VII. Popular Music


Scott Hanenberg

Key Takeaways

  • The backbeat 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 syncopated.
  • Cymbals—hi-hats, ride, and crash—often play regular pulses at the beat, beat division, or beat subdivison level.
  • Common drumbeats other than the basic rock beat include double-time, half-time, four-on-the-floor, and dembow.
  • 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 the instrument itself, notating drum set parts, and the 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 Acoustic Drum Kit

Example 1 illustrates six common components of a drum kit, each of which is described further below.

Components are numbered to match the descriptions following.
Example 1. A standard acoustic drum kit.
1. Snare drum
A drum with metal wires stretched underneath that buzz when the drum is struck. This results in a noisy sound (that is, one that fills out much of the audible frequency spectrum). Played with force, it sounds like wood cracking or like a thunderclap. Played softly, it offers a range of effects from clicks and taps to buzzing rolls.
2. Kick drum (or bass drum)
The lowest-pitched drum in the kit, played with a foot pedal. It is originally based on a modified concert bass drum, and some still sound with the same booming quality. Other kick-drum sounds have a dull thud, or a sub-bass effect that (over the right speakers) is felt in the body as much as it is heard.
3. Toms (or tom-toms)
Drums with a more focused pitch fundamental than the snare and are higher-pitched than the kick. There are often two or three toms on a drum kit, each with a distinct pitch. The pitch can be a more or less prominent feature of the toms’ sound.
4. Ride cymbal
A large suspended cymbal. Depending on the thickness of the cymbal, the ride may sound like a warm wash of sound (thinner rides, common in jazz) or a sharp, high-pitched crunch (thicker rides, common in metal music). High, pure ringing sounds can be produced by playing the “bell” of the ride, located in the middle of the cymbal.
5. Hi-hat cymbals
A pair of cymbals of the same size; the bottom cymbal is upside-down so only their edges touch. The cymbals are open by default and close when a foot pedal is pressed. When struck, the hi-hats’ timbre depends on how open or closed the two cymbals are. The hi-hat is most often struck while closed, producing a characteristic, bright “tick tick tick”; the open sound has a more aggressive crashing or rattling quality; and a wide range of intermediate timbres are also available. When played with the foot pedal only, the cymbals make a splashing effect.
6. Crash and accent cymbals
Depending on size, contour, and playing technique, these can produce a variety of crashing, splashing, sizzling, and barking sounds. They range in size (6–18” diameters are common) and thickness. Some have shapes and contours unlike other cymbals, or are augmented with rivets or large holes.

The drum kit is uniquely modular—that is, most (some might say all) of its constituent parts are optional. Other auxiliary percussion add-ons found on some drum kits include cowbells, tambourines, wood blocks, and electronic pads that can trigger programmed sounds. The sheer variety of drum kit elements and their various configurations is near-limitless.

Not all pop music uses an acoustic drum kit for its percussion. Drum machines, electronic drum sets, and plug-ins for digital audio workstations allow further customization for music composition and production. Most of the sounds used in  electronic percussion are samples or imitations of acoustic instruments.

Five-Line Staff Notation for Drum Kit

Many drumbeats are created, performed, and recorded without ever being written down. But drummers, arrangers, and other music-industry professionals often use a five-line staff to communicate the details of a drumbeat. Drum kit notation is not fully standardized due to the improvisatory and modular nature of its performance practice, but the conventions given below and used throughout this textbook represent a particularly common method. Best practice is always to include explanatory notes and/or a drum key whenever the notation could be at all ambiguous.

Example 2 shows how each line and space of the staff denotes a different part of the drum kit:

  • Clef: as a percussion instrument, the drums take a percussion clef.
  • Notehead type: standard oval noteheads are used for drums (snare, kick, tom, etc.), while cross (x) noteheads are used for cymbals.
  • Placement:
    • The kick drum uses the bottom-most space on the staff.
    • The snare takes the third space from the bottom.
    • The toms are shown on the other lines and spaces in the staff.
    • Hi-hats occupy the space above the staff.
    • The ride takes the uppermost line.
    • Other crash and accent cymbals use ledger lines above the staff.
    • When the hi-hat is played with the foot pedal, rather than with drumsticks, this is notated in the space just below the staff.
  • Unusual instruments: Other elements and effects may not have a standard representation, and should be labeled to avoid confusion.
staff notation
Example 2. Common notation for various parts of the drum kit. Using these particular stem directions and notehead types are important for clarity.

