Chapters in Development


Key Takeaways

  • The is common to most pop drumbeats. The backbeat is an accented articulation on beats two and four in quadruple meters, usually played by the snare drum.
  • The kick drum is often .
  • Cymbals—hi-hats, ride, and crash—often play regular pulses at the beat, beat division, or beat subdivison level.
  • Common drumbeats other than the include , , , and .
  • Quadruple meters are by far the most common meter in pop music; simple triple is the next most common. A simple triple drumbeat in pop music will often have a snare hit on beat three.

Chapter Playlist

Drumbeats are the rhythmic cornerstone of many genres of popular music, including rap, rock, and jazz. Sometimes a drumbeat is performed on a drum kit, sometimes it’s sampled from an existing recording or programmed into a sequencer or DAW (digital audio workstation). In this primer, we’ll learn about features of drumbeats that are common to many styles of music. We’ll also learn how a few particular drumbeats are associated with specific genres.

The Snare Drum and the Backbeat

Most popular songs are in a meter (usually notated by transcribers as [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex]), and most popular music grooves in this meter have a . The backbeat refers to beats two and four, usually played by the snare drum. Example 1 shows how a snare-drum backbeat is one layer of the : kick-drum hits on beats one and three alternate with the snare backbeat, complemented by a regular eighth-note pulse in the hi-hat. The same alternation of kick and snare hits underpins the “boom-bap” beat found in much golden-age hip hop.

Example 1. The standard rock beat with kick on beats one and three, a snare backbeat on two and four, and regular eighth notes in the hi-hat.

In many genres the snare backbeat is the most stable of the three layers. Below, we’ll see how the kick and cymbal layers can be manipulated to change the character of a groove, without sacrificing the familiarity of the backbeat. Two common ways that songwriters and producers modify the backbeat are:

  • Giving the backbeat rhythm to instruments other than the snare drum
  • Speeding up or slowing down the backbeat rhythm enough to alter its relationship to the tempo of a groove.

Each technique is discussed further below.

Non-Snare Backbeats

The snare isn’t the only instrument that can play the backbeat. In Queen’s “We Will Rock You” (Example 2), the is made with stomping feet and clapping hands instead of drums. In hip hop and electronic music, it’s common to replace snare hits with hand claps, or to layer both together to create a variety of backbeat timbres (as in Examples 8 and 9 below).

Example 2. A backbeat without drums in Queen’s “We Will Rock You” (1977).

In many jazz subgenres, including swing and bop, the drummer might play a backbeat on the hi-hats by closing the two cymbals together with a foot pedal. The result is usually a short, sharp, percussive sound, similar in many ways to the timbre of the snare drum (see Swing Rhythms, Example 1). This hi-hat backbeat was the precursor to the snare backbeat. Example 3, from Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm,” shows a hi-hat backbeat on beats two and four (and one eighth-note anticipation). Notice how the snare in this example plays a syncopated rhythm, whereas the hi-hat is much more regular.

Example 3. A typical jazz backbeat on the hi-hats in Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Fascinating Rhythm” (1959).

Half- and Double-Time Feels

When the tempo is 80–160 , the rhythm of the kick and snare in a will likely be understood as the or . Such drumbeats can be said to have a , in which the drums and tempo work together to establish a clear groove that would be easy to dance to. Sometimes grooves use the same alternation of kick and snare to suggest a tempo above 160 bpm or slower than 80 bpm. These fast and slow drumbeats might still support the tempo for a groove, if that tempo is also felt as notably fast or slow. Other times, however, the rest of the groove still suggests a tactus of 80–160 bpm despite the unusually fast or slow tempo. In such cases, we use the terms and to describe the misalignment of the drums with the rest of the groove (Example 4).

box notation illustrating double-time, normal, and half-time feels
Example 4. Box notation illustrating (a) double-time, (b) normal, and (c) half-time feels. The yellow shading indicates the tactus, which would be the same for all three feels. Dark blue is used for kick drum, and light blue for snare.

The main groove of Metallica’s “Trapped Under Ice” has a double-time feel (see Example 5). The snare suggests a backbeat alternating at a tempo of about 320 bpm—a pace at which it’s uncomfortable to count “1 2 3 4,” let alone move your body. Headbanging fans are more likely to lock into a half the speed of the backbeat (160 bpm). The disagreement between the unusually fast drums and the slower (but still fast!) tactus gives this song a frantic, driving energy. Later in the song (2:00), the drums shift to a normal feel.

Example 5. A double-time backbeat in Metallica’s “Trapped Under Ice” (1984).
Example 6. A half-time backbeat in Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” (2013; 0:40).

Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” has a tempo of 120 bpm, right in the middle of the preferred tempo range for a tactus. In the song’s chorus (0:40), the slow backbeat would suggest a tempo of only 60 bpm—too slow for most listeners (see Example 6). If we instead keep time at the 120-bpm pulse, we hear a half-time drumbeat. The tension between the slow pacing of the drumbeat and the normal tempo of the rest of the song gives the chorus a lush, dramatic feeling.


