Learn about the Cuban rhythm that lifted artists like Justin Bieber, Drake, and Ed Sheeran to the top of the Billboard charts.
Many people think that today’s pop music is repetitive. And they’re right…but not in the way they think. This repetition is not a bad thing, but a very, very good thing. Yes, pop songs do share some of the same sounds. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” all have the same dancey Cuban rhythm in their drums. But their sharing of this 3-note pattern does not make them repetitive—it makes them enjoyable, useful, and human. How does this happen?
It happens because pop music thinks that repetition is a required ingredient for good music. Repetition and familiarity means that people can get into new music much more easily. They can immediately start dancing to a song they’ve never heard before, or improvising a guitar solo over unfamiliar jazz changes. As a result, pop genres from rap to EDM emphasize the real-world parts of music listening, and not the abstract parts of it.
Take that 3-note bell pattern from “Despacito” again, which is called a “tresillo.” This pattern’s first two notes are long, and its last note is short. You already know it; it’s famous for being the rhythmic glue that holds together the Cuban habanera dance. It has a long history in American music, having appeared in the blues, jazz, ragtime, and classical music of everyone from Scott Joplin to Jelly Roll Morton. Today, it’s used by not only Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, and Luis Fonsi, but also by French Montana, Drake, Young Thug, and even more. It is the calling card of the current Caribbean craze that has been sweeping the Billboard charts for the past several years. Based on its string of chart-topping singles, this 3-note pattern seems to be the perfect symbol of an artist’s trendiness: it represents their ability to know what’s cool today.
Why is the tresillo pattern so popular?
This rhythm can be found everywhere today, because it’s so musically flexible. It’s simple enough to be played by bass kicks, snares, pianos, guitars, bells, horns, kalimbas, synthesizers, whatever, without losing any rhythmic energy. It’s also perfect for dancing to, which is what a lot of pop music is used for today. Importantly, this 3-note pattern is also short and easy to remember. Again, it is not a case of artistic theft, because pop treats its rhythms like a common language that’s spoken by all musicians. To such musical traditions, such a unique rhythm should not be the copyrighted property of a single musician, like a symphony or quartet might be.
How does this emphasis on musical conversation make pop different from other kinds of music, like classical?
Such musical traditions focus on other aspects of music, like individuality and uniqueness. We all remember Mozart; we don’t remember the musicians who first brought his ideas to life, or the musicians who taught Mozart his own trade. Jazz and classical also emphasize technical ability on an instrument—you only need to check the number of YouTube videos of kids playing the piano incredibly quickly to see this. Does anyone praise Young Thug for his ability to quickly shift from one to the next? Or praise EDM DJs for their ability to program Ableton? No; instead, they get praised for making music that many people enjoy, or music that’s “cool.”
Classical’s ideas about good music are unfamiliar to the place where pop comes from. They are romantic ideas of art that date back to our vision of a lonely Beethoven struggling all day at the piano to bring his creation to life. That’s a picture of a good musician that’s tough to apply to the party atmosphere at Justin Bieber’s stadium concerts, or the fun dance routines in the “Despacito” music video. It’s also a picture of good music that pushes many other ones to the side. To pop music genres, musicians should not be struggling artists who are trying to outdo each other. Instead, they should be like really good friends who are always talking to each other with the same musical words and language.
We see this emphasis on shared language all over pop music. It’s in the triplet flow in rap, or in the drop in many EDM songs. It even dates back to one of the original sources for pop music: the blues. Every blues musician knows the form of the 12-bar pattern. It became a gold standard of sorts, so that musicians anywhere could simply pick up their instruments and start playing with each other, without even talking beforehand. Imagine if all 60 players in a classical orchestra were all asked to start improvising on a Mozart sonata!
This is the basic trade-off of all pop music, whether it’s rap, hip hop, soul, or EDM. If pop music were more widely discussed in this communal way, all of us would benefit. It would lead to a much better understanding of what makes a song catch on with audiences, and why. The pervasiveness of the tresillo pattern reveals a fundamental truth about all good music, whether pop, classical, or anything else: “Different…but not too different.”