How do you hear? What do you hear?

Coming to agreement about something rooted in perception is by definition a doomed exercise. But that means the best thing to do is not so much to agree as to talk about the music – about what you hear – and not just the labels.

Amidst glib online comments and the micro-fragmentation of genre, it’s hard to get anyone to give you a straight answer about just what’s going on in electronic dance music. That’s ironic – because, at its essence, it’s pretty straightforward. The situation has gotten worse: as “dubstep,” the relatively underground and fairly specific genre, has influenced mainstream artists and big acts, fans and journalists alike have tended to “mislabel” music that doesn’t fit the original meaning.

Enter into this discussion a video from artist Bassnectar, produced from an impromptu interview in a van. The California-based artist is a well-respected musician who does make work that can be safely classified dubstep. And he cuts straight through the distractions and describes, in clear and precise terms, just what’s going on in how he hears the music – not only with dubstep, but with the beat structure of electronic music more generally, at least in the way it tends to be classified. The visualization, added by an unknown YouTuber and produced in, a presentation tool, is a bit like looking into one artist’s mind, as thought processes become visual.

Several readers disagree with the notion of genre here more generally – which I can actually get behind as an artist – but I think what’s nice here is that the modes of hearing that motivate those genre labels are well-described here. You may hear differently, and you may not find the classification useful, but this demystifies where those categories originate.

You don’t need an advanced degree in music theory to understand this. (Believe me: I’ve got one, finishing another, and “you don’t need one” barely begins to cover it.) Nor do you need a lot of background even in dance music. You – and perhaps less-musically-educated friends and family – have undoubtedly heard these rhythms. Seeing them explained and hearing them in clear, simple terms can help you to understand what you’ve already got in your ears. It’s lovely. (Some of it is debatable, yes – “dub” gets a thrown-aside mention there that doesn’t really make any sense – but hearing him beatbox his way through what he hears for me at least gets to the essence of how one producer’s listening habits work.)

Wheat Williams, who sends this in, observes:

Bassnectar must be an extraordinarily organized thinker! His off-the-cuff explanation created a perfectly coherent outline which the video artist rendered from his word-for-word delivery.

Remarkable on several levels.

Like you, I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians in my journalist days, and rarely do you come across anybody who’s so clear and straightforward in his thinking and his ability to describe his music.

For the original interview – and proof this was all off-the-cuff:

More from that site:

Best comment on YouTube:

dubstep is my favorite artist, yay deadmouse!!

(Don’t worry, they are kidding.)

Side note:

I’ll, uh, defend the four-on-the-floor regularity of techno by pointing out that those kinds of regular duple meanings have a long, long history in European and European-influenced music. That, in turn, may explain why European audiences stomach them more easily – not because of the maligned image of the polka band in a German square, but because of a broad and varied tradition of folk and Classical music based on similar on-the-beat regularity. And the mechanical repetitiveness of some techno, too, has roots in the 20th Century love affair with machines, and a worldwide sense of trance states brought about by loops that may even have biological connections. Your brain, after all, reaches certain states of regular oscillation. At the same time, I understand why Bassnectar goes a different definition, one influenced by jazz and hip-hop and soul – and American, English, and other dubstep producers all share a deep generational fascination with those rhythms that crosses all kinds of backgrounds. (PS: I also like polka. Don’t knock it.)

But understanding dance music categorization as lying between the broken and regular beat makes absolute sense. And as in many musical evolutions, the tension between ideas can be enormously artistically inspiring.

Updated: The interesting question is whether that general categorization – which has become common, indeed, in the USA in conversations I hear – is really fair. It may have to do with the self-conception of producers. But while the bass drum is regular in many of these genres, they, too, often rely on polyrhythms and syncopation influenced by genealogical lines of music like jazz. Our friend Primus Luta (@primusluta) wonders via Twitter if this dichotomy is really the best way to understand things. But at least, for the purposes of the argument Bassnectar is making, he does a good job of beatboxing his way through the way in which many people hear these genres, the perception of how they work. In other words, it’s a useful illustration of how Bassnectar hears them. Because it’s music, and intrinsically about perception, it’s that question of how things are perceived rather than some objective, universal fact that matters – and can by definition be heard radically differently by someone else.

