Covering the Content: Rhythms and Timing in “Arcade”

Each year, the Eurovision network’s song competitions lead to thousands of song submissions. Of the hundreds broadcast throughout the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and beyond, only a few make it to the host cities where the contests are held. Each song has its own merits and can be explored in more depth. This article will build on the previous discussion about “Arcade”, the winning entry of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. The article will investigate the time-related, or rhythmic nuances found within and see how these interweave to form the backbone of a winning Eurovision song.

Timing and Rhythms

Time is the skeleton supporting all forms of music, whether the music is silent or even a programmed loop. As Westerners perceive it, musical counting, like consistent heartbeats, deals with counting steady musical pulses and organizing them into groupings, like beats per minute. Most modern dance music further divide minutes and can be thought of as repeating groups of 4 (or 8 for dancers). Waltzes are danced in 3.

What’s in the Verses?

While much literature regarding rhythmic principles and background is available in print and online, disagreement between publishers and conductors exist about how to count and notate the rhythms in the intro, outro, and even the verses. In fact, the conductor at UNESCON conducted the orchestra backing Chingiz (Azerbaijan 2019) in a 4 + 2 pattern from the intro until the pre-chorus, suggesting that the conductor thought of this as a constant change in asymmetric meters. This means that the two pulse groupings of 4 and 2 differ in both duration and pulse count. This section will argue that asymmetric meters are found in the introduction and outro only and that the groupings are in fact different than those previously mentioned. Other rhythmic aspects will also be discussed when applicable and after answering the counting question.

The best way to figure out how to notate and describe seemingly ambiguous rhythms is to look at parallel parts throughout a song or related work (albums, sequel songs, etc.) and see if these parallels provide any clarity. As stated in the previous article, the backing vocals from the intro/outro return in the second verse, so that is where we will start.

The lyrics “I’m (afraid of…)” and “(My) mind…” start two lines in this second verse, and four different chords demarcate the strongest pulses. After these four pulses, there are two more pulses before “mind” is sung. This results in six pulses per line. “My” is sung at the end of the first line’s music and is a pickup note, also known as anacrusis, to the second line’s associated music. These pickup notes do not affect the rhythmic structure of any section or phrase; musically, they lead into a strong (down) beat. The following section will give examples with illustrations of strong and secondary strong beats.

Examples of strong beats

Strong beats are marked using capitalized (bolded) lyrics (numbers). Secondary strong beats are italicized. Representations of bar lines (|) separate each count repetition, and the “+” (and) further divides the count into even groups:

“Happy Birthday”:

“22”, Sarah McTernan (Ireland 2019):

“Truth”, Chingiz Mustafayev (Azerbaijan 2019):

Audio samples of the above are below. The percussion, which acts as a metronome (time-keeping device) is panned far left for counting, and the open/longest hi-hat cymbal sound is beat 1. Each sample starts with 2 measures of percussion, fewer if there are pickup notes.

This shows that the first beat in each measure (bar) receives the most emphasis, with a four-beat measure receiving a secondary accent halfway through. This follows the pattern in Western music where most units of music are essentially divided fundamentally into 2 and 3, although groups of 4 also exist and are called common time.

“Truth” is a little bit different. None of the first beats are emphasized, and most of the lyrics actually fall off the beat numbers. In other words, the vocal line is heavily syncopated. The words “bear”, “shut”, and syllable “bout” also fall on 2 and 4, which are emphasized beats in music of African and African-American origin. While this may indicate some ambiguity on where the count actually lies, the cymbal and bass drum right before “it’s”, as well as the established norm of snaps and snare hits on 2 and 4, suggest that this is the correct organization. Its melodic rhythms are just syncopated.

For more reading about meter and historical rhythm discourse and applications, the sources below will give a general background.

Applying Strong Beat Concepts to “Arcade”

Knowing the properties of strong beats in rhythm groupings, we will divide a few lines from the second verse of “Arcade” into a 3 + 3 and 4 + 2 pattern and discuss the results.

In 3:

In 4 + 2:

While it is still theoretically plausible to consider this a 4 + 2 rhythm, the strong beat aligns with the text when counting in 3, while it lands on a rest or decaying vocal note in 4 + 2. The rest or decay conflicts with the property of strong beats. Historically African-American genres of music tend to emphasize the second and fourth beats of a 2 or 4-beat measure by clapping, snare drums, or similar percussive elements instead of focusing on 1 and 3, but that is not the case here.

Another aspect that may further complicate the determination is the drum part in the third verse, which by form is also a parallel section. Below is an informal transcription of said drum part in either of the two possible time signatures (there are small differences between vocal lines, but this is the general musical idea):

In 3:

In 4 + 2:

T represents timing (counting) relative to the amount of counts. B represents bass drum. S represents snare. x represents the time said drum hits.

In the previous section, groupings of 4 were said to have strong beats on 1 and 3, but rock, which derives largely from African branches of music like jazz and blues, puts an emphasis on 2 and 4. The 4 + 2 pattern perfectly emulates this in the longer measure. Although the first part of the 2-beat measure starts in a rest, examples of small breaks can be found in several songs, including those listed in this Reddit thread.

However, there is