Electronic Music Theory: The Anatomy of a Drum Beat

Pat Cupo examines the anatomy of a drum beat in the third installment of our Electronic Music Theory series. He then breaks down one of his favorite drum tracks written by Questlove.


Let’s talk drums. I’ve been a bassist and guitarist for about 18 years now, but secretly I’ve wanted to be a drummer. When I started making drum beats in various digital audio workstations (DAW), it was pretty liberating to finally hear the drummer in me come out. If you’re new to making drum beats or just looking to build upon your working knowledge, this article is for you. We’ll start at the beginning with measures and time signatures, discuss the sounds that usually make up the drum kit, and then break down one of my favorite drum tracks to see the whole thing in action. Now, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a drum beat.

Measures and Time Signatures

Back in the day, like the 15th century when Renaissance composers were figuring out how to notate music for the lute (the ancestor of the guitar), they wanted to devise a system that would make it easy to see where the strongest beats occurred on the page. Eventually, they came up with the measure (a.k.a. bar). Beginning and ending with bar lines, the measure allows us to see where the strong beats occur in the music, how many beats are in a given segment of time (quantity), and what kind of beats they are (quality). There were patterns in the music and by the 17th century the most common among them was four beats per measure with each beat being a 1/4 note also known as a quarter note.

By the 18th century, European composers fully adopted the practice of adding evenly spaced bar lines and time signatures to their scores which we still see in the modern day DAW. The time signature stated that every measure that followed was comprised of the same number and kind of beats.

Don’t be fooled. Some people will tell you that the time signature is a fraction, but it is not a fraction. The top number tells us how many beats are in each measure (quantity) while the bottom number states what kind of beat each one is (quality). The most common time signature, as I alluded to above, is 4/4 which means that there are four beats in each measure, and each beat is a 1/4 note (OK, there’s a fraction for you).

Remember – the time signature tells us about every measure. So in the picture below, all four measures have four beats in them, and each beat is a 1/4 note in length.

A Quick Word on Drum Sounds

Do you remember learning about graphing in your math classes in school? You know, the thing with the x and y coordinates. Imagine that everything we just discussed about time as the x-axis. If time is our x, what is our y for building drum beats? Answer: The drum sounds. Three sounds usually show up in drum beats, and they are the kick drum, snare drum, and hi-hat. Are there drum beats out there that don’t use these sounds? Yes, of course, and variety is a good thing. But have you noticed anything interesting about the combination of these three sounds? Check it – the kick drum is a low sound; the hi-hat is a high sound; the snare sits somewhere in the middle between the kick and hi-hats. See it? Low, mid, and high. The combination of these three sounds fills out the frequency spectrum, generally speaking. When building your own beats, this will be something you’ll need to take into consideration.

I mentioned above that we’re going to break down one of my favorite drum tracks. The track is “You Got Me” by The Roots with Questlove behind the drums. Check out this song below and listen for the kick, snare, and hi-hats – you’ll hear it. We’ll break it down in the next section.

The Roots “You Got Me” Beat Deconstruction

Here is the main drum beat from “You Got Me” played twice through (please note that this isn’t the beat for the entire song but it doesn’t stray too far away, and it’s the first thing we hear, so it’s our point of reference):

A quick recap: The time signature is 4/4 (4 beats per measure, each beat is a quarter note), there are four full measures with low, mid, and high drums sounds as mentioned above. So now what? How did Questlove build that drum beat? What secrets about rhythm does he know that we don’t? There are many things that he’s doing in this track, so let’s break it down the measure by measure.

Measure 1

You can do the research on the norms for certain genres of music, and how drum beats are built in them. For example, dubstep is often at 140 BPM with the kick on beat one, the snare on beat three to create a half-time feel, and a quicker hi-hat part borrowed from 2-step. That’s great and all, but what about the details? How / Why / When do you add the extra drum hits? Allow me to introduce you to the secret rule of 2s and 3s.

No matter what the genre, tempo, time signature, etc., all drum beats can be broken down into small groupings of two or three units of time. If you look at the MIDI note editor for Measure 1 (and all of the other measures), you’ll notice that the measure is separated into 16 equal parts. The notes that fill up those spaces are called 1/16 notes (said as sixteenth notes). In this track, you will find a strategic placement of groupings comprised of two or three 1/16 notes.

