (down).


David Mancuso’s priorities from the early days of disco culture in New York City were introduced in chapter 1, as follows: a focus on the dancers (rather than the DJ/”performer”), the use of obscure tracks, and an interest in good sound. The importance of maintaining an “underground” position within club culture also emerged out of his club, the Loft. Ratcliffe and Buxton violate the first of these classic principles of dance culture by using vocalists, who also function as visual focal points at their concerts. The potential distraction is somewhat softened here, however, by the rhythmic nature of the vocal contribution and its action-oriented vocal phrases.


Ratcliffe and Buxton state that they used the sequencer program Cubase on an Atari computer as well as several Akai samplers on this album.[6] This was not the most up-to-date equipment in the late 1990s, which reflects a certain reluctance about new technology that also characterizes club insiders.


The basic beat of the track

The poumtchak pattern, consisting of a four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern and an upbeat hi-hat pattern, is the most consistent sound element in the track. Apart from a breakdown section lasting from 2:45 to 3:16 and scattered other interruptions, the poumtchak is omni­present in the mix until a totally new groove appears at 3:46.



Figure 9.1: Notational representation of Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout, 0:21–0:27, with suggested movement curve as indicated by the poumtchak pattern.


As I discussed at greater length in chapter 3, the poumtchak pattern seems to encourage a vertical body movement pattern (head nodding, upper-body bouncing, and so on). The many correspondences between the poumtchak pattern and vertical movement patterns in the music video for this track support this assumption.[7] The dominant direction of the movement pattern seems to be a downward movement corresponding to the bass drum sound and an upward movement corresponding to the hi-hat sound (and these directions were supported by my listener survey). In the Basement Jaxx track, the poumtchak is never heard by itself or otherwise overexposed. The balance between producing a dance track with a basic beat that elicits movements in an efficient way, and at the same time not overexposing the poumtchak pattern, may somehow embody the whole dilemma in dance music culture of accomplishing something highly effectual and successful without at the same time drawing attention to yourself as a producer/DJ in an undesirable or inappropriate manner.


But how is the suggested movement pattern in figure 9.1 accounted for? Mari Riess Jones’s contribution to a theory of dynamic attending and processes of entrainment between humans and their environment concerns how an external “driving rhythm” (in the music) relates to an internal “driven rhythm” (in the listener). The “driving rhythm” is the energy passed on by the music, while the “driven rhythm” is our perception of or reaction to this energy. According to Jones this latter rhythm will be shaped by variation in our attentiveness according to “critical points” in the music. When attention is synchronized to rhythm in music, attentional energy is allocated just before an expected critical point (a salient sound in the music) that then transpires (or not) as expected. This process creates oscillations, with peaks of attending energy that are linked to these critical points. Based on observations of parallels between rhythmic pulsation and the contractions and relaxations of muscles, it appears likely that similar oscillations would occur in the activations of muscle commands. The steady stream of structural reference points in the poumtchak pattern facilitates a conversion of musical pulse to corresponding up-and-down movements. The suggested movement pattern, then, in figure 9.1 is a result of perceptual processes and motor activation that are both driven by the bass drum and hi-hat sounds of the poumtchak pattern.


Looking more closely at the poumtchak pattern of this track, we can see that the bass drum sound includes a pitch movement that might further influence the dancers. This movement is not obvious, but it is audible and visually present in the sonogram. The attack starts with a tone around 130 Hz that descends over a period of forty milliseconds to around 64 Hz. The duration of the sound at (only around two hundred milliseconds) is also significant here, representing a vital characteristic of the bass drum in a mix that contains many sonic elements. The pitch movement and short duration combine to give the movement pattern a distinct pull downward whenever the bass drum enters.

Bilde 20

Figure 9.2: Sonogram of bass drum sound from Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout.


