Why do some tracks clear the floor at weddings whilst others have couples rushing up to dance (even people like me, whose dancing is generally considered to be reprehensible in style and implausible in execution)?
We all have our favourites – from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ to Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. No matter how much musical training you have there’s no general rule or formula for that ‘put the pint down and boogie’ impact. But there are several tricks of the trade which can give a song more momentum.
Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ is one of those classics which just about everyone would admit is full of get-up-and-go. A full discussion of its twists and turns would cover twenty pages or so – but we can have a quick look into a couple of the more obvious things which make it work.
One of the features of the song which give it its drive is called an anacrusis. This sounds highly technical – but it just means that you don’t start the song on a strong pulse in the rhythm. There are lots of songs which do this, and it generally gives the music more movement than songs which begin on a strong beat*. Here are some examples of songs which do and don’t start with an anacrusis (with the strong beats shown in bold);
Songs which start on a strong beat:
The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkel) – I’m just a poor boy…
Fire and Rain (James Taylor) – Just yesterday morning…
God Save the Queen – God save our Gracious Queen…
And here are some which start with an anacrusis:
Sunny Afternoon (The Kinks) – The tax man’s taken all…
Song 2 (Blur) – Woo-oo
We wish you a merry Christmas – We wish you a merry Christmas…
‘Superstition’ gets a double dose of anacrusis – the main riff starts on one. After a short introduction (which just ticks out the time) the keyboard comes in with the following rhythm: “b’dah dah dah Dum dah dah dah”. This is followed by a vocal line which avoids the strongest beat in the bar like a child avoiding cracks in the pavement. This avoidance of the obvious strong beats is all part of a musical style called syncopation – a great motion generator.
Some of the dance appeal of this track comes from the fact that the repeating main riff involves an accented, abrupt bass note (the Dum in the previous paragraph). Before the advent of electric keyboards it was very difficult to produce a short, loud bass note like this. Acoustic bass instruments tend to produce notes which blossom over a few milliseconds rather than appear suddenly, and if you play them loudly the sound takes a while before it fades – but thankfully Stevie didn’t have to rely on string basses, horns or bassoons – he had his trusty Hohner clavinet. Inside a clavinet, a metal hammer hits a string whenever you hit a key, so the sound is abrupt – even if it’s a bass note – and electric amplification means you can turn the volume up as far as 11 if you want to – and he does.
*As with most generalised statements about music there are lots of exceptions to this rule (e.g. ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ has lots of momentum – but it starts on a strong beat).
John Powell, classical composer and physics professor, is the author of ‘How Music Works’