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From Counting Crows To Count Chocula

This blog has absolutely nothing to do with either the Counting Crows or Count Chocula. It has everything to do with counting. Not your money, not your chickens (before they hatch), not your fingers and toes, but counting none the less. It's about counting the beats and measures in your production.

For years I've been extolling the virtues of piano lessons for young radio producers. Understanding the technical aspects of music is critical to crafting perfect promos and commercials. While there are some producers out there who don't have a background in music, I would bet big bucks that they have to work harder, sometimes a LOT harder to achieve the rhythm and flow that a musically trained producer seems to do almost automatically.

What I intend to do here is teach you the most rudimentary part about music and show you how it all fits together. Hopefully, understanding this one thing about music will truly improve your production.

Have you ever been to a vinyl-playing club or dance where the deejay accidentally bumped the turntable, the music jumped ahead and everybody got momentarily confused about where the beat is? Why do people stumble about for a moment until they find the beat again? Whether you’re dancing to the backbeat of rock or the hard downbeats of urban tracks, after the first measure, a pattern is established, one that the brain receives and translates into muscle movement. That pattern is called a time signature. The pattern is what we dance to and how we get whatever rhythm we have, to our feet.

Every piece of music has a time signature. If you look at the sheet music, at the beginning of the music staff, you’ll see two numbers, one above the other. The bottom number is the relative length of each beat in any given measure. In the illustration, we have 3/4, 4/4 and C which is ALSO 4/4. 4/4 is the most often used, so the composer just puts a C there to say "common time." When it is 4, each measure is divided into four equal lengths, one-quarter note per part. The bottom number will always be an even multiple of 4 whether it’s 2 (rare), 4, 8 or 16. (It can be 32 or 64, but those are exceedingly rare.) The top number is equal to the number of beats in each measure. This number can be any number except 1, but is usually 3, 4 or 8.

Ok, you say…but what does that have to do with a room full of stumbling dancers? If you skip a beat in any measure of the song, it throws everything that follows out of whack. When the music skips, the brain stumbles because it’s expecting beat 2 to follow beat 1, beat 3 to follow 2 and beat 4 to follow 3. If the brain doesn’t hear the right beat, it gets confused and people’s feet are zigging when they’re supposed to zag. The brain then has to wait another measure to figure out what the time signature is to get back “in the groove.” Aside from the comic nature of seeing a bunch of people scrambling to get up and act like they "meant to do that," it is confusing to the brain, to say the least. The hapless deejay is on the receiving end of a lot of ugly stares.

What happens when you, the producer, cut from one piece of music to another in a commercial or promo? If you don’t cut to the right beat, the brain acts exactly the same way. There is the listener’s brain, just grooving along to the music in the background, minding it’s own business and soaking in what your VO is saying. Your transition pops up and BANG…it’s confused about what the time signature is and spends a moment trying to figure out what went wrong. It’s NOT listening to your message any more. OOPS! That’s a problem…and that, my dear reader is what I’m trying to address.

As you build your piece of production, isolate the music track and try to dance to it. If, when the transition comes, you stumble or hesitate for just a moment, you know that you missed the beat. You should also know that whatever the copy is at that moment, chances are the audience won’t hear, comprehend or even care what it is because their brain is busy doing something else. You’ve interrupted the flow of the piece sufficiently to render it pointless. How sad.

Now, before we get back to the technical music stuff again (sorry, but this is really important), we need to make two definitions very clear: Mixing and Matching. Mixing is the act of playing two tracks simultaneously. You don’t always want to beatmix your promos. Save that for a special occasion. HOWEVER, you always want to beat–match your promos. This makes the music flow through each transition so that the brain is never trying to figure out where the music is going. It just goes and flows.

The two other aspects to music that you also need to understand are rhythm and tempo. Tempo is the easier of the two to grasp, mainly because it’s something you’ve dealt with before. Tempo is equivalent to Beats Per Minute. (BPM) If you are producing a beatmix promo, you need to have all the tempos of the various songs be the same, so you’ll speed some up and slow some down so they can play at the same time. If you are simply beat-matching your promo, you almost always want to make sure the slower piece plays first. (It’s a lot easier for the human brain to speed up than it is to slow down.) It’s the other musical component that’s a bit trickier. Rhythm is the emphasis each beat of a measure gets. This is especially important when you are matching through a transition. To the untrained ear, the two and four beats of a measure sound similar. Try to match them and your room full of goofy dancers is back.

A waltz is defined by the rhythm, DUM-dum-dum, DUM-dum-dum…if you count out the beats, it’s ONE–two–three, ONE–two–three. To be frank, 3/4 time almost never happens in pop music. In fact, the last hit I can think of was a song released in 1998 by the Goo Goo Dolls called Iris. Even then, it wasn't in 3/4 time during the whole song.

Most pop and hip-hop music uses a straight-ahead 4/4 time signature with a backbeat that counts out, one–TWO–three–FOUR. Dance music also uses the 4/4 (sometimes 8/8) time signature, but features a kick drum on every beat.

Latin music can get a bit complicated as it tends to emphasize the beats between the beats almost as much as the beats themselves. And there are a TON of variations.

If you want to drive yourself completely nuts, try counting out the original theme from Mission: Impossible. Lalo Schifrin wrote this TV show theme in a 5/4 time signature. As a note of interest, when Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen (of U2 fame), did the first Mission: Impossible movie soundtrack, they converted it to 8/8 so people could dance to it. (Counting five beats per measure is something the human brain is ill equipped to deal with.) In subsequent installements of M:I, producers have gone back to the original 5/4.

OK, so what does this have to do with creative imaging on a radio station? Everything. Remember, your first goal is to deliver your message clearly. If the music you use interferes with that goal, you’re defeated right out of the box. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Knowing where to cut a track is as vital as knowing which track to use. If you MATCH the beats, one to one or four to four, you tear down a roadblock to understanding. And the cool thing is, it doesn’t matter what format you’re working in, it always works. Whether you’re dealing with a pounding urban track, a twangy steel guitar–ridden country track, a polished orchestral classical track or the raging back beat of rock…it’s ALL music and it all follows the same rules.

Is your boss going to notice the difference? Probably not. Will your audience notice? I sincerely doubt it. But they will start to react more to your production. Eventually, your ratings will soar, revenue will go through the roof and your GM will hand out huge raises. Or not. Um, good luck on that last part.

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