The assertion that pitch movement in the bass drum sound will have this effect upon movement arises from cognitive semantic theory, and in chapter 4, I discussed this possibility in light of the metaphor theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their concept of “primary metaphors” refers to those metaphors that are incorporated into our understanding so thoroughly that we do not see them as metaphors. When such metaphors are linked to body movements or corporeal experiences, they are embedded in our means of perceiving the world, so that, for example, the understanding of “falling” (used metaphorically, for example, in “falling asleep”) is inseparably linked to a physical movement downward. It is assumed that verticality can be embodied in our understanding of music as well, so that a descending pitch movement is connected in the same manner to the corresponding physical movement. Likewise, the alternation between the “low” bass drum sound and the “high” hi-hat sound in the poumtchak pattern supports a correspondence with the alternations between a low and a high position in a vertical movement pattern. 


The extent to which such connections evolve when we listen or dance to a track such as Jump n’ Shout, and the extent to which such bodily experiences are actually felt, depends upon perceptual learning processes that are connected to our cultural upbringing. James J. Gibson’s ecological approach links perception to learned actions and demonstrates how active the process of perception is. This active quality of perception may further illuminate correspondences between specific movement patterns (actions) and musical sounds.


Salient sounds and the fabric of rhythm

In my analyses I have used the term “salience” (and “salient sounds”) to describe the extent to which various sounds might attract attention and thus be considered integral to a “driving rhythm.” Certain aspects of sound are important in this respect, including their loudness in the mix and the exact relationships among sounds that fall within the same frequency range.

The sounds of the poumtchak pattern in the Basement Jaxx excerpt are apparent (and salient) throughout, By contrast, several snare drum sounds are less so, due to their low volume and confined timbral content.


Figure 9.3: Sonogram of Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout, 0:33–0:37, snare drum sounds circled.


In chapter 5 I discussed how a focus on body movements challenges traditional views of rhythm perception. A perspective formed via the notational grid was contrasted with a perspective formed via a vertical movement pattern, which then provided the framework for the analyses of grooves in chapter 6.


The analysis of the Basement Jaxx track sums up some of the possible effects that were discussed in those analyses:



Figure 9.4: Notational representation of Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout, 0:33–0:37.



Figure 9.5: Sonogram of Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout, 0:33–0:37, with suggested movement curve and circles around possible tension points, emphasized beats, events producing expectation, and counterrhythmic patterns.


1. Extra emphasis. In the analysis above, extra emphasis occurs on all of the downbeats and upbeats where the bass drum or hi-hat sounds combine with other sounds. More energy is experienced at these points, eliciting an extended or more powerful movement from the dancer. The suggested movement curve is somewhat longer at these points to indicate this.


2. Expectation. The extra emphasis that is suggested at the downbeat after the three snare drum sounds (labelled “Expectation”) may be so because of the expectation encouraged by the preceding events. The movement curve has been broadened at this point, again to indicate the extra energy experienced through these events. In chapter 6 I discussed the contribution of pick-ups to the production of drive in a track, using examples similar to this one.


3. Tension points. These points are less significant in terms of shaping a movement curve but play a significant role in producing friction within it. The sounds produce hitches in the steady undulating movement established by the poumtchak pattern, in turn intensifying the experience of a groove. They are produced largely by rhythmic patterns that have a certain independent character (complementary patterns).


4. Counterrhythmic patterns. These patterns occur frequently in electronic dance music and other genres of popular music and tend to productively destabilize the music’s ongoing drive. The presence of both a “standard pattern” and a “4:3 pattern” in the Basement Jaxx track corresponds well with the Caribbean associations of the toasting of Slarta John.


The sound mix

The complexity of the Basement Jaxx groove, in which various patterns work together in different ways and at several levels, ultimately arises from the new music equipment of the 1990s, where different sounds can be created and then placed very precisely. Furthermore, dynamic processors are used to maximize the energy of the track.


Bilde 21

Figure 9.6: Amplitude representation of Basement Jaxx’s Jump n’ Shout.


The amplitude representation here illustrates how the volume is pushed to its limits through­out most of the track, which is vital to its performance on the dancefloor, where the musical energy has to peak at all times.


The analyses in chapter 8 revealed how sound design (the choice of the right sounds) can activate movements in a manner appropriate to the given genre. The composition of grooves in a house music track involves rhythmic patterning as well as manipulation of the character of the sounds, including pitch movements, duration, frequency content, loudness, and so on.