What he omits is the mention of certain timbres or samples, for instance (thanks to John Alfred Tyson for raising this on Facebook; I agree). But I think that omission also says something about how people hear or what they find important as they self-indentify with what they’re making.

Now, if someone can just do some infographics illustrating brostep… (there is, at least, a hilarious definition)

Speaking of dubstep, for the record: America did not ruin music. America ruined the global economy. Look it up; get it straight. Then again, the night is young: my New Year’s Resolution for 2012 is definitely to butcher music, or anything else I can get my hands on. U.S.A.!

  • dude thinks like a programmer… hierarchies, subsets, partitions, generalities with known exceptions, etc. 🙂

  • salamanderanagram

    i really hate how anything with a big bass is suddenly dubstep. 
    when i tried to explain to some kids that skrillex isn't dubstep they got angry with me…

    • peterkirn

      I wouldn't sweat it too much – the term 'Big Bass' appears to be on the rise, so you must not be alone.

    • Jakob

      You really must not know much about music. Skrillex does make Dubstep. He also makes a lot of Electro and Breakbeat, but you cannot deny that the majority of his music is Dubstep. I'm not saying it's necessarily good, but saying it's not Dubstep is rather incorrect. 

  • I've been mildly obsessed with iterating the triplet "feel" that (my perception of) dubstep often exhibits, and attempting to produce music that's actually set in 6/8 time. The problem with that desire is that I'm having trouble figuring out HOW to do that with the non-professional tools at my disposal. Everything seems to be 4/4-centric. 

  • i thought that the newer stuff by Drummachine/Sepulcure was 6/8 or something not 4/4. but thinking about the structure makes my head hurt. (and i think its still 4/4 but doesnt sound like it.) music theory / structure class please.

  • thanks for the post. Thats a great general explanation of electronic music for non electronic music nerds.

    also, there seems to be a bunch of new "bass focused" music coming out thats similar in the love of bass, but isnt so sonically similar. No one has seemed to find a name for it yet, possibly since it seems to be mostly 4/4 but also inclusive of breakbeat structures. It probably gets called dubstep since its "the new thing."

    side note on Brostep – think its popularity/explosion in the US has to do with a couple main things.

    The synths (to me) basically sound like distorted guitars. For an american audience more comfortable with guitar based music – metal, punk/emo, etc – than electronic music, It gives them something new and fresh, but not so sonically different that it turns them off. In the same way that pearl jam was sold as "alt rock" but sonically fit perfectly in the classic rock radio station play list. It didn't come as a surprise to find out skrillex used to be in a emo band.

    The other issue would be age. It seems, generally, people grow attached to what they listened to/what was new when they were 12-20ish(?). There will be people who look back and find older music beyond the classics and popular, but most people focus on what is new/current. I have to imagine is that a younger crowd due to their ages missed the earlier more dub / 2step based dubstep that was prominent before the evolution of the bass synths to squelchy noise. ummm, also kids like music that annoys their parents regardless of quality.

    There is also the broader issue that your appreciation/interpretation of music (or cultural output in general) matures as you age. Where you are in your life will change how music effects you. Personally, dubstep producers (around 07) seemed to have had a similar background timeline as myself, growing up during early 90s techo and golden era jungle 94-96. In dubstep tracks that i first heard late 07/ early 08 i heard the influence of the music i grew up with, but mixed up and rebuilt as something new.

    As the noiser tracks entered, they were a nice change of pace. But then a bunch of new producers came in and dumbed it down not understanding where the music came from. They though they could just make a bunch of random noise add a beat and missed the underlying music that was still around in the earlier noisy tracks.

    Personally lost interest after more than one dubstep party played only the newer/current noisy 'brostep' tracks. The shift bothered me longer than it should have. I should have remembered the few great years listening to jungle and how i thought it got boring around 97. Eventually it lost a lot of its heavy breakbeat to end up in its current state — structurally similar as trance but with a heavy layer of breakbeat percussion over the 4/4 beats as an accent.

    Things change and evolve. The positive note is that it lead me to find a bunch other really great new music like Tim Hecker and Machinedrum.

    more broadly speaking. I guess the early dubstep pre 07 probably were annoyed at the more dance friendly version that was out in 07/08. Going back to 03, "dubstep" was more or less just updated dub. And the new shift to brostep .. well if things had not change im sure it would have gotten boring and people would have moved on (how many dnb parties are there anymore?). I guess brostep like it or not, is what it has evolved to.

    sorry if this comment was a bit long, spiraled out of control a bit. feel free to delete if you feel like its a long tangent unrelated to your post/site.

