Learn Basic Music Theory with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems

basic music theory jay-z's 99 problems

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

3 Steps to Improve Your Musical Ear

3 steps to improve your musical ear

Perhaps you can relate to the following situation: You’ve been working really hard to learn or write a new song. It’s taken many hours and lots of frustration and patience to work out what the right chords are. After putting all this work in, you go to rehearsal with a talented friend or colleague of yours and they quickly learn the whole song with all of its chords after playing it through once – maybe twice. How do these people do this?!?

It turns out your musical ear is something you can develop – you don’t need to be magically gifted at birth (though some people sure seem to be). Here are a couple of ways to get started.

Identify the Key

Every song has at least one key. A key is just a way to name the set of pitches used to create chord progressions, riffs, melodies, solos, and just about anything else that has pitch in a song. You can think of a key as a pool of “right” notes to start from.

Keys are defined with scales – which is just a fancy name for a pattern for organizing pitches. Scales usually have seven pitches that are spaced with particular intervals (distances between pitches). For instance, the major scale is built out of seven pitches spaced apart using half and whole steps (half steps are the shortest distance between two pitches, whole steps are made of two half steps).

Learning scales gives you the basic foundation you need to construct and name chords because they define the pitches most chords are made of. The better you know your scales, the easier finding and naming chords will be, and the stronger your musical ear will become.

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

Identify Root Notes

Chords are built on specific pitches called root notes. Any pitch can be a root note – all you have to do is build a chord on top of it. You can usually find root notes by listening to bass part since most bass parts use these root notes as their foundation.

A good practice for learning to hear root notes is to identify the key a song is in, practice the scale that defines it, and then start trying to sing, play and name the root notes in chord progressions. The more you do this, the easier identifying pitches in a scale will become. If you practice this consistently, this will become almost second nature.

Identify Chord Qualities

Once you can identify root notes of chords, the next step is to identify chord qualities. This is an endless, wonderful rabbit hole of a subject. The process for naming chords is very detailed, systematic, and needs greater explanation than there is space for in this post, but the goal of all the rules is the same: give specific names (qualities) to specific sets of pitches built on root notes. For instance, a chord’s quality might be “major” or “minor”, which sound “happy” or “sad” respectively.

A good way to begin identifying these qualities is to take simple three or four chord songs and identify which chords sound “happy” or “sad”. Just about any pop or singer/songwriter tune will work very well. If you do this with every song you learn, your ear will become very good at hearing major and minor chord qualities. Once your musical ear has begun to hear these qualities easily, you will have a strong foundation for understanding additional chord qualities. A good book or course on music theory can help immensely in this process.

Final Thoughts

I have only scratched the surface of the wonderful, deep and never ending process of learning to hear chords, ear training, and developing your musical ear. If you would like to explore it further, consider checking out HITMusicTheory.com where I explain these concepts in much greater detail with specific examples from hit songs from a wide variety of genres.

By Daniel Roberts

Two Ways to Become a More Confident Musician Using Theory

two ways to become a more confident musician with music theory

Confidence building can be a real challenge for many musicians. There are so many great musicians out there, that seeing the value of your own work can be very challenging. Thankfully, there are ways to relatively quickly and effectively become a more confident musician by building your competence in basic music theory. Here are two starting points you can work from.

Know the Groove

The power of groove cannot be understated. If your groove is deep, you can play almost anything and people will dance. The key to understanding groove (in a theoretical sense) lies in subdivision and repeated rhythmic motifs.

“Subdivision” describes how the beat is broken up. Listen to hi-hat parts, rhythm guitar parts, and anything else in rhythm sections that is repetitive to figure out the subdivision and focus in on the shortest rhythm you hear. So, if the shortest rhythm is made up of eighth notes, for instance, the subdivision will be eighth notes. Once the subdivision has been established, you can play certain notes early, some late, and some right on time to add interest. This creates the basic context for a groove.

A rhythmic motif is a short musical rhythm that is used repeatedly in a rhythm instrument’s part. The backbeat of a snare drum and the strumming pattern in a rhythm guitar are both examples of rhythmic motifs. Every hit song you have ever loved is full of these small motifs which are repeated, transformed, and adapted throughout the whole song and arrangement.

Once you understand subdivision and rhythmic motifs, you can learn, create, and manipulate an almost endless amount of grooves. All you have to do is make up a motif and play around with its underlying subdivision. Try moving these motifs around in a song to see how they can be developed and expanded upon.

I know it seems simple, but a strong groove is the backbone of any hit song.

