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Not Strong Enough

by Boygenius

It’s human nature to try to interpret any rhythmic texture in the simplest way, and there are plenty of songs that leverage this instinct to mischieviously wrong-foot the listener. One common trick involves setting up the illusion from the start of the song that the musical downbeat occurs in a certain position, only to reveal later that it’s actually somewhere unexpected. Just because I totally nerded out on The Police and Sting at college, I’ll always associate this trick with them, and you can clearly hear it in action in The Police’s ‘Spirits In The Material World’ and Sting’s ‘Ghost Story’, both of which use strongly syncopated rhythms to create a strong initial impression that the musical downbeat is an eighth-note later than it actually turns out to be later in the song. On the other hand, both Bastille’s 'Pompeii' and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock And Roll’ feature introductions that suggest that the downbeat is earlier than it is (by one and three eighth notes respectively).

And my first impression on hearing this Boygenius song was that they’d done a similar trick with their acoustic-guitar intro, because the drums entry in bar seven (0:11) felt like it caused the same rhythmic ‘stumble’ that I associate with situations where a downbeat kick-drum arrives later than I’ve been led to expect. However, on closer inspection, it’s actually a cool kind of ‘double bluff’, because the acoustic guitars aren’t actually lying about the downbeat – what’s really happening is that the drums cleverly syncopate their first couple of bars in such a way that it sounds a lot like their downbeat is an eighth-note late. There are two key elements to the plausibility of this fake-out, for me. Firstly, the opening two little snare sixteenth notes are phrased convincingly like an unstressed last-eight-of-the-bar fill. And, secondly, the kick drum which that snare ‘fill’ leads towards turns out to be the first of seven consecutive off-beat eighth notes before we finally get a downbeat hit at the start of bar nine (0:15) – at which point the downbeat settles down unambiguiously for the remainder of the song.

So powerfully do these two factors combine to undermine the normal stress-patterns of the 4/4 metric grid during those two bars that it feels a bit weird trying to tap your foot through that section. Have a go! play_arrow | get_app And in case you think I’m miscounting, and the downbeat really is moving when the drums arrive, here’s that same section with a whacking great 4/4 click layered over it. (with click): play_arrow | get_app It still sounds odd, though, almost like the track’s falling out of sync with the click briefly during bar seven.

PS. There’s one other fun example of this kind of double bluff that springs to mind: the song ‘Black Shuck’ by The Darkness. At the start of the song a solo guitar riff establishes the real downbeat, but then that interpretation is undermined by heavy drum accents on the 2nd and 4th beats, generating a strong illusion that the downbeat’s actually a beat later. When the full band arrive around 30 seconds in, however, that finally confirms that the guitar had it right all along!

PPS. If you fancy a music-theory deep-dive into these kinds of rhythmic games, check out this cool research paper from Dr. Nicole Biamonte at McGill’s Schulich School of Music: ‘Formal Functions Of Metric Dissonance In Rock Music’. (Nice term, ‘metric dissonance’. Might steal that in future…)