Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn

Let me start this with an excerpt of the guitar work Melvin (Wah Wah Watson) Raglin, on Herbie Hancock’s Hang Up Your Hang Ups from the 1975 album, Manchild.

If you don’t already know this, follow the groove from the beginning and find ‘the beat’ (I mean beat in the sense of the pulse or tactus, not “the beat”or “beats” as used casually in popular music writing and criticism).  My guess, based on trying this out on several people, is that when you first hear Hang Up Your Hang Ups it seems apparent that the guitar is playing a pickup on to the down beat as shown below, (example 1).

Example 1
(Example 1 – click to enlarge)

The shekere (percussion instrument) does not contradict this perception, and when the synthesiser pulse enters (on D) the downbeat seems assured. (I have a vague memory that that part was actually played by Dewane “Blackbyrd” Mcknight on a guitar rather than a synthesiser). But then Mike Clarke enters on drums – apparently all on up beats?

There are of course some notoriously edgy funk drum parts that display a certain amount of up beat accenting and avoidance of obvious down beats – perhaps most famously James Brown’s I’ve Got the Feelin’;[1] but in this case, there is still significant acknowledgment of the downbeat within a two bar pattern. Clarke in Palm Grease, an earlier Herbie Hancock track, explicitly demonstrates this kind of two bar relationship with down beat and up beat accenting.[2] Here the drums introduce the pattern alone:

But to return to Hang Up Your Hang Ups, the drums must arouse our suspicion now that a trick is being played. The entry of the horn part locks up with the drums and makes it clear that the intro was actually an ambiguous groove.

horn part
(Example 2)

This allows the listener to construct his or her own version of events.  Have a listen:


In fact example 3 shows the best description of where the beat actually is. That telling pulse from the synthesizer is actually the element that is solely confined to delineating upbeats.

Example 2
(Example 3 – click to enlarge)

Subsequent transitions to different sections in the music completely confirm that structurally this is the correct reading of the beat.  It is noticeable however, that the bass part neither confirms nor denies either possibility.

Of course ‘wrong’ and ‘correct’ may not be good terms to use here. Tapping my foot on the upbeat makes the drums sound pretty cool, and when this introduction was sampled by Janet Jackson/Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis for Jackson’s All Nite (Don’t Stop), they took the Watson guitar part and used it the ‘wrong’ way round:

What is happening here? Was the introduction a joke, a secret initiation to test the listener’s ‘hipness’ – get it wrong and you’re not fit to be in this club? There is certainly some of that attitude in the jazz tradition that Hancock comes from. Jam session mentality has a lot of this testing-difficult keys, fast tempos and rhythm section players creating intentional ambiguity to check that would be soloists have ‘earned’ their rite stand up front and take that solo.  There are drum intros where the likes of Roy Haynes and Art Blakey play with the time keeping their band members on their toes, just to see if they’ll nail the first entry confidently in the right place.

The 2002 cult documentary Keepintime, attests to the fact that that rhythmic coolness and complexity have crossed the musical generations and carried through from jazz and funk drummers into Hip-Hop turntable-ism.  Even an icon like Miles Davis felt challenged by the need to display technical assurance and effortless control in jazz in the 1940’s:

“…should I tap my foot inside of my shoe so nobody would see me doing it?”

(Davis & Troupe, p.113)

Or, can an appeal be made to the African component of African-American music? This is a tempting line of argument, and has historical relevance. Hancock had only recently disbanded his Mwandishi band, where all the members took Swahili names. In the 1972 album Crossings the opening track, Sleeping Giant, begins with a West African style cross-rhythm percussion segment- all band members are credited as percussionists, and there is the addition of respected Afro-Cuban congero Victor Pontoja into the mix.

Even before then in 1967, Hancock’s album Inventions and Dimensions used a rhythm section of Paul Chambers (bass ); Willie Bobo (drums, timbales); Osvaldo Martinez (percussion) which on one track Succotash made an exploration in a similar direction.  The Yoruba/West African grooves, grossly oversimplified to display what we in the monometric  west call cross rhythm.

West African Example
(Example 4)

But the graphic above doesn’t do justice to the technique – it implies that 12/8 is the real time, but I could have written it in 4/4 with the top line as sextuplets. In fact, cross rhythm is the intrinsic structure of the music- there isn’t a main tactus and an overlaid polyrhythm. Both pulses have equal status; that is why many ethno-musicologists dislike the term polyrhythm applied to this music. So you could tap your foot dance on either metric structure-music can also start anywhere within the rhythmic cycle (my oversimplified graphic doesn’t do that possibility justice – but I’m no expert here!)

Of course, as you may be well aware, ‘Hang up Your Hang Ups’ doesn’t actually display any of this. Once the intro is placed in context, there is no ambiguity, just a funky groove. In this case, and throughout the headhunters output they never exploited West African drumming to the degree shown in some of those earlier Mwandishi recordings. Yes The Headhunters continued to make numerous African references, and percussionist Bill Summers, an accomplished Afro-Cuban percussionist, was an important component in all of the recordings; Afro-centricism abounded. But the very formation of the headhunters had been a reaction to the complexity of the earlier Mwandishi group (now probably more revered by producers/DJ’s and beat connoisseurs as the real ground breaking work). Hancock was seeking a broader audience with the Headhunters.  Perhaps the spirit of the African tradition is partly relevant here:

“Many sub-Saharan languages do not have a word for rhythm, or even music. From the African viewpoint, the rhythms represent the very fabric of life itself; they are an embodiment of the people, symbolizing interdependence in human relationships.”

