Metre meets metre – how do we hear, analyse and listen to rap flows?


In rap music, there is a meeting between different, both musical and cognitive, streams. If one wants to be clever, you can say there are as many flows in a flow as there are beats in a beat. Among the streams we attend to when we listen to rap music, are linguistic phenomena such as syntax and phonological parallelism (i.e. rhyme), musical phenomena like cross-rhythms and figure-repetition, and some virtual reference structures that are common to both disciplines – most significantly: Metre.
In both poetry and music theory, the framework of metre is central to the structuring of the artistic objects of study, and the definitions of the concept is typically very similar across the fields, describing regularly recurring pulsations that may or may not be actually explicit (there may be “silent beats”, for instance). We are, in a way, looking at the same cognitive phenomenon, just realised in two different ways in two different artistic practices.
In rap, these two artistic practices coalesce, and we get two simultaneous realisations of a common phenomenon – metre. The kicker is, though, that these two realisations does not always correlate with one another, which results in rap flows being a fundamentally “polymetric” phenomenon.
When we analyse rap music, we need to take this into account, and use tools, representations and terminology that adequately explain and express the relationship between the poetic and musical metres. This paper will present various approaches to analyse rap flows and the convergences and divergences of the two metres at both the macro- (symmetry and asymmetry in phrasing and hypermetre), meso- (“quantised representation”, accents) and micro- (“disagreements” in timing, ambiguous rhythms) levels. These methods will (obviously) be accompanied by and presented through copious amounts of audio examples.


Kjell Andreas Oddekalv is a PhD Fellow at the RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion at the University of Oslo, analysing the rhythms of rap flows. In addition to his research, Kjell Andreas is a recording and performing rap artist in the Norwegian hip hop group Sinsenfist. Kjell Andreas is the national representative of Norway in The European Hip Hop Studies Network.


  1. Very cool! Great examples and graphics, and there is a lot there is a lot of fresh ideas worth thinking about. I was wondering if you have given any thought to the jazz music theory studies of soloist-rhythm section interaction: I’m thinking of Matthew Butterfield and others who have written on micro-timing, e.g. horn players who might play behind or in front of the beat?
    But having just suggested that subfield, I’m not sure if you need it. I’m actually wondering if your work would be of benefit to those and other jazz scholars who have yet to write about some of the more polyrhythmic moments in jazz solos (rather than expressive micro-timing or playing ‘behind the beat’). And perhaps, just perhaps, younger jazz musicians influenced by hip-hop and its offshoots might also employ some more of these MC techniques in their playing and we can analyse them as such. Nice work and I look forward to seeing how this develops. -Justin

    1. Thanks for the comments, tips and nice words, Justin!

      The interaction-part (between flow and beat in rap, soloist and horns/rhythm section in jazz or funk etc.) is definitely something that is on the ever growing todo-list. I have been looking some at this in analyses of “bothness” and ambiguities, but when looking at poly-, cross- and counterrhythms I have been limiting myself to analysing voice vs. metre/beats/subdivisions as of yet. There are some brilliant articles on flow/beat-relationship (by Mitch Ohriner, Kyle Adams etc.), which I’m sure you’ve read (if not been the editor for :P), and I will definitely be doing some more analyses in that direction in the future.

      I believe you are right in that there is starting to be a dialogue, rather than a one-way communication between jazzers and hiphoppers. In interviews we have been doing for Anne Danielsen’s project TIME – Timing and Sound in Musical Microrhythm (https://www.uio.no/ritmo/english/projects/time/index.html), many of the young jazz musicians state hip hop as a significant influence on their music. Mostly when it comes to groove and beat-related stuff, but with vocalists such as the magnificent Sofie Tollefsbøl (of Fieh – https://open.spotify.com/artist/0KmBIwN1qmQbXpR4wtJX88?si=0h8oyFGgRHiLu8X_ItaPYA) you can hear the influence in the vocal rhythm at times.

      The next frontier is soloists picking up MC techniques, as you say, and without knowing of specific examples myself, I seem to remember Daniel Gouly (between talks at the Huddersfield IASPM/ARP conference) talking about a London-based jazz saxophonist that was doing rap flow-transcriptions to expand his soloing vocabulary. Hopefully we can have a paper or article exploring that kind of interaction some time in the coming years!

  2. Hi Kjell, I really enjoyed your paper, such an impressive level of detail!

    Some of your discussions of metrical ‘streams’ and ‘flows’ and the way they interrelate weirdly reminded me of some other pop-analysis work I’ve read on rhythm, which incorporates work by Christopher Hasty’s (especially that book ‘Meter as Rhythm’). Hasty seems to crop up quite frequently (perhaps not so much as Lerdahl and Jackendoff though, maybe?). I’m by no means an expert on these texts, but the use of this theory struck me as quite a radical usage of a method designed for Western Classical Music in a pop context. Although I feel like the logic behind the incorporation Hasty’s work is the fact that he has all these ideas of ‘beginnings’, ‘continuations’, ‘projections’ etc within different metrical strands, which can be useful in theorizing the more processual/experiential aspects of metre in pop…

    I thought you might have some interesting thoughts about this in relation to your own work? In your experience – do you find that it’s useful to apply music-theoretical methods like these to pop, or are they more a hindrance than a help? Perhaps especially in relation to rap? Would love to hear what you think!

    Thanks again,

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