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

Know Chord Functions

The other fundamental music theory concept that can help you become a more confident musician is to learn basic chord functions. In most professional band contexts, the players can hear the functions of chords just by listening to the music. This makes it much easier to find or create their parts in a song. Imagine just listening to a song and being able to tell right away which chords are being used!

It turns out that you do not have to have a gift or even perfect pitch to be able to do this. It’s actually a skill you can develop – just like riding a bike. All you have to do is know the key you are in and the seven notes that make up that key. Once you have identified them, start listening to the bass part and name, as best you can, which notes from the scale are being played. In the vast majority of hit songs today, the bass part is made up of the pitches each chord is built on. These pitches are called “root notes” and they give chords their letters. For instance, “A” is the root note in an “A-” (A minor) chord.

At the beginning, it is often helpful to check your guesses about which notes are used in the bass part by playing them on your instrument. As you practice this, you will start to hear each note in the scale as having its own distinct sound and it will become easier and easier to identify the chords built on these notes.

As your skill improves, you can then begin to name the function of chords with numbers or roman numerals. For example, the chord built on the first note in the scale will be a “1” or an “I” and the chord built on the sixth note in a scale will be called a “6” or “vi”. This is how session musicians in places like Nashville can pump out great studio performances in no time – someone just gives them the chord changes using numbers (in Nashville it’s called the Nashville Number System), someone tells them what key to play in, and they go play the song. A single session musician (having never even heard the song before) can be done recording their parts for a song in fifteen minutes or less using this approach.

Every musician can learn to do this. All you need is to make it your regular practice to listen to bass lines and start identifying the root notes of each chord. The better you get at this, the more confidence you will have the next time you walk into a writing room, recording session, rehearsal, or live performance.

Final Thoughts

No blog post can ever fully explain these concepts as well as taking lessons or a class can. If you would like to explore any of these concepts further, consider checking out HitMusicTheory.com where I go into these concepts and much more in greater detail and with specific examples from the world of hit songs.

The Power of Limitation in Songwriting

the power of limitations in songwriting

We have all looked with great trepidation into the proverbial blank canvas of songwriting, arranging, and/or composition from time to time. Sitting in front of a blank page, anything is possible – but with no lyric written and no notes played, it’s easy to just feel lost. If we could just find the right line or musical phrase to begin with we would be off to the races – but these initial lyrics or musical ideas seem impossible to find! Where do these gems hide?

Limitations Are Prompts

The answer, counterintuitively, is in limitation. It is often because the canvas is blank that we have nothing to say. If we have something which we must respond to – a limitation to work with – then many ideas can easily start flowing.

Think about what makes you want to create lyrics or music – it is not the absence of anything. It is experience of something in particular you feel strongly about – a lost lover, a political lie, a personal struggle with a friend, an explosion of joy, etc. These are all particular things to write about. Once you start writing about them, they tell you what else might fit in your work.

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

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

The same is true in music. Every great piece of music is at its core built from just a few very simple ideas that limit what the rest of the pieces of the music can be.

Think about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It appears to be one of the most intensely complex pieces of music ever written – and it is in many ways – but not when it comes to its building blocks. In writing this incredible piece of music, Beethoven limited himself to a motif made out of four notes! Only four! This motif is stated at the beginning of the piece and then used to create almost EVERYTHING ELSE in the piece!

Try limiting your songwriting to a very simple motif or phrase and see if you can base an entire piece around that. You might be surprised with what you can come up with!

Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”

The songwriting greats do this too. Think about Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”. The musical motif in the phrase “hello darkness, my old friend” is also used for “I’ve come to talk with you again”. He then changes some of the melodic content of the motif when he sings “because a vision softly creeping” but he keeps the rhythmic content the same. Then at the end of almost every verse, he quotes the title of his song – another limitation used as a creative structure.

Throughout the entire song, almost everything is pulled from the initial motif or is a response to it. This is very intentional. Almost all the great songwriters and composers (whose music sticks around in our heads) do this. Almost every memorable musical statement you have ever heard has a simple but profound structure which is explored and supported.

Final Thoughts

Learning music theory is fundamentally important to learning to see and create effective musical limitations for yourself and your songwriting, but finding a good music theory course that contextualizes theory in modern contexts can be really hard. That is why myself and Dave Kusek created HITMusicTheory.com. Check it out and see if it might be useful for you.

Get More Done in Your Music Practice Time

Get more done in your music practice time

Learning and writing new music is often very time-consuming but there are ways you can speed up the process immensely to make the most out of your music practice time. They are not intuitive and can seem counterproductive at first, but following these two steps will make an enormous difference in how quickly you can learn and write new music.