To the details: The hi-hat part is just straight 16th notes – very simple. It allows you to focus on the kick and snare drums while still adding to the overall rhythm (sometimes referred to as the Composite Rhythm). So this hi-hat part is not where we’re going to find the 2s and 3s. It must be in either the kick or snare part, or both.

Take a look at the yellow and orange hi-lights that I’ve added to the picture. What do you notice? The yellow shows us where the grouping of two sixteenth notes, and the orange shows us where the grouping of three sixteenth notes. As you can see in the first measure, Questlove is mixing the two together. Go back and listen to the loop of measure one and see if you can hear the 2s and 3s.

Measure 2

Hopefully, you could see and hear the 2s and 3s in the first measure. In the second measure, we have eight groupings of two 1/16 notes (8 x 2 = 16). This one might be a little difficult to see how some of the groupings count as 2s but suffice it to say that when I listen to the track, I don’t hear the “round” sound of 3s as I do in the first measure. Use and trust your ears on this one.

One other point to make: What do you notice between measure one and measure two? They’re different from each other, and that’s part of what makes this beat so interesting to listen to. More on that at the end.

Measure 3

The astute listener will notice that measure three is exactly the same as measure one, so nothing new here. However, one cool thing to point out is the use of a palindrome in the sequence of the groupings: 2 2 3 2 3 2 2. See how it’s the same thing backward and forwards? That’s called a palindrome. Anyone know Steve Reich’s song “Clapping Music?” That entire piece is based on the use of a shifting palindrome – a true minimalist masterpiece.

Measure 4

Wouldn’t you expect measure four to be the same as measure two based on what we looked at in measure three? What he did instead gives us new material to listen to. Now take a look at the 2s and 3s – see a pattern? Here’s what I see / hear: 2 3 3 | 2 3 3. It’s not the repetition that we might have expected, but it’s repetition nonetheless.

Final Thoughts

We now know a lot about the anatomy of a drum beat. We looked at how time is a huge factor (measures and time signatures), the sounds that make up the drum kit cover a large portion of the frequency spectrum, and how the combination of the 2s and 3s are important to the overall (composite) rhythm and groove.

One final thought for you. How much do you know about rhyme schemes in poetry? Take this example from William Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

(A) Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
(B) Thou art more lovely and more temperate
(A) Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
(B) And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

Look at the last word of each line. Day rhymes with May. Temperate rhymes with Date. The Day/May lines are labeled A, and the Temperate/Date lines are labeled as B. The pattern you get when you analyze it is ABAB.

Now the fun part: Transfer that knowledge of rhyme schemes in poetry to Questlove’s drum beat. What is the rhyme scheme of this beat? The answer: ABAC.

Let’s be realistic – Do you think Questlove was thinking about all of this while working on this beat? Probably not all of it, but I bet he was thinking of some details like the “rhyme scheme” for example. The rest must have just come naturally to him, and that comes with years of practice and experience. For an added bonus, check out the drum and bass section at the 3:25 mark for some artful “linear drumming.” I hope this helped you see what drum beats are made of while studying one of the greats.


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  • ucheng
  • 12/5/2011

this article is so great!
thanks for sharing!!!!

  • Happy
  • 12/5/2011

An itneliglent answer – no BS – which makes a pleasant change

  • noitisopxe
  • 12/5/2011

Sick post ! Wondering if the Drum rack Kit used for the post is a native Ableton one ? Or one u built ?

  • Drum Beats
  • 12/5/2011

Great and helpful article… Thanks for sharing..

  • Michael Sieler
  • 12/5/2011

That was fascinating! Thanks for giving a “behind-the-scenes” look at music. I never knew how complex musical rhythms could get. I did a little research on polyrhythm and I was blown away by how often it’s used by famous musicians like The Beatles, Queen, Britney Spears and many others.

Keep up the great work!

  • Kicks and Snares | EDM For Beginners
  • 12/5/2011

[...] you may have made things too complicated or broken the rule of 2′s and 3′s.  Check out this article by Patrick Cupo for some more helpful rules of [...]