There are some songs that just seem to be so well made that they appear to possess some magical quality or spirit that gives them life yet can’t quite be pinned down. In reality, much of what makes a song work has to do with the structure underneath it, and if you break a song down to it’s simplest factors using music theory, you can begin to understand both what’s going on and why it works so well.
Let’s take a look at an example and see how basic music theory is at play in Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.
Subdivision is a basic music theory concept everyone should know. Essentially, it’s the way we break beats up into smaller pieces. Think of it like folding a piece of paper up into smaller pieces. The single sheet would be divided into two halves, four quarters, and so on.
So for example, in 4/4, where the quarter note equals one beat, you could subdivide into eighth notes by dividing each beat in half. So instead of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, you would have 1, &, 2, &, 3, &, 4, &.
But why does subdivision matter? Essentially, it’s what allows us to create more interesting and complex rhythms – just like the ones in 99 Problems. Think about a basic rock drum beat for a second – something like this. Now compare that to the drum beat from 99 problems. The complexity – especially in the kick drum – is possible because notes pulled from the subdivision are used to create the beat.
If you’re not sure how to find a song’s subdivision, start by focusing on the hi-hat. A lot of times the hi-hat functions as the subdivision pulse in the song, so that’s always a good place to start.
Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs
Groove and Phrasing
Once you understand the idea of subdivision, you can use it to explore and deepen your understanding of groove and phrasing.
If you listen to 99 problems, you’ll notice that it has an incredibly heavy groove. From a basic music theory perspective, this heavy feel is achieved by playing some notes right on time, some early, and some late. This pushing and pulling of the beat is what really helps you establish a killer groove.
In 99 Problems, the notes played at the beginning of the beat are played right on time, but the notes played at the end of the beat are played a little late. There is also a cowbell part which is consistently played “behind” the beat to further emphasize that rhythmic tension. Jay-Z follows suit by flowing between rapping right on the beat and rapping behind it.
Identifying these manipulations of the subdivision and how they affect the groove and phrasing has enormous implications for your own writing and playing. They are the rhythmic keys to being able to have control and intention with your music – whether you are trying to recreate 99 Problems or trying to create something that has some of the same powerful sense of groove and rhythm.
Strong Emphasis on the Tonal Center
The last thing to note about 99 Problems is how harmonically grounded the song is. Take a listen and you’ll notice how strongly it emphasizes the tonal center (a.k.a. the pitch around which our ears hear everything else in a song – the pitch “E” in the key of E minor, for instance).
How is this focus on the tonal center is accomplished? First, the entire song only uses two chords: E and D. The E chord (built on the tonal center, E) is used the most and the D chord is only used in short bursts to make the E chord stronger.
Second, the song uses a lot of space where no chord is played at all to make the E chord hit even harder. There frequently are almost entire measures of music where no chord is played at all, and this creates a sense of anticipation and openness that makes both the E and D chords feel much more powerful.
There is much more to explore in the world of theory and analysis than anyone can explain in one blog post. If you’ve found this helpful, you might find the online theory course I developed and authored with Dave Kusek to be helpful. Check out HitMusicTheory.com for more information.