Tight Verses and Loose Choruses: The Shaping of the Metric ‘Pocket’ Across Pop Forms
This paper analyses the construction of the metrical beat across a corpus of pop songs to show how performers’ ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ expression of the beat intersects with large-scale form and the perceived intensity of these sections. I utilise a theory of ‘pockets’, building on Danielsen’s ‘beat bins’ (2006, 2010, 2018), in which beats are spans of time during which an onset may be heard as being part of ‘the beat’. These spans are shaped so events falling at different points in the span are more or less likely to be categorized as being the beat, contra the in/out categorization of beats-as-instantaneous-points (Lerdahl & Jackendoff 1983). I also explore the qualitative effects of these ‘extended beats’, how the ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ construction of the pocket works with secondary parameters (Meyer 1989) to enhance the ‘feel’ of a section. I argue that changes in the shape of the pocket can influence our experience of musical form.I apply Music Information Retrieval techniques to the individual instrument tracks of recordings to extract timing data for all events. Plotting these timing data as distributions (pockets) rather than as microtemporal deviations from a grid offers a novel way of appreciating the nuances of expressive performances. The width of the pocket, adopting performers’ colloquial terms, can be described as tight or loose, and the inter-instrument timing relations as pushing or laying back. Through this lens, the qualitative ‘feel’ of different sections and parts of sections may be compared. For example, in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’, the pocket in the second half of all sections bar the Bridge is both ‘tighter’ (narrower distributions) and more ‘on top of the beat’ (closer to synchrony). Overall, this paper reframes questions of microtiming towards appreciating the subtle ways performers shape musical time in terms that capture the qualitative listener experience.
Fred Hosken is a PhD student at Northwestern University in Chicago, though spent the first 25 years of his life in London. His research proposes a new theory of beats as ‘pockets’ that can be utilised to provide new perspectives on rhythmic and metric structures in music, as well as new approaches to understanding patterned microtiming in performance, the phenomenon of musical ‘groove’, and musical ‘feel’ more generally.