This posting might interest non-musicians but it’s written with musician readers in mind, hence the “musician’s corner” category tag.
Before you read on, it might be best to listen to this entire song and then come back here.
The web and the world are heavily populated with objects, still images, and videos like this one and this one that show us how our perceptions of a visual scene depend on what we expect to see, on the conditions in which we see it, on the preconceptions we bring to the viewing, and on the perspective we see it from. Sometimes a scene divulges its meaning when seen only from one privileged point. Sometimes the meaning of the scene changes depending on where you look from.
In some really fascinating, special situations, more than one perception is possible and sometimes we can even learn to switch our brains between the different interpretations of what we see. No matter how adept we are at switching, though, whether it’s a two-dimensional line drawing of a three-dimensional cube, a picture of a white and gold dress that might look black and blue (or is it the other way around?), or a video where we can see rotation in either direction, we can’t seem to experience multiple interpretations simultaneously. Instead, we hold only one interpretation at a time.
In music, time provides a kind of meaning: the way the time ebbs and flows, exactly when sounds begin and end sets a huge part of the mood and defines the effect of the music on the listener. The sounds’ timing also provides cultural cues: “Whose music is this?” “When is it from?” “What were the circumstances of the people meant to appreciate it?”
When it comes to rhythmic music, the feel of the music is founded on the idea of time, especially how the beginnings and ends of sounds are timed relative to a regular pulse. When we listen to rhythmic music, moreso if we are musicians, we develop a strong idea of where “one” is. How does that happen? I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I don’t entirely know the answer.
I think a lot of cues are involved. Where does the harmony change? Where is the melody accented? Is there a strong accent in the bass or drums on beat one? Sometimes, but not in One-drop Reggae, which relies almost completely on timing of the harmony to distinguish between beat one and beat three of the bar. Lots of music, particularly swing, jazz, and some rock and roll, has a strong back beat, meaning strong accents on beats two and four. As musicians, we feel the back beat deeply, and if an audience claps along on beats one and three it feels completely wrong. Listen to Harry Connick, Jr. as he fixes this problem in his audience by adding a beat to one bar in his piano solo 40 seconds in. Did you catch the ebullient two-fists-in-the-air sign of triumph from the drummer?
A great deal of the substance in music lies in setting up expectations in the listener and then violating those expectations just the right amount. I had heard how drummers turn the beat around temporarily, particularly in funk tunes, but it was my friend Weaver who explained how that device might trace its origin back to the Amen break, which I had somehow grown up without knowing about. Taking the idea further, listen to Night and Day played by Stan Getz and Bill Evans as Elvin Jones turns the beat around one way or another in almost every bar. Challenge your non-musician friends to count correctly through the entire trading-fours section on the first try. Hell, even challenge yourself, because even most musicians can’t get it right the first time. The time is rock-solid, but Elvin is so playful and so capable that he keeps it enigmatic and demanding of the listener.
A few years ago the same friend Weaver and his then-wife Andrea showed me a fascinating electronic instrument called the Tenori-On. The Tenori-On acts like a tiny synth with a built-in sixteen-step sequencer; in each of the sixteen equal-length time steps, some set of notes is chosen by the player to sound. Weaver and I made a game out of thinking up rhythms and then building those rhythms up from their parts in a way that kept the timing of beat one hidden for as long as possible but revealed it hard and undeniably in the end, only as we added the last bit to the sequence. He was surprised at first that I could control where he thought one was, consciously shifting his idea of the time as I built a sequence.
That idea is what this post is about. But the example I want to show you takes it one step further: Not only does Rickie Lee Jones trick the listener about where the time is, but she ups the ante and in the same stroke tricks us about the very feel of the song! But wait. Don’t think ahead. This is more fun if you walk through the steps from the beginning.
Listen to this clip from early in the song.
With the bass notes removed for simplicity, here is notation for the main piano figure you hear in that introduction:
Now listen to another clip from a bit later in the song.
Still the same piano motif with the same feel, but toward the middle of that clip there are some background rhythm elements — harmonics plucked on an acoustic guitar — that, along with a little sideways lilt in the vocals, start to defy our expectations a bit and suggest there might be more to the story than we thought. But then the song’s time settles back into the original figure for a while again. A nice, straight, 6/8 lope. Relaxed.
And the tune goes on a bit longer. The dynamics build as the full band enters, and the payoff comes, sneaking up on us until we realize our entire sense of the song has shifted, the room has spun a quarter turn underneath us, the feel isn’t what we thought in the least, and we didn’t know where one was after all. Our gentle 6/8 loping feel is replaced by a driving, syncopated beat where every note is anticipated by the piano, pushing the time ever forward, and the hi-hat laying down the back beat tastefully, but without compromise. Here is the transition to the full band where the time is finally laid bare and the syncopation grows undeniable:
We hear that the rhythm isn’t what it seemed in the beginning. It’s a swing-feel rock beat in 4/4, not the 6/8 lope after all! She faked us out!
Written out explicitly with note values the same as in the notation above, here’s what it looks like with the syncopation we’ve just discovered. This notation also has a fairly arbitrary change to the time signature to emphasize that the 16th notes are played straight, not swung, even though the resulting feel swings really hard because the 16th notes are grouped in sets of 6.
That notation is really hard to read compared to the first snippet in 6/8. How did Rickie Lee Jones and Steve Gadd ease us so smoothly into this syncopated rock feel? Did she make a subtle shift in how she times the piano figure during the transition? Listen again.
No, she didn’t change a thing. It takes some arithmetic and squinting to convince yourself, but that hard-to-read syncopated snippet has exactly the same note values as the first one in 6/8 above, it’s just that this one is shifted by a 16th note. That’s the only difference! Genius! When I first worked through this, it was so hard for me to believe there was no difference that I had to record myself playing these parts on the piano, feeling the time first one way and then the other. Listening back, I could mentally switch at will between the two feels and I couldn’t tell which feel I’d had in mind when I played the parts. Just by shifting the listener’s understanding of the time, with no changes to note duration at all, she completely redefines the feel of the tune!
When I turn it up loud and listen, I still cry sometimes at the beauty of this transition and how nonchalantly yet deliberately she and her band pull it off. As with the optical illusions, I hear the feel one way or the other. There is no in-between. If I try to hear the syncopated feel from the beginning I can do it, knowing what’s coming. But then I miss the euphoric, mind-exploding transition, so I prefer to treat myself by hearing the beginning of the song in the straight 6/8 feel.
For completeness, here is how I would notate the syncopated feel in a way that’s easier to read, in case you want to try playing it. Unlike the two snippets above, this notation depends on swung 8th notes.