  • freesoulvw

    Great read! The side note is amazing. Well written,it flows beautifully to the point that the words have no meaning yet are being totally absorbed and processed by my brain. Like getting lost in a great book. The words spew out and build and build,love it. 
    Ps. I love this talk about 6/8. (I read once…..) 🙂

  • So here's the thing about 'steady beat' music as Bassnectar calls it: That metronomic steady beat is the skeleton.  Once you have that solid foundation, it frees you to add other rhythms on top, including chaotically aperiodic syncopations, because it is framed by the steady kick rhythm.  If you think 4 to the floor music is boring you're listening to the wrong stuff. 

    And the foundation of dubstep beat is kick on one, snare on 3 — essentially running half speed from techno & house, but no less metronomic.  Everything 'broken' about Dubstep beats that's interesting is the same sort of syncopated, swung offbeat stuff that you get with house and techno.

    And the tempo is as important as the beat. The UK guys keeping the vibe alive for dubstep — Kryptic Minds and their fellow travelers, actually talk about the tempo as if it's genre, they make '140bpm' music.  The UK Funky/Neo-Garage DJs hover between 130 and 135, and the fact that US House Music, Soca-beat and 'old-school' 2 step (i.e. pre-2002) is roughly the same tempo means that they can mix and match their sets from a wide range of music from all over. Then there's the more conventional US House DJs who hang out around 125, and below that, staying around 115BPM there are the guys who play old-school and new-school disco alongside 'beatdown' and pitched down house records.

    Trying to keep it all straight is a losing proposition — one should play the music that makes you feel good.  I tend to like nearly everything that isn't Trance or Country Western, and my DJ sets can go from 90 to 170 bpm.

  • elKarl

    As soon as he said dub was a straight beat, I tuned out. Honestly, it just sounds like he’s spent a lot of time here:

  • I’m sure, as people as pointed out, this isn’t a wholly accurate or comprehensive categorization. I’ve always (inside my mind) mocked all the seemingly dozens of different electronic music genres, and this classification system did help me get a grip on structurally speaking, maybe why some of these things emerged. Breakbeat/Steady Beat!

  • Krieger

    Worth noting that many a contemporary dubstep track will reference other genres as a kind of counter-point.  Maybe a dub beat will be used for a section or a 4/4 groove.  Seems to have become yet another trick of the trade

  • Hi Peter,

    Great article, as usual!

    Although we're all going to have gripes or different opinions on our perception of the Dubstep sound I think Bassnecter did a pretty good job in such a short time, and off the top of his head.

    However, I still think Simon Reynolds theory of the Hardcore Continuum is an amazing (maybe the best?) resource for analyzing the history of Dubstep and it's roots.

    I thought it might be worth including here in case anyone wants to have a bit of a deeper read. Don't worry it includes sound bites and plenty of images along the way :).

    "What the term describes is empirically verifiable, there is a body of testimony and reportage, all you need to do is talk to people involved at the various stages of this phenomenon–from hardcore through jungle and UK garage to grime, dubstep and bassline, and the continuum-ness of it is clear"

  • Side Note:

    As what some may call a "Dubstep Purist", hopefully reformed, or trying to anyway, whenever I'm playing a Dubstep set and someone asks me to play some Skrillex or when someone tries to tell me the new Skrillex song is really "heavy" I re-read or think back to the 10 commandments of Buffoon Empiricism and try to act upon them.

    Going a bit wild and freeing yourself to dance to the music, even if in a joking way, always makes you feel a bit better…
    that or playing them some Dead Fader, Broken Note or Vaetxh.

  • hurry up and die

    i dont want to that that Dubstep word ever again.

  • I can appreciate the summarization of the genres in the fashion he did, and the quick and concise overview is entertaining. Obviously its not an explanation for musicians, but another look at how things work from a listeners perspective.

    I was also a bit irk'd by the brushing over of Dub,.. particularly since its one of my favorite genres ever (regardless of what other genre its incorporated into).. I actually found the relative dismisal not ironic in the least bit, since one of the major complaints against dubstep is that 99% of the dubstep out there has no dub or dub principals in it whatsoever. It's just a name. That's cool though, not saying none of it is good. Just found that to be a interesting observation in a video about 'dub' step.

