Orchestral Off-beats, Groove and Odd Meters

This time I will talk a little bit about rhythmical aspects to be considered when writing for (real) orchestra, as – not surprisingly – not everything that grooves in your mind or sequencer will come out as you want it when you’re dealing with an orchestra.

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First of all, why talk about this issue at all? Since filmmusic came up, it has always been a medium which melts together many if not all musical styles. Nowadays there is hardly any action score which doesn’t have drum-loops or percussive patterns underneath, there is no Bond movie without Swing elements, there is hardly any epic trailer music in regular 4/4, and – to sum it up – there is hardly any score which doesn’t use influences from –  let’s call it –  “the groove world.”

But what exactly is “groove”? There are about as many definitions about that as there are musicians on the world, I personally define it as “a pulsating rhythmic grid with repeating accents with a tendency for off-beats.” I know this sounds terribly theoretical and might not cover all forms of “groove”, but it’ll have to do for now.


When writing for an orchestra, getting it to groove is particularly tricky. One very important thing in groove music is rhythmic tightness, meaning that you play rhtyhmically as close together as possible trying to place every note exactly on the underlaying rhythmic grid. In a band with 4 players standing close together, this isn’t as tricky as in a 80 piece orchestra with people sitting 20 meters or more apart. Of course, a clicktrack will help but you will never get 80 players to be absolutely tight and you have to count in for that.

The most common way of working around that nowadays is, writing very easy rhythmic patterns for the orchestral instruments or avoid them at all, just writing long notes and swells etc. and leave the rhythmic components and driving pulse to a prerecorded synth, drum or band track which will more likely be tight and groovy. Even with the best orchestras in the world, you cannot expect it to nail a 16th-grid precisely.

Interestingly, this style of “minimalistic 16th-rows” has come up in film music not too long ago, being mainly introduced by the scores for “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”. Still, it works extremely well on the dramatic level. It has been reduced to almost JUST this rhythmic element especially in “The Dark Knight” and still this ticking pulse has enough power to hold the tension over a long period.

For a movie called “Eine bärenstarke Liebe”, we wrote a pulsing final cue, for the big hunt at the end of the movie with a very strong 16th groove in the strings as well as a pulsing synth bass below.

It is pretty difficult for the string players to play a constant 16th grid (with a single bow on each note) at that speed (120 Bpm) for a long time without getting even more untight or tired. A quite common way to work around that is to interweave the rhythm with different figures, also known as complimentary rhythm as I did here with Cellos and Violas:

As you can see, these both rhythms summed up result in a constant 16th pulse. Why is this more playable? Splitting this up into these small figures gives the players a short rest on each eight note and a short time to prepare for the next figure. Also, it is easier readable while you could get lost pretty easily in endless rows of 16th notes. However, as mentioned before, this still is quite tricky. Listen to the audio file above and notice how, in spite of several rehearsals, the first few of these figures still are a bit off.

For a movie called “Save Angel Hope”, I incorporated this style into a 3 minute piece for the finale of the movie, establishing a very persistant orchestral groove throughout the piece that hardly changes but is very much capable of holding the tension:

The groove right at the beginning consist of several elements:

a) a 16th grid in the strings and harp

b) an off-beat figure in the Xylophone

c) accents on 1 and the 2nd 16th after count 3 on Snare Drum, Bassoons,  Trombones, Tuba, Timpani and Bass Drum and several elements in Trumpets and Flutes

Throughout the whole piece, I don’t really change a lot on this groove, which is another important thing when you want to get something to groove: you have to be repetitious. A certain feeling for a groove only establishes after you’ve repeated the rhythm a few times. If you repeat a melody over and over again, you will be annoyed. However, this doesn’t apply for grooves. Now and then you might want to add a little colour change to your groove (in this piece I switch around with the 16th patterns, giving them from strings to woodwinds+celeste after a while etc.) or add a short “break” (as drummers would do on a groove as well) and pick up the groove again after that. This really is a matter of personal taste and you have to trust your ear to find the spot where you think it’s enough of that groove now and it needs some change.

On the playing side, I wanted to make sure that for examples the string players don’t have to play 16ths all the way through and give them a few passages to play longer notes which are somewhat not as exhausting to play.

As you can see, the tempo of the 16th grid in this piece is not as fast as above, so it works pretty well to let the figures run through, however it still sounds more organic if you split the grid up into musical interesting motifs to not lose the interest of your players.

Having a pulse in your music is very important when you do action scoring. Such scenes long for a driving pulse. When orchestrating, there is a probably unofficial term called “the engine” which defines one section/group of instruments which play repeating notes or figures just to keep the pulse going. Very commonly used for this task in film scoring are the Violas. Just listen to a few John Williams action tracks and you will most likely here the constant driving puls in the Violas combined sometimes with other instruments. One piece that comes to mind is “Battle of the Heroes” from Star Wars Episode 3 which actually even starts with the Viola “engine”. It is very hard to keep a piece “pulsing” when you don’t rely on such a thing as the only option you actually have is to make sure that almost every 16th – or whatever your pulse is –  is somewhere attacked which will most likely end up in rhythmically very unorganic motives and rhythmical overkill. I haven’t heard many pieces which have done successfully not relying on a somewhat repeating groove-pattern or groove-like ostinatos.


