Can't Follow The Beat? Just Add Butter Certain musical rhythms trip us up: We try to dance or count along and keep losing our place. Two musicians explain what makes some beats so slippery, and what butter has to do with making them stick.
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Can't Follow The Beat? Just Add Butter

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Can't Follow The Beat? Just Add Butter

Can't Follow The Beat? Just Add Butter

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We're going to layer up some beats now, in the next installment of our series Rhythm Section. Some songs have a single, simple beat. But others are driven by what are called polyrhythms. Think of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. NPR's Daoud Tyler-Ameen explains.

DAOUD TYLER-AMEEN, BYLINE: Let's start with basics. What is a polyrhythm?


LAFRAE SCI: You know, the word poly, many. It's many rhythms kind of being together at the same time, creating a different shape in the sound.


SCI: My name is LaFrae Sci. I'm a professional drummer.

TYLER-AMEEN: And a drum teacher who's used to giving lessons from behind the kit. Sci says that outside of the U.S. polyrhythms are extremely common, especially in the music of West Africa.

SCI: Ghana, Togo.

TYLER-AMEEN: But for Western ears, it can help to think of it this way. There are simple rhythmic patterns that we can all recognize. Think of your windshield wipers swishing back and forth - one, two, one, two.


TYLER-AMEEN: Now, instead of counting off groups of two, try three - one, two, three, one, two, three.


TYLER-AMEEN: Polyrhythm is what happens when those simple rhythms get stacked on top of each other.


TYLER-AMEEN: Suddenly, you've got two patterns going at once. It sounds complicated, but you've definitely heard this rhythm before.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Hark, how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say throw cares away. Christmas is here, bringing good cheer to young and old, meek and the bold...

TYLER-AMEEN: You might ask, why would musicians do this?


BRYCE DESSNER: It's very tricky at first. But once you have it, it's addictive.

TYLER-AMEEN: Bryce Dessner has made these tricky rhythms a big part of his day job. He's one of the main songwriters in the band, The National. And if that name doesn't ring a bell, maybe this will.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are one nation, and together we will begin the next great chapter in the American story...

TYLER-AMEEN: All right. So the voice there is obviously President Obama. This is one of the ads from his 2008 election campaign. But the music comes from a song that Bryce Dessner wrote for The National, called "Fake Empire."


TYLER-AMEEN: And he says, the whole point was to see if he could take a complicated polyrhythm and make it fun.

DESSNER: This is a rhythm that I learned from contemporary music composers. And it's a four over three. So the song is in 3/4, but there's -the upper voice is always a four over that three.


MATT BERNINGER: (Singing) Turn the light out. Say goodnight, no thinking for a little while,

TYLER-AMEEN: If you listen closely to the piano, you actually can pick out the parts of the four over three rhythm. The three is in the bass - one, two three, one, two, three, one two three. And then the four rhythm is up high - one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. But do not be fooled. Even if you play music, this is hard. I asked Dessner if we could try playing it together on a pair of acoustic guitars.

DESSNER: You can even start, just (strumming guitar).

TYLER-AMEEN: All right. All right, I'll do that. And then you do the hard part.


DESSNER: (Laughing) All right. One more time.

TYLER-AMEEN: Don't laugh. Even Dessner says it takes time to get used to.

DESSNER: At the time that we wrote the song, I just said, I'll just try something really simple with this weird rhythm and see if the guys like it. And at first it was difficult, but now it's, like, second-nature to everybody 'cause we've played it so many times.


BERNINGER: (Singing) It's hard to keep track of you falling through the sky. We're half awake in a fake empire.

DESSNER: You know, for The National, we're a semi-popular band, I would say. And so that song's probably our most popular song. So a lot of people, without knowing it, have learned this rhythm, which is kind of a cool idea.

TYLER-AMEEN: Music teachers, like LaFrae Sci, can't write a song for every single lesson. But they do have shortcuts to make these ideas stick. You might have heard the phrase, every good boy deserves fudge, as a way to remember the notes, E, G, B, D, F, on the lines of a music staff. Sci says that the rhythm you hear in "Fake Empire," four over three, has a really helpful nickname.


SCI: Should I do the PG version or the real version?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It would be funny if it was, like, pass the beep beep butter, pass the beep beep...

TYLER-AMEEN: OK. So fair warning, some of you might find the uncensored version blasphemous.

SCI: Pass the god damn butter (playing drums). Pass the god damn butter (playing drums).

TYLER-AMEEN: Once you've got that phrase stuck in your mind, you can recognize that rhythm anywhere, even when there are no drums involved.


TYLER-AMEEN: The point of all of this is to make listening to two rhythms at once feel natural, as easy as talking while you walk. LaFrae Sci says, that's a life skill. Just like picking up a foreign language, it's one more way of decoding the world around us, making order out of chaos. Daoud Tyler-Ameen. NPR News.



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