The snare drum doesn’t always play the backbeat, and one non-backbeat snare pattern is particularly noteworthy. Dembow refers to both a genre of music and a rhythmic pattern common in that genre and in others (e.g., reggaeton, dance hall). In its simplest form, the  drumbeat has a kick drum on all four beats and snare drum playing the last two parts of a tresillo (3+3+2) rhythm. The chorus of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” is one example (see Example 7, 1:23).

Example 7. A dembow drumbeat in Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” (2016; 1:23).

The Kick Drum

Whereas the snare-drum backbeat is the most reliable feature of a groove, the kick drum pattern is more flexible. As we’ve seen, kick drum played on beats one and three is a common option, forming part of the . Another common pattern is called : the kick drum plays every quarter note, usually alongside a snare-drum backbeat, as in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (Example 8), or with no snare at all.

Example 8. A four-to-the-floor + backbeat pattern in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (1978).

Syncopation is more common in the bass drum than in the snare of pop drumbeats. Example 9 shows the drumbeat of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”, which has a consistent backbeat provided by the hand claps, but plenty of sixteenth-note syncopation in the kick drum. Note that the kick still enters reliably on the downbeat of each measure, despite syncopation elsewhere.

Example 9. Kick drum syncopation in Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” (2017). The “o” over some hi-hats indicates the cymbals are opened slightly with the foot pedal. The “x” in the snare space indicates claps.


The cymbals also can have varying rhythms in relation to the snare backbeat. The most common rhythmic options are consistent eighth notes or sixteenth notes, though steady quarter notes are by no means rare. Other patterns are also possible, like in “Heart of Glass” where the hi-hats mostly play only the offbeats (see Example 8 above). The hi-hats are the most common cymbal used to keep this pulse in many genres; the ride cymbal is also common; the crash cymbal is an option used most often for slower-paced pulses and/or in more aggressive sounding grooves and genres.

The next two examples show the range of options for cymbals in drumbeats. The first is from Xiao Zhan’s “Made to Love,”[1] with a consistent sixteenth-note pulse in the hi-hats (Example 10; you can also hear a snappy non-snare sample for the backbeat and, starting around 0:10, a syncopated kick drum). The second example is from Dream Theater’s “As I Am” (see Example 11). The song’s first drumbeat (at 0:55) is a backbeat with quarter notes on the and downbeats marked by the crash cymbal. The next groove (1:14) speeds up a little and shifts to a normal feel with the crash playing eighth notes.

Example 10. Sixteenth-note hi-hats in Xiao Zhan’s “Made to Love” (2020).
Example 11. Two drumbeats using accent cymbals (china and crash) in Dream Theater’s “As I Am” (2003; 0:55).

Compound Quadruple and Simple Triple Drumbeats

Most pop music is in  meter, but the next most common meters in most popular music genres are  and .

In compound quadruple time, the is simply adjusted for the new three-part beat division: the kick drum still plays on one and three, the snare still plays the backbeat on two and four, and cymbals (or some other instrument) still articulates the beat division, as in “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (see Example 12).[2]

Example 12. A slow compound quadruple drumbeat in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’s “If You Don’t Know me By Now” (1972).

 Example 13. A 3/4 drumbeat in Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” (2007).

In time, it isn’t possible to alternate kick and snare hits of equal length in each measure. The most common approach is to delay the snare “backbeat” until the third beat of every measure; this is what happens in Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” (see Example 13). After an intro with exuberant “3 e + a” fills on the snare, the drums settle into the groove transcribed below. The kick-drum rhythm keeps things interesting while delaying the snare hit. The second verse of this song (0:27) is also notable: the drums shift to a (as if in quadruple meter) while the rest of the band keeps playing in the triple meter established up to this point.

Further Reading
  • Brennan, Matthew, Joseph Michael Pignato, and Daniel Akira Stadnicki, editors. 2021. The Cambridge Companion to the Drum Kit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • de Clercq, Trevor. 2020. “Rhythmic Influence in the Rock Revolution.” In The Cambridge Companion to Rhythm 182–95, edited by Russell Hartenberger and Ryan McClelland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Geary, David. 2019. “Analyzing Drums and Other Beats in Twenty-First Century Popular Music.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University.
  • Ohriner, Mitchell. 2020. “Rhythm in Contemporary Rap Music.” In The Cambridge Companion to Rhythm 196–213, edited by Russell Hartenberger and Ryan McClelland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coming soon!

Media Attributions

  1. "Made to Love" is also known as "Spotlight," or in Chinese, "光点" ("Guāngdiǎn").
  2. Note that the tempo is just 31 bpm! The tactus is likely to be felt at the eighth-note beat division level.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Mark Gotham; Kyle Gullings; Chelsey Hamm; Bryn Hughes; Brian Jarvis; Megan Lavengood; and John Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book