When notating a drum part, separate things into two voices, as in Example 3:

  1. The cymbals, which usually keep a steady pulse; notated with upstems.
  2. The kick and snare drum, which often cooperate to articulate the characteristic features of a drumbeat; notated with downstems.

Example 3. 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.

Exceptions to these rules can often be justified. For example, when the hi-hat is played with the foot pedal, it may be stemmed either direction: up to show coordination with other cymbal articulations, or down to show coordination between the feet (that is, with the kick drum). Notated drum fills are another place where this two-voice rule may be broken, because a regular cymbal pulse will often stop so that the drummer can use both hands to play snare, toms, etc.

The Snare Drum and the Backbeat

Most popular songs are in a simple quadruple meter (usually notated by transcribers as [latex]\mathbf{^4_4}[/latex]), and most popular music drumbeats in this meter have a backbeat. The backbeat refers to beats two and four, usually played by the snare drum. Example 3 above shows how a snare-drum backbeat is one layer of the basic rock beat: 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.

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 4), the basic rock beat 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 finger snaps. Multiple backbeat sounds can also be layered together to create a variety of backbeat timbres (as in Examples 8 and 9 below).

Example 4. 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 (see Swing Rhythms for more information). The result is usually a short, sharp, percussive sound, similar in many ways to the timbre of the snare drum. This hi-hat backbeat was the precursor to the snare backbeat. Example 5, 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 5. 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 bpm, the rhythm of the kick and snare in a basic rock beat will likely be understood as the beat or tactus. Such drumbeats can be said to have a normal feel, 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 backbeat. In such cases, we use the terms double-time and half-time to describe the misalignment of the drums with the rest of the groove (Example 6).

box notation illustrating double-time, normal, and half-time feels
Example 6. 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 7). 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 tactus 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 7. A double-time backbeat in Metallica’s “Trapped Under Ice” (1984).

Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home” has a tempo of 119 bpm, right in the middle of the preferred tempo range for a tactus. The song’s slow backbeat would suggest a tempo of only 60 bpm—too slow for most listeners (see Example 8). If we instead keep time at the 119-bpm pulse, we hear a half-time drumbeat. The tension between the slow pacing of the backbeat (with a clap substituting for snare), the skittering sixteenth-note hi-hats, and the syncopated toms and woodblock, supported by a similarly fast synth ostinato, gives this groove a fractured feeling, at once relaxed and anxious.

Example 8. A half-time backbeat in Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home” (1985).


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, dancehall). In its simplest form, the dembow 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 Bad Bunny’s “LA CANCIÓN” is one example (see Example 9, 0:52).

Example 9. A dembow pattern in Bad Bunny’s “LA CANCIÓN” (2019).

The Kick Drum

Whereas the snare-drum backbeat is the most common feature of a quadruple meter 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 basic rock beat. Another common pattern is called four on the floor: the kick drum plays every quarter note, usually alongside a snare-drum backbeat, as in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (Example 10), or with no snare at all.

Example 10. 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 11 shows the drumbeat of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”, which has a consistent backbeat provided by the hand claps, but plenty of straight syncopation in the kick drum. Note that the kick still enters reliably on the downbeat of each measure, despite syncopation elsewhere.

Example 11. 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 off-beats (see Example 10 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 12; 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 13). The song’s first drumbeat (at 0:55) is a half-time backbeat with quarter notes on the china cymbal 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 12. Sixteenth-note hi-hats in Xiao Zhan’s “Made to Love” (2020).

Example 13. 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 simple quadruple meter, but the next most common meters in most popular music genres are compound quadruple and simple triple.

In compound quadruple time, the basic rock beat 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. These three elements make up the drumbeat in “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (see Example 14).[2]

Example 14. A slow compound quadruple drumbeat in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’s “If You Don’t Know me By Now” (1972).

In simple triple 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 15). After an intro with exuberant “3 e + a” fills on the snare, the drums settle into the groove transcribed below. The tresillo 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 basic rock beat (as if in quadruple meter) while the rest of the band keeps playing in the triple meter established up to this point.

Example 15. A 3/4 drumbeat in Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” (2007).

Try it!

Use this quiz to check your comprehension of the chapter.


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.
  1. Drumbeats (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify features of drumbeats and transcribe them. Worksheet playlist

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.


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