Microrhythmic relations

Deviations from a structured grid are not noticeable in the Basement Jaxx track here and overall they play less of a role in house music than in other groove-oriented genres. Dancers/listeners in a club culture expect grooves with tight, structured timing. However, producers do adjust placements of the snare drum and/or hi-hat sounds on occasion, depending upon the dynamics of the mix. Still, these sorts of adjustments are seldom apparent and many times not needed. A fully quantized, for example, where a bass drum with a descending pitch movement shapes a body movement, may actually produce the sensation of an “early” upbeat hi-hat (and an extra push) since the low position of the movement will be later than the onset of the actual bass drum attack. 


In order to fully understand both the rhythmic patterns and the sound design of a successful electronic dance music track, then, one must account for its performance on the dancefloor. Producers of dance music are truly the experts in this respect, especially if they work as DJs as well, where they see what the music can do and devise tricks for doing it better. They have a cultural awareness of the “correct” repertoire of movements related to the genre, and they are able to harness the technological equipment to elicit them.


Relevance, limitations, and future research


The main goal of this study has been to illuminate specific qualities of electronic dance music through an analysis of the relationship between music and body movements. I have used the poumtchak pattern and vertical movement patterns as a common frame of reference for the specific music culture in question. But movement in general and vertical movement patterns in particular are central to other types of dance music, and to rhythmic music in general. Might this approach then be relevant to music that lacks the poumtchak pattern? I would say so. Certainly in any rhythmic music with repetitive structures, there will be sounds that attract more attention and encourage different types of undulating body movement patterns. For example, the backbeat snare drum sound may have a specific role in forming similar movement patterns within many genres of popular music.


Unlike the analysis in chapter 3, where the effect of the poumtchak was measured via a survey, my analyses of the effect of additional rhythmic patterns in chapter 6, and of sound in chapter 8, drew upon my experience of my own moving body. Certainly this could be extended. Through video analysis or the use of various types of motion-capture systems involving colour markers, infrared cameras with reflectors, or electromagnetic trackers, data could be gathered on how a whole group of respondents would move to the same grooves.[8] Music-related tension or intensification of physiological responses could be measured as well, including muscle tension (using electromyography), heart rate (using an electrocardiogram or blood volume pulse), or skin conductivity.[9]


The essential aim of my analyses has not been to decide on any predominant movements themselves but to explore the potential for movement in various grooves with regard to different musical elements. Similar elements are found in other types of groove-based music, and my conclusions may be applicable elsewhere. The ways in which aspects of sound affect the bodily experience of microtiming also merits more attention. Moreover, a study of dance music that revolves around the music’s relationship to body movements and dancers’ interpretations of a particular genre might draw attention to previously understudied but closely related qualities. Hopefully this study has provided a relevant background for additional studies on the participation of the human body in music and sheds some light on the intensified experience that “listening” to music through a moving body can offer.


Continue to Appendixes, Bibliography, and Discography

Return to Index

Return to top


[1] The music video for the track in question was presented in a study in chapter 3, and its first measures were already analyzed in chapter 6. Its groove was also part of my discussion of microrhythm in electronic dance music in chapter 6.

[2] XL Recordings is an independent label that turned to dance music early on. At the time Basement Jaxx was signed, Prodigy was their most famous act; see Southall 2003:307.

[3] Toasting is a Jamaican-influenced, heavily accented sung/spoken rap style.

[4] Several journalists used the name “punk garage” to identify the style of Basement Jaxx when this album was released; see, for example, Hughes 1999, Lynskey 1999, and Roker 1999.

[5] The “lyrics” of the track are actually printed in the CD booklet in Jamaican English and reinforce the idea that content is not particularly relevant here.

[6] See Moayeri 1999.

[7] See page 97.

[8] Sensing Music-Related Actions” (2008–2011) is a joint research project of the Departments of Musicology and Informatics at the University of Oslo, where several of these options are being explored.

[9] Maria Witek has measured emotional and physiological responses to experiences of groove-based music; see Witek 2008.