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The Importance of Theme and Variation in Hip-Hop Beat Making

This video and the excerpted text below are both featured in Soundfly’s online mentored course, The Art of Hip-Hop Production.

In the above video, you can watch me put together a quick trap beat and then create some simple variations on it. Subtle changes in the foundational loop or beat will help your song to feel like it’s moving forward as the song progresses, even though the track might only be built on a couple of repetitive looping fragments, just like so much of hip-hop production is.

With a minimal music style such as hip-hop, even the smallest variation or deviation from the established material can have powerful dramatic effects. Let’s learn a bit more.

Theme and Variation

As we just saw, one musical principle that has reverberated throughout time and across continents and cultures is theme and variation. To revisit that classic example, here’s the theme from Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” and the first variation of it, displayed in Ableton Live’s piano roll. The simple shifting of the notes downward is very effective.

Hip-hop is no different. Your loops and melodies are your main themes, and how you vary them creates excitement and drama in the music. Remember, hip-hop is a minimalist music — less is more.

The slightest variation in a drum pattern or bass pattern can open the song up and take it in a new direction. The changes you make to your elements should be very minor so that the integrity of the original loop is still in place.

In my video example above, my variations were as follows: First, I removed the hi-hat entirely (variation 1), then I added a kick and snare hit (variation 2), and finally I added kick and snare hits while removing snippets of the hi-hat pattern (variation 3). All of which is in addition to an already interesting yet repetitive beat sequence.

Addition and Subtraction

A simple tip for making more engaging tracks is to add or subtract an element every four to eight bars or so. Here are a few variation approaches to try:

  • Drop out one drum part
  • Slightly change the pattern of one of the drum parts
  • Add an extra note to the bass line
  • Put an effect on the main sound or sample for one cycle of the loop

Your variations should be small yet noticeable, and help keep the listener interested. Now it’s your turn to try it!

If you’re working on a beat, or even if you want to start a new one right now, try to create at least three variations of the loop you started with by removing parts, adding them back in, making simple changes to patterns, etc. If you feel inspired, develop your idea further by adding other elements, and taking the beat out entirely for a bar or two.

Want help on the track you’re working on or some objective feedback to keep you going? Let us know here and we’ll set you up with a Soundfly Mentor who can help you achieve your next musical goal!

Learn tons more about hip-hop beat making, production, and history in Soundfly’s new mentored online course, The Art of Hip-Hop Production, and get one-on-one feedback on your work for six weeks with a Soundfly Mentor. What are you waiting for? Preview the course for free here.

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Charles Burchell
Charles Burchell

Charles Burchell is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and diplomat from New Orleans, LA. He has studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the New England Conservatory (B.M. ’12), and most recently completed the Masters of Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Ed. M ’13). Burchell has recorded and produced albums with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Delfayo Marsalis, Ran Blake, Ciel Rouge, his band The Love Experiment (featured in Touring on a Shoestring), and has performed and given master classes at various music festivals around the world. Burchell also works as a cultural diplomat with the Next Level Program and is currently a teaching artist for Carnegie Hall’s Digital Music Production Workshop and Musical Connections Program in which he works with court involved youth and students from various boroughs throughout New York City. Burchell continues to perform regularly around the U.S. and internationally as a DJ, drummer, and bandleader.