  • Also, adding the Bowie video following the USA comments was golden.

  • stellan0r

    i like the video, and the posting! 🙂

  • Thanks for the vidlinks and commentary.  As a musician past the 50-year mark, my tastes have "matured" as Christian Marks relates above.  But it doesn't mean that I close my mind and ears.  This post's been useful to me to perceive the differences in what I hear my kids listening to.  Thanks also to others for posting additional links for exploration.

    I disagree with some of your side-note regarding the tyranny of the duple.  Definitely agree that there's some brain and body physiology involved.  As a classically-trained musician, I find your "classical music" idea lacking though.  If anything, the 500+ years of "classical" music encompasses everything from gregorian chant to John Williams soundtracks.  Only a smalll amount of that repertoire, in my opinion,  could be the basis for your argument.  Most recently perhaps, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

    But then, what do I know.  I can't reliably argue the theory of electronic dance music (EDM?) because I don't know that repertoire.  

    I'd be interested in hearing some club dance music in an asymmetrical time signature if such a thing exists.  Using Bassnectar's beat categorization, would it be considered steady-beat or broken-beat?  What about this 7-beat sequence at about 160-170 bpm: &nbsp ;

    Finally, thanks also for the excellent Bowie/Reznor vid – I'd forgotten about that one

  • nitch

    i have never been a bassnectar fan and have been pretty critical of this blog in the past but this was pretty interesting.

    yet… i feel a global plea coming on to STOP the intellectualizing of music. what are you, itunes? feeling is waaaay differnt strokes than left brain pander. bleating about genre just kills the soul dead, straight off. anyway, this is really all just variations of funk, white dude style.

  • abc

    dubstep has bass in it?

    • abc

      i thought it got big because everyone likes the way it sounds on their laptop speakers over youtube

    • abc

      and since when is electronic music either four to floor or broken beat? where does experimental fall for this guy?

  • Brian Tuley

    I really dislike genre names for electronic music; however useful they may often seem.  And I'm just as guilty of using them I guess.  I drop names like IDM, Glitch and Experimental all the time, but feel they fall short in describing the music I'm applying such descriptions to.  Often I use terms like, sounds like this artist or that artist to make a valid description.  That often works better.  Sometimes I think publications like Pitchfork use too many genre names to try and describe electronic music.  It's a moot point I'm making here I guess.  I guess genre names are sort of moot… ….

  • orange julius

    his music sucks so i don't really care what he has to say

  • That was actually a pretty solid explanation of things.

    The only thing I differ on is the "broken category".  I usually refer to those as Rock drums, because that style of drumming comes from rock.   Even soul funk etc are offshoots of rock.  Did he mean broken as broken up or broken as a misuse of break from breakbeat IE "lets take a break from the drum solo", not "I like to break shit".

    I dislike genre classifications. but I like this because it focus's on music and rhythm, not marketing.

  • I could say that i like this music, makes me very happy at least on fridays 🙂

  • Dustinw

    This was great-amazing for top of his head, he must really live and breath music … I also found Bassnectar's stuff on soundcloud which is good. 

    One comment on the actual video: he describes steady beat as music that has a kick on every beat (1,2,3,4) … this is an oversimplification (but probably useful for 90% of people). I think a better summary would be around the "pulse" of the music (steady pulse) i.e. accented hits only occur on the beat and are regularly spaced. This would keep lot's'a house music with disco beats in the stead beat category (BOM – tesc – BOMbomtesc)

  • leakeg

    the "brostep" hate in here is quite humorous as a lot of people would actually call Bassnectar brostep. Those wobbles aren't sub base!

  • p0ser

    Regardless of what I think of his music (which I happen to really like some of, especially the timestretch EP), I think that whole interview in the car was really nice to watch. What a humble dude, and I love the way he explains his intimate approach to music making with no detectable ego getting in the way. He is in my opinion, an interviewers wet dream…a pleasure to listen to! 

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  • Muh Ditia DS

    hmm, I think music from the United States or of any kind of music was coming, did not spoil the music. because, a new kind of music it enriches the knowledge of the audience of the music itself, so that the music lovers so it could be more creative in music, so even with the makers of music and so on. it will create different types of music that will color the world.. . .

    bdw thanks for this Ahli Artikel