Slow Down

What?! Slow down?! I’m reading this blog post to learn how to learn faster! What do you mean, “slow down”?!

Often the reason new music is a challenge to learn quickly is because we expect ourselves to “get it” faster than we are actually able to. This can leave us frustrated and constantly failing in the practice room or rehearsal because we will not allow ourselves to slow down enough to learn something correctly. As a result, we end up not learning anything except how NOT to play the new music we are working on, and that’s wasted music practice time.

This lesson can be really hard to learn. I have found that it is something I have to remind myself of and consistently work on every time I pick up an instrument. Recognizing where I really am as a musician can feel upsetting, embarrassing and hard to face. But take heart! Honoring where you are and slowing down enough will get you learning and playing much faster. Every great musician finds the true pace at which they can learn and honors that. If you consistently practice slowing down and honoring your pace, you will find that you will progress towards learning and writing new music will appear incredibly fast to outsiders. It will only feel slow to you.

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

Visualize the Structure of What You Are Learning or Writing

Once you slow down, you will have an opportunity to see the structure of the music you are trying to learn or write. This is fundamentally important because seeing where you are going makes getting there less stressful and more intentional. Take the time to think about what the form of the music you are learning or writing might be. Then start asking specific questions like: Which harmonies are used? What order do they often show up in? What motifs are being used? What rhythmic ideas do you hear complementing these harmonies and motifs? How would you like to develop these ideas?

There is no need to see all of these things at once, but you can always work towards seeing and knowing more of these structures in advance. As you learn to hear and see them, the stress and frustration of finding the right chord, the best rhythm, the right hook, etc. will become less and less because you will have recognized and developed a rich bank of musical structures that you know work from which you can create more freely.

Final Thoughts

Studying music theory can be enormously helpful in identifying the structure of what you are learning and writing, but finding a good class that contextualizes theory in today’s music can be really hard. That is why Dave Kusek and I created HITMusicTheory.com. Check it out and see if it may be right for you.

By Daniel Roberts

Improve Your Live Performance and Jams With Music Theory

Improve your live performance and jams with music theory

So it’s happened again. You’re walking out of rehearsal frustrated with your live performance and the sound your band is getting. Nothing seems to be clicking – and musically speaking, everything seems like a mess. When you try to figure out what might help, no one can figure out how to solve the problem. You try to jamming for a while to see if any ideas can pop up – but every jam sounds like the last one and nothing new is happening. What can you do?! You can turn to music theory to save the day! Here are three ways theory can help you address these situations.

Create New Chords and Chord Progressions

There’s a reason there are so many songs that have the same chord progression. Besides the fact that certain chord progressions always seem to sound good, many songwriters just never take the time to discover new ones.

Knowing a little music theory can help you create new chords and chord progressions. All chords are related to each other in some way – usually through a key. Knowing which chords fit in which keys can help you recognize the chord progressions you have been playing and create new ones.

Often, this process is awkward at first because new chords and chord progressions are not always so easy to play right off the bat – but the process is always worth it, and it will have a big effect on your live performance. Give yourself the time to regularly go through the awkwardness and you will be pleasantly surprised with the music that starts coming out.

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

Create New Musical Statements

Melodies, hooks, and riffs are all made up of “motifs” – a term for a musical idea built from a set of melodic intervals played with a particular rhythm. Motifs are everywhere in music. They make up every melody you sing, every riff you have ever played, and every hook that has ever demanded attention from your ear.

Learning to identify the intervals and rhythms you already use in your motifs can help you intentionally create new hooks, riffs and melodies by thoughtfully altering the motifs you know. You don’t have to create new ideas from thin air – nobody does that anyway. All you need to do is recognize the motifs you already are using and alter them until they become a new statement.

Create Space for Each Instrument

Once you have created a new chord progression and a new musical statement, you still need your band to use them effectively. Understanding register (how high or low the notes you play are) and voice leading (how you want pitches to move between chords) can help enormously by helping you communicate the musical space you want each band member to stay in.

For instance, when thinking about register, you may want the bass player to stay in a low octave around C2 and then have the keyboardist only play within the two octaves surrounding middle C. After that, you might want the guitarist to only play an octave above the keyboardist. Just defining the register each instrument should play within can do wonders for your band’s arrangement of any song.

To make each part even stronger, each musician can also make their parts much more compelling by being intentional about how they move between each chord. This is called “voice leading” and it is often used to make chord progressions sound as smooth as possible.

Final Thoughts

There are many more ways that understanding music theory can help improve your live performance and jams. The possibilities are endless! If you would like to learn more about music theory, consider checking out HITMusicTheory.com.

By Daniel Roberts