Beatmatching Basics Part 2: Understanding Beats, Bars & Phrases
Click Here for part 1 incase you missed it!
“Beats and Bars are how a piece of music is divided in musical terms.”
What are beats (no, not the headphones!)?
Say we selected a track and loaded it in a DJ deck. Let’s imagine that the tempo of the selected track is 120BPM, and that the whole duration of the track is exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds (from the first moment music starts, to the moment music finishes). The number of beats that will be contained in the whole track is 420 beats.
In case you are still a bit confused, here is what we’ve calculated. The track has a tempo of 120 BPM, this means that it contains 120 beats per minute. Since the track is 3 and a half minutes long, it means it contains 120 beats for every minute plus another half a minute worth of beats. This would equate to 420 beats.
Why is this important?
Well, it’s important because musicians and producers use this method of beat counting to identify where the beats and bars within a piece of music are located, then they place important musical elements and make musical changes at those locations.
For example, the Kick drum of a track (the thump sound that your body moves to in a club) is almost always placed where a new beat occurs within the chosen tempo (bpm), and this happens in almost all popular music, regardless of whether it is rock, pop, house, techno etc. This means that whenever you hear a kick sound (that thumpy knocking sound) a musical beat has occurred. While this isn’t the be all and end all of beats and one could learn a lot more about it if they studied music theory, this is all you really need to understand in relation to DJing.
Finally, if you’re wondering how producers know where a beat occurs when they make a track. They use music creation programs such as Logic Pro or Ableton 9. These programs require you to choose a tempo (BPM) before you even start making any music or recording any instruments. The program then identifies and places grid lines where those beats and bars are supposed to be within the chosen tempo using mathematical algorithms to work them out. Then all the producer needs to do is place the musical elements on the grid lines, or divisions of those grid lines and the music will end up with the same structure.
Fig 1: Music programs such as Studio One 3 display where the beats and bars are located within a given tempo using grid lines.
Bars & Phrases
By now you should understand that music is normally divided into equal time-lengths. The smallest time length you need to worry about as a DJ are beats (which we spoke about above). The next time length you need to grasp are bars, and the one after that is phrases.
What is a bar?
Bars (also known as measures in more traditional musical terms) divide the music in the same way words divide a sentence. If a beat is a letter, a bar is a word and a phrase is a sentence. In other words, bars contain a certain number of beats that make up a small segment of music.
What is a phrase?
Similar to a bar which contains a certain number of beats, a phrase is made up of a number of bars. Getting a little more theoretical, every time a new phrase occurs within in a piece of music, it means that something has changed in the music. Whether it is a new sound being introduced, or a completely new musical section (e.g. verse to chorus), a new phrase within the music has began.
Now that you should have an understanding of the basics of beats, bars and phrases, let’s look at how many beats are contained in a bar and how many bars make up a phrase.
How many beats are in a bar?
Within almost any type of popular music, a bar contains 4 beats, meaning that every 4 beats of music a new bar will begin. In fact all DJ software and music creation programs that I know of (such as Rekordbox and Studio one 3) don’t only display grid lines for the beats, they also give an indication for where new bars begin. The following image (Fig 2) is a screenshot of the waveform display from Rekordbox (the current industry standard DJ software).
The red markers indicate the first beat of every bar, the white markers indicate the remaining 3 beats of the bar, then another red marker shows the beginning of the next bar. If you add the first red marker and the remaining 3 white ones, they result in 4 beats within a bar, just like we spoke.
Earlier on I mentioned that in almost all popular music there are 4 beats in a bar. While that is true, especially for the music you are likely to DJ, it is not the whole truth. Some music may contain 5 beats in a bar, other types of music may contain even more or less. While this bit of information is unlikely going to be of any use to you for DJ purposes, if you are ever unsure whether a track has 4 beats in a bar, do a quick google search for the time signature of the track. The Time Signature symbol that is used to identify how many beats are in a bar of music is this (see fig 3 below)
The top number represents the number of beats that occur in a bar. The bottom number is the note value for each bar. Honestly speaking, you will probably never come across this symbol as a DJ unless you read music notation. If you want to learn more about time signatures, I recommend you read the book ‘AB guide to music theory‘ which goes into all of this in a lot of detail! But be warned, it won’t be very useful to you unless you plan on creating music or playing a real musical instrument!
Finally, we’re going to look at how to identify a new phrase. Conventionally, a phrase contains 8 bars of music. So, every 8 bars of music, a new phrase begins (this would mean the phrase begins on the 9th bar). As a DJ, this amount of knowledge can get you quite far. However, as always, there is a little more to it. As we’ve discovered, most music is divided in even numbers (4 beats in a bar, 8 bars per phrase etc), however there are occasions where the length of a phrase may only be 4 bars long, 2 bars long, or even 16 bars long. This happens quite rarely, and almost always, popular music contains mainly 8 bar phrases, however it is important that you know how to identify a new phrase when it occurs.
Ways to identify a new phrase:
- Count 8 bars from the beginning of the music, and most of the time you will reach a new phrase when the 8 bars are over. So a new phrase would occur on bar 1, bar 9, bar 17 and so on (every time 8 bars complete).
- Assuming you lost your count and you are trying to figure out where the next phrase begins. Listen out for a change in the music. When the music changes to a completely new section (such as going from a verse to a chorus, or build up to drop) a new phrase is introduced. Other more subtle indications are also valid. For example, when a crash symbol occurs, or when a new instrument is introduced (even if the musical part it plays is doesn’t seem too significant within the music).
- Utilise the laptops and/or displays on your DJ equipment and USE THEM! While I may get some hate from die hard old school vinyl DJs for saying that. The reality of the matter is that nowadays we have so many conveniences with modern DJ equipment, that while some may say “it’s not real Djing”, they do make learning all of this much easier. So, use your displays to identify changes in the music. Here are a few examples.
Fig 4: Points in the tracks where new phrases begin. All of those points are the beginning of new phrases. Notice the changes in colour, all well as the subtle changes in waveform size. They are good visual indications of a new phrase, couple that with what you hear and you can utilise both what you hear (like hearing a crash symbol, a new instrument or a change in music) with something changing in the waveform display to identify the beginning of a new phrase.
Well done! If you’ve understood everything up to now, then you already know more than most DJs do! “heheheh”! You now know how to identify and count the beats, bars and phrases. So, let’s move on to the final part of this Beatmatching series! Beatmatching Basics Part 3: Beatmatch!
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A Soundflow Music Academy publication,
Written by Nikos Argalias