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Microrhythm and Displacement in Hip-Hop and Funk

Anne Danielsen (University of Oslo), Chair

Functions of Expressive Timing in Hip-Hop Flow

Ben Duinker (University of Toronto)

Ben Duinker is a Canadian music theorist and percussionist. His doctoral dissertation focused on metric and rhythmic aspects of hip-hop flow and was awarded the 2020 SMT-40 dissertation fellowship by the Society for Music Theory. Duinker has published articles in the journals Empirical Musicology Review, Music Theory Online, Popular Music, and his work on segmentation and phrasing in hip-hop flow is forthcoming in Music Theory Spectrum. He received a PhD in Music Theory and Master of Music Performance from McGill University, and presently holds a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship for research in music analysis and performance at the University of Toronto. Duinker maintains a parallel career as a percussionist and chamber musician, regularly touring, recording, and commissioning new works.


Expressive timing in hip-hop flow concerns the practice whereby an MC (rapper) inflects their flow rhythms on a miniscule scale not easily representable with standard musical notation—how far “ahead” or “behind” the beat they rap. Adams (2015) and Kautny (2015) position expressive timing as an integral part of hip-hop flow and Ohriner (2017 and 2019) discusses it in greater detail. This paper complements their work by surveying flow timing across the broader hip-hop genre.

I identify three broad practices of expressive timing in flow. Swung timing subdivides the tactus unequally, similar to a common jazz drum timekeeping pattern. Lagging timing refers to the patterned delay of flow rhythm in relation to the underlying instrumental or sampled beat. And conversational timing pertains to flow performances that resemble rhythmic patterns idiomatic of spoken language. I use theoretical and notational concepts developed by Benadon (2006, 2009) and Ohriner (2019) to illustrate the extent to which a flow performance involves these approaches to expressive timing, and propose analytical methods for these approaches that highlight their functional and rhetorical appeal. I also consider expressive timing in light of Signifyin(g) in African American music (Floyd Jr., 2002), groove-based expressive microtiming (Iyer, 2002), Afrocentric models of rhetoric (Jackson, 1995), and narrativity. My analyses of performances by LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Queen Latifah, and Eminem illuminate the variegated approaches to expressive timing in hip-hop flow—specifically in how they relate to musical function and performance rhetoric.

The Role of Beat Two in Funky Grooves

Michael Bruschi (Yale University)

Michael Bruschi is a Ph.D. candidate in music theory at Yale University. He specializes in American experimental and popular musics since World War II. His previous work has been published in the Journal of Music Theory and accepted for presentation at various conferences throughout the U.S. Additional publications in Music Analysis, Engaging Students, and Rock Music Studies are either forthcoming or under review. Current research interests include the scope and limits of tonality, rhythm and meter in American free jazz, nationalism and the 19th- century European symphony, harmony and form in popular music, and the future of music theory pedagogy. His forthcoming dissertation, which has been supported by a Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowship from the University of Chicago Library, is entitled “Hearing the Tonality in Microtonality.”


Much scholarship on the funk groove centers on the concept of “the ‘One,’” which Anne Danielsen (quoting James Brown) memorably characterizes as a “downbeat, in anticipation.” But what exactly does this downbeat anticipate? I posit a commonsense answer—beat two. I propose a reframing of scholarly attention from “the ‘One’” to “the ‘Two’” on two interrelated grounds: (1) the onset of beat two, as a jumping-off point for the complexities of the groove texture, acts as arguably the strongest “attentional peak” (London 2004) in a typical funk groove; and because of this, (2) it can be characterized as the unique location within the measure that is vectored most palpably in a single direction. This is to say, if “the ‘One’” is somehow both downbeat and anticipation, gesturing simultaneously onwards and backwards, then “the ‘Two’” often gestures distinctively and unambiguously in just one direction—forwards. My notion of “the ‘Two’” as “jumping-off point” combines insights from Nicole Biamonte and Yonatan Malin in conceiving of beat two as a “higher-level displacement consonance.” This fuses Biamonte’s idea of the drum backbeat as “displacement consonance” with Malin’s remarks about the emergence of independent metric hierarchies in the face of sustained displacement dissonances. I frame the consonance of “the ‘Two’” in expectational terms: this is the juncture where one’s expectation of impending syncopation and cross-rhythm rises to a local maximum. I then discuss some musical examples in which the forward-directed impulse imparted by “the ‘Two’” is most clearly on display.

Metric Feel and Form in “Superstition”: Analyzing Stevie Wonder’s Beat “Pockets”

Fred Hosken (Northwestern University)

Fred Hosken is a PhD candidate in music theory and cognition at Northwestern University. His research investigates musical time, specifically what makes music groove and what gives particular performers their specific “feel.” His focus on the perception of groove is coupled with theories of rhythm, meter, and the beat, as well as computational methods of performance analysis, to advance a theory of beats as “pockets” of time. His phenomenological study of the multidimensional experience of groove appears in Psychology of Music and a large corpus of drum performances, created in collaboration with the Lucerne Groove Research lab, is forthcoming in Empirical Musicology Review.


Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” has become a stalwart of the groove-experience research literature, but the fine details of the performance remain underanalyzed. Previous investigations touch upon metric factors, though are mostly confined to the song’s Introduction. This paper analyzes the construction of the metrical beat throughout Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” utilizing a theory of “pockets” of time that vary in size and shape to understand the effect of performed meter on the perceived intensity of sections.

According to my theory of pockets, which builds on Danielsen’s “beat bins” (2006, 2010, 2018), 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. Formalizing this concept using probabilistic distributions over the beat-spans, I explore the qualitative effects of these extended beats and consider how the “tight” or “loose” construction of the beat can enhance the “feel” of a section. I argue that changes in the shape of the pocket can influence our experience of musical form, illustrating this by analyzing form and timing in “Superstition” using Music Information Retrieval techniques and exploring the consequences of different pocket sizes and shapes for the track’s “feel.” Overall, this paper reframes questions of microtiming towards appreciating the subtle ways performers shape musical time in terms that capture the qualitative listener experience.