Now let’s get to the worst rhythmic enemy of most orchestras: Swing. Unless you can work with studio orchestras in the US or London, you might want to avoid let the orchestra swing on its own as it most likely will not. Classical musicians usually really have a hard time feeling that swing when playing. I’ve heard discussions like: “You have to play it as if it was 2+1 eighth note triplets” – “No, you have to play it more like a lazy dottet eighth+16th”. The solution is: you can’t tell! It depends on the tempo, on the style, on the instrument and probably a million other facts what will swing and what not. The only important thing is: you have to feel it. And that’s where the problems begin. When you’re not used to playing it, you have a really hard time feeling the swing and will tend to “feel” it differently than your neighbour musician, so it quickly gets untight and ungroovy.

It gets a bit easier for everybody when you put a rhythm section below the orchestra, which, in my experience, is the only working way to get a somewhat decent result with a “regular” orchestra.

For a short swing passage in one track, we decided to use drums,  bass and  piano as rhythm section to settle a swing feeling and deliberately put them at the same time in the same room with the orchestra so the orchestra musicians can “sit” a bit on top of it. I decided to orchestrate it according to what I knew about the playing musicians. I knew that we would have brass players with experience in swing playing so giving them a few swingy brass kicks was not dangerous. With the woodwinds and strings, I knew they were pretty much classical musicians. For the strings, I decided to avoid giving them too many rhythmic attacks and just wrote a string pad section with not too much movement. With the woodwinds, I decided to risk a bit and give them easy but solistic swinging passages, alone, as well as in section. It fortunately worked out pretty well but in the passage where the solo woodwinds play these figures, you can clearly hear, which player has “swing experience” and which doesn’t.

I tried to help the woodwinds a bit in their swing section by adding some swing-type accents on off-beats:


Off-beats are are accents on counts in the bar, which are not the heavy counts. Here a small example of off-beats in an eighth-grid in a 4/4:

All notes marked with x are off-beats and you will create interesting effects when accenting these. Let’s just quickly go through all of these notes and find out what rhythmic effects can be created. You can check this yourself by imagining a 4/4-bar and always clap on the 1 for a while, finding out how this feels rhythmically and do the same with all values.

1: This will always sound like a rhythmic confirmation, like a really heavy downbeat that finishes a phrase and feels very strong

1-and: Usually feels like a late 1, something that should be on the 1 but just comes late a bit

2:  Same as with 1-and but not feeling as much open as the 1-and but can also stand on its own or be a very early 3 (when you rely more on a quarter pulse than an 8th note pulse)

2-and: Will usually sound like an early 3, pushes the speed forward

3: Same as with 1 just a bit weaker

3-and: Usually feels like a late 3

4: Same as with 2

4-and: Usually feels like a early 1. Even stronger than the early 3 feel a 2-and creates.

Of course, how these counts feel also strongly depend on the musical context they are in but you should keep them in mind as general guideline. Why? Because you can alter the speed impression of your piece just by utilizing these values. Write a piece with lots of accented 2-ands and 4-ands which both have the feeling of being too early, you will speed up the tempo subjectively, making it feel more restless and wanting to push forward with all these “too early” notes. The opposite will happen with lots of 1-ands and 3-ands, it will get the impression of being too slow, lazy and “behind”. These things work very nicely when writing for movies as you sometimes exactly want these 2 effects to happen.

The things said above also apply for smaller grids and irregular time signatures in an analogue way.

Usually an orchestra doesn’t have problems with easy off-beats (as long as they don’t swing – see above) in 4/4, 3/4 and other common meters, you can usually expect them to hit a 3-and precisely, however it will become more and more tricky the smaller your grid is. Letting them hit the 2nd 16th of count 4 in a fairly fast tempo will cause  trouble already and never ever try to let them hit the “thrid note in a group of 16th-9-tuplets”. Off-beats don’t need to be especially complicated to work as a surprise or groove element. Even the 8th-note-off-beats discussed above will usualky work fine. A 16th grid will work in most cases as well, though be prepared for some rehearsal time and try to avoid permanently leaving free the heavy counts writing lots of rhythms like this:

This will definitely cause a few problems with your regular orchestra players. You could fix this rhythm by just giving them a heavy count to play to orientate at from time to time.

There is another very common way to make this rhythm easier to play and on the same hand add an “engine” as mentioned above at the same time. This is very common in film scoring and is usually used in pretty much every action scoring: accenting off beats in a grid.

