Rhythm Workshop: Rhythmic Displacement

What happens when a rhythm repeats, but does so starting on a different beat?
Publish date:

Persons of all ages dig repetitive rhythmic patterns. And what’s not to love? Repetitive rhythms are at the heart of most styles of popular music and give listeners a pulse to latch onto, and hence, a beat to dance to. But what happens when a rhythm repeats, but does so starting on a different beat?

To illustrate, Ex. 1 takes a simple rhythmic motif—four consecutive sixteenthnotes— and displaces it by one sixteenth note at a time over the course of a single measure to produce 13 variations derived from the same rhythm. (Tip: You can create three more displacements by crossing over into the next measure.) Establish a comfortable tempo, assign any chord or note(s) to the motif, and get to know each displacement and where it lives—intimately.

Image placeholder title

One common displacement technique is to maintain a stationary rhythm, say on beat one, and then repeat it starting on any sixteenth-note in the same measure. Let’s add some notes to our previous motif (the ascending 4-#4/b5-5-root blues-rock lick in Ex. 2a), repeat it displaced one sixteenth-note at a time, and see what happens. Right off the bat, Ex. 2b, which delays the lick by a single sixteenth-note, reveals the origin of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” lick! (Tip: Add a low, open E on the and of beat three.) Displacing the repeat another sixteenth beat results in the Zep-meets-Pawn-Stars motif shown in Ex. 2c. Carefully work your way through the remaining six displacements in Examples 2d through 2i and see how many you can associate with familiar riffs and songs. (Again, you can create three additional displacements by crossing the bar line.) That’s a lot of mileage from a single, four-note lick! The payoff is that you can use this technique with any rhythmic motif or melodic line of any length. And many have.

Rhythmic displacement can be as simple or complex as you make it. Ex. 3 proves how displacing a bluesy, three-and-a-half beat motif to the and of beat four can yield a signature classic rock riff a la the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.” And a move as simple as Ex. 4’s trio of 5-root power chords—played first on the downbeats and then displaced to eighth-note upbeats starting on the and of beat four—decodes the seed for “Smoke on the Water.” On the other hand, the Crimson- esque figure depicted in Ex. 5 fits two identical 7/8 motifs into a single bar of 7/4. The first one features three accented downbeats on beats one, two, and three, followed by three accented upbeats (on the and of beats four, five, and six) during the displaced repeat. Go the extra mile and create a Fripp-and-Belew-approved Gamelan guitar extravaganza by repeating Ex. 5 13 times and pitting it against a 13/8 version of the same figure—which simply omits the last eighth-note—played 14 times. It’ll blow your mind.

Image placeholder title