We all do it. We nod our heads, tap our feet and maybe even air drum when we hear a great groove. No matter the genre or style, we all gravitate towards the back and forth of the kick drum and snare. But unfortunately songwriters and producers often take the “set it and forget it” approach to beat-making, which leads to stale and possibly boring tracks. With a simple technique, producers, DJs, composers and songwriters alike can humanize beats in very little time by making subtle variations. All it takes is a bit of creativity.

The elements

So what are these subtle variations? Simply put, it is musical phrasing strategically organized throughout the song arrangement. When writing a song and in search of the best groove, we should always think of these two elements: phrasing and song arrangement. The two will work in parallel and rely on each other to make the biggest impact throughout the song. The goal may be to create excitement in the second verse or mellowing the energy in the third chorus. Either way, it’s all done with the purpose of giving the song shape and bringing the listener along for a ride.

Phrasing

First, let’s start with phrasing. A phrase is often defined as a complete musical thought. It has a beginning and an end, often with a cadence. Usually, a groove organized in phrases is best. A single 1-bar groove is cool and very common in popular music, but with minimal effort can be dressed up into 2 bars, 4 bars, and if you want to go wild, 8-bar phrases. These phrases bring a more expressive and interesting texture to any song. Here are a few examples. Notice the phrasing is subtle. Bar 1 establishes the main groove, while bar 2 has a slight modification.

2-bar phrase

Bar 1: main groove
Bar 2: modification 1

4-bar phrases

Example 1:

Bar 1: main groove
Bar 2: modification 1
Bar 3: main groove
Bar 4: modification 2

Example 2:

Bar 1: main groove
Bar 2: modification 1
Bar 3: main groove
Bar 4: modification 1 plus fill

Song arrangement

Now that we’re thinking in phrases, we can use these phrases strategically throughout the song arrangement to humanize beats. Again, it’s all about being subtle and finding what works best for the song. Let’s take verses as an example.

Verse 1: kick, snare, closed hi-hat (2-bar phrase)
Verse 2: kick, snare, closed hi-hat with the occasional open hat (4-bar phrase)

Verse 1: kick, snare, hi-hat (4-bar phrase)
Verse 2: same groove but add embellishment in the kick drum (4-bar phrase)

When adding these small embellishments to the second verse it not only separates it from the first but also creates an underlying energy that didn’t exist earlier in the song.

Here is an example for an entire song

Verse 1: kick, snare, closed hi-hat (4-bar phrase)
Chorus 1: kick, snare, ride (8-bar phrase)
Verse 2: kick, snare, closed hi-hat with the occasional open hat (4-bar phrase)
Chorus 2: kick, snare, ride with embellishment on snare (8-bar phrase)
Bridge: rack tom, floor tom (4-bar phrase)
Chorus 3: kick, snare, crash with embellishment on snare (8-bar phrase)

In this example, we can see the small changes from one section to the next throughout the entire song. Each has a purpose to create excitement and will keep the song moving in a forward direction rather than being stagnant. This tactic can be used for any style of music. A film score can create slight variations on its theme to keep it fresh and impactful each time it appears in the film; an EDM track can have slight variations in the hi-hat pattern or even the kick drum as the song progresses; the snare and kick drum in a pop song can begin to follow the guitar phrasing in the second verse. The options are endless.

Beyond the groove

Using phrasing within song arrangement is of course not only limited to the groove. Often the groove phrasing is determined by the phrasing of another instrument. We recommend playing with the phrasing of each instrument in your track and then find commonalities between each to create a very cool musical weave. Drums can follow the guitar phrasing, guitar follows the vocal phrasing, and bass follows the drum phrasing. It can be incredibly effective to humanize beats. So the next time you’re finding your track is falling a little flat, experiment and find those subtleties that will take it to the next level. I highly recommend it.

For more songwriting tips, check out this insider info from Om’Mas Keith.