Here is the same rhythm as above notated in this way:

The playing of these off-beats is much simpler for the players like this because they can orientate on their own played grid. Notating off-beat rhythms like this originates in the percussion writing. Bongo rhythms for example are most usually “grids with accents”. But this concept can also be transfered to orchestral instruments (most successully to orchestral percussion). Of course, when dealing with wind or brass, you have to take in account to a) give them breaks to breathe and b) this is much more exhausiting for the player than playing long notes. Strings can do that pretty fine but also not over several minutes. When writing off-beats, make sure there are no conflicting accents vertically in the score sheet. If you want that off-beat-groove as shown above to really come through, nail it down with the orchestration. Put this rhythm into the violas for example, double the accents on a snare drum, add trombones on every 1and etc…. you get the idea. Just make sure that literally everybody is pulling on the same end of the rope.

Off-beat-grooves are especially cool and tend to actually work fine with orchestras as long as it’s orchestrated as simple as possible. For “Ausbilder Schmidt – Der Film”, we have written a short passage with an off-beat-groove:

I only use 8th-note-off-beats in this cue, relying on a fixed rhythmic pattern which will be clear to even the ungrooviest player after playing a few bars of that:

The actual groove pattern is basically only repeating accents on count 2 and 3-and (which is the off-beat) as seen in the right hand of the piano and the high strings. To let everybody know what the pulse is and where they are I let the low strings, piano and trombones play the 1 and 3 of every bar very clearly, so this groove is as simple as possible but still effective and as you can hear, actually works pretty well.

Odd meters

A very common device in trailer scoring in recent years, especially action trailers. There are 2 kinds of odd meters: the ones that are supposed to more or less “groove” and the ones that are supposed to surprise. Adding one odd bar like 7/8 or 5/4 etc to an otherwise straight 4/4 passage will create quite a bit of surprise for the listener and be a nice effect and add interest to your composition. Recently more common are the grooving odd meters. You will most likely get a more interesting groove out of a 7/4 bar than 2 4/4 bars. For a short dramatic action sequence, we have written a passagen in a “grooving” 7/8 bar:

The groove originates from the celli and basses, playing a rhythm that is picked up by the trumpet and snare drum (in the principle explained above):

The first bar is a 7/8 (which has been going on for a few bars already) and bar 6 is a 6/8, which acts as a “surprise bar” as mentioned above, finishing one eighth “too early”. Usually, odd meter grooves work pretty well with orchestras as long as they are not overly complicated and don’t keep on changing permanently. However, you have to make sure they are notated properly. Usually odd meters are subdivided internally according to the accents in the bar: 7 as above get divided into 4+3 or as in this case 3+4. 5 will be divided into 2+3 or 3+2 etc. This is very important to know and to realize as it will make reading and conducting unneccessarly difficult when not done properly. You indicate the subdivision by the way you beam groups of notes. As you can see in the example above, the 16th in the Percussion are beamed in 6+4+4, clearly indicating that this is a 3+4 subdivision of the 7/8-bar. The 3+4 subdivision is pretty obvious when looking at the groove pattern as counting it 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 appears way more logical than 1-2-3-4-1-2-3.  Just find out where the heavy counts in your odd bars are and find out how to subdivide this way.

When writing odd meters, try to avoid to keep on jumping around in the subdivisions, especially if you want it to groove, otherwise, you will a) make it pretty difficult and b) make it less groovy. Repeating rhythms are way simpler to play for everybody than constantly changing rhythms.

“Fake” Odd Meters

There also is a way to create the feeling of odd meters with regular meters like 4/4. Instead of subdividing them into the regular 4+4 eighth-notes, you can subdividethem into 3+3+2 or 5+3 etc. and write a rhythmic groove that relies on these subdivisions. This works extremely well to create interesting polyrhythms, adding such an odd subdivision on top of a regular 4/4 beat. Experimenting with such things is really fun and often results in very interesting grooves or patterns. When changing the subdivision in a “regular” meter, you don’t need to change beaming when notating it. However make sure that, as in every 4/4 bar, the half of the bar is clearly visible:

This is an example of a rhythm notated in 4/4 how it should NOT be:

For a musician, this is unneccessarily tricky to read. This rhythm is pretty simple still but imagine a more complex rhythm, it is very easy to get lost when you don’t know at least know where the middle of this bar is.

Way more clear is a notation like this of the same rhythm:

This is way more readable as you know where the middle of the bar is and can see on the spot that you’re playing a row of off-beats. Usually it is enough to make the middle clear but if you get into 16th or even smaller grids, you might want to even mark every beat of the bar in this way. This is an important thing NOT to be overlooked when writing for real musicians. They expect you to write it like this and you will lose a lot of precious time when not doing it as it will be confusing. The same rule applys for the break of the subdivision in odd meters as well as the middle of a 6/8 etc. Just make sure those rhythms are readable as easy as possible.

I hope you got a few rhythmical inspirations and ideas out of this little tutorial. Stay tuned for more to come.


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