(Peñalosa, p.21)

Well, if not an authentic example of West African cross Rhythm (Sleeping Giant had already demonstrated that they knew what that was), Hang Up Your Hang Ups may be seen as an acknowledgement of that kind of structure; Peñalosa’s rhythm representing the fabric of life?

There is certainly a precedent set for this type of rhythmic complexity, and more specifically for the idea that beat can be in more than one place at a time.  So, is this a celebration of African heritage or a musical trick? From my perspective it could be both!

I have to back this up with my own personal experiences from living and playing in New York City. Anecdotes abounded about young jazz musicians moving to New York and playing their first Salsa gigs (“Hey man…where’s the ‘one’?” etc). Afro Cuban forms, jazz and funk all take great pride in their rhythmic sophistication, and in my experience players are not beyond showing up musicians who haven’t got with the programme yet.  In fact, it’s part of the learning/teaching process; I know, I was subjected to exactly such initiations!

So I think Wah Wah and Herbie etc. are having a little fun. A form of groove mischievousness, messing with the expectations of more commercial funk and soul music and using their jazz chops to set themselves apart, but then still ensuring that they deliver the goods  (this album, like others by The Headhunters was commercially successful). A metric pun.  I will stick to this supposition and so make a comparison with Haydn and another metric pun.

I was recently re-reading Charles Rosen’s ‘The Classical Style’ and came across the trio from the Haydn’s Symphony no 92 in G major:

What’s actually happening here?

Example 3
(Example 5 – click to enlarge)

Again, unless you know this piece, it is impossible from just listening to know where the downbeat is. Do the horns and bassoons, with their strong melody have it? Or, is it the pizzicato in the strings? The ascending string line shown in the third bar of the excerpt doesn’t help, since it could be expected to be the ‘one’. For me the horns and bassoons win out, along with the arco strings, even though that means the harmonic rhythm then seems a little out. All of which means I hear it ‘wrong‘. For a full 32 bars (counting the repeats) things remain ambiguous and it’s only in the next section that Haydn sorts things out and comes back to a 3/4 where harmony and melody line up again (although he still plays similar tricks a few more times before the end of the movement). It’s an example of a kind of musical wit at work that is a feature of the early classical period. To Quote Rosen (p.36):

‘This minuet is the greatest of all practical jokes in music’.

It’s hard for me to see it to that degree, but as stated earlier, the idea of a ‘hip’ musical trick is very familiar territory to me. Whether a closing V-I cadence in bebop that is upset by a final-final tritone chord, or rhythmic ambiguity in funk, African American forms are full of tricks and irony.

I personally sense some kindred spirit here- humour, enabled by technical accomplishment, has a place in music.  Could I go, as far as to say that a type of wit, very eighteenth century in nature, has also been part of the African American music tradition? Well that thought has crossed my mind several times over the last few years as I, for instance, find myself comparing the energy curve of a Brandenburg Concerto to a 1948 bebop recording. There’s something about the full-on drive, the fearless virtuosity, and the lack of anything sentimental that does resonate with me.  However, as I’m straying into personal conjecture now, I’ll finish here, except to say that there must be more of these to find, so let me know. [3]

In the next installment I want to turn to another rhythmic trick – displacement, (with a touch of polymeter thrown in) via Stravinsky Funk and Thelonious Monk.


Davis, M. & Troupe, Q. (1990): Miles: The Autobiography. London, Simon and Schuster.

Peñalosa, D. (2009): The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African origins. California, Bembe Books.

Rosen, C. (1971): The Classical Style, New York, Norton

Phil Tagg (2011): Scotch Snaps – the big picture – tagg.org/Clips/ScotchSnap/ScotchSnap.mp4


[1] More on this is coming in another post

[2] Clarke recounts that if he walked in to their gigs other drummers such as Dennis Chambers would often play this pattern when they saw him.

[3] For one, please see Phil Tagg’s video lecture on the Scotch Snap, on his website, where he shows that for those not in the know, Celtic folk music can also throw up the same kind of ‘where’s the downbeat?’ musical puns.

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

One thought on “Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn”

  1. Interesting experiment Richard! I personally could not feel the guitar as starting on the “and” of beat 4 (as, I believe, it is the case in Janet Jackson’s interpretation). Rather, the first audio clip made me feel the guitar as falling right on beat 4. It was surpirsing, of course, to find that it actually starts on beat 1, the bass accenting the “and” of beat 1, if I am not mistaken. This case of “metric pun” made me think of Billy Cobham’s Stratus, where notoriously the bass seems reversed relative to the drums. The Haydn excerpt is also curious: if you think it starts on the 1 of a 3/4 meter, then it works pretty well until about 0:12-0:13, when you realize that actually there’s something strange. Nice, but, yes, Rosen’s passionate preference definitely seems to consider “music” as excluding at least tons of Afro-American and Latin examples.

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