Some quick thoughts on groove.

What is groove?  I’ve spent the last two years dealing with drums.  Sometimes it feels like 90% of the recording process involves minimizing damage from these giant obtrusive gunshot machines.  Drums are nothing but transients, atonal spikes of noise in the beautiful song.  They are difficult to control to say the least.  A guitar takes one microphone (zero if you go direct) and sounds fun no matter what you do to it.  A drumset on the other hand can have up to twelve mics (I’d say my bands average around ten).  Luckily, I work with killer musicians.

Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about groove, and what it is.  In our digital-bias culture, the obvious answer seems quantization.  Pop it in the music machine and get those hits on the exact correct beat.    Most of the time people quantize to the beat or attempt to tighten things by putting them right on an exact grid, the tempo of the song.  But the specific mechanism of groove truly eludes me.  There’s something interesting with time and the brain happening, clearly.  The human mind is a genius at calling out bad rhythm.  We’re pattern recognizers.  We love the snare kick, snare kick, snare kick pattern.  We get the beat, we get the concept, and our brain gets near orgasmic as it extrapolates this rhythm outward in musical imagination.  So groove then is pattern recognition…. but the brain is smart.  Copy and paste a snare and bass to a grid in protools…. listen to the horrible sound that comes out on loop.  The brain immediately knows the difference between something naturally imitated and an exact copy.  It turns out that an exact copy is mostly distracting, and not at all groovy.

So the observations I’ve made so far – groove is human.  This obsession with the click and putting things on a grid is not musical.  This idea that music is ever at a constant tempo…. I think kind of absurd and limiting, actually.  But also useful, I mean, I do it all the time, and sometimes I love that daft punk trance thing you get with perfect electronic precision.  So I’m not coming down all anti-tech, but for real.  I think having this grid system integrate into our entire musical culture mostly just doesn’t even make sense.  I KNOW that if some enterprising pop producer did a record with great musicians and no click track, it would really stick out in our current atmosphere of quantized noise.

But the guys that really groove, ya know.  Lennon could groove with his vocals.  It’s bass and drums often, yeah, but it’s everything.  And there’s hit.  There’s groove in every note, it’s not all just contextual to other notes.  A good drummer like plays one note and it grooves somehow.  What is that “somehow”?  Well, part of it, as I see it, is really getting a great attack on the instrument.  Drummers who groove know how to play to drums EXACTLY together.  It also has to do with waiting for that elusive ONE.  If you can hit that one beat, you can kind of get a little loose and comical in the middle.  Groove also seems to intensify when there is a deviation from the perfect grid.  Someone like Bonham or something knew how to do this to almost a godlike level.  He would push or pull on the tempo to compliment the mood and feeling of the song…. sort of push or pull within the measure, but consistently, with perfect ones, and it creates a very groovy loop feel.  The imperfections become cool and make character if they are consistent.  My first piano teacher always said, if you make a mistake, just do it again.

Anyway.  I couldn’t find much online about this, so if anyone has thoughts or resources on pinning down groove scientifically, please keep me informed!  Thanks!

13 Thoughts on “Groove

  1. another guy named Chris on April 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm said:

    Just wanted to let you know that this post didn’t just echo around in the giant empty room of cyberspace. This line, in particular, resonated with me: “We get the beat, we get the concept, and our brain gets near orgasmic as it extrapolates this rhythm outward in musical imagination.” That’s exactly what I find happens in my head. That said, the way music appeals to that part of our brain that loves pattern recognition… and the importance of pattern recognition in an evolutionary sense, makes me wonder if indeed music is an expected side-effect of any highly-evolved species. I wonder if and what kind of music plays in the heads of birds, monkeys, dogs…

  2. Assaf on April 26, 2014 at 7:44 am said:

    Interesting thoughts as always. Just thought I’d point out many drum bits, like toms, are actually tonal and can (and should) be tuned! It bothers some people (me included) when they’re off.

  3. Totally agree with this. Why else would people go to see live concerts, definitely not to stare at a machine churning out contrived noise. This is a cool article summarizing some research behind how music elicits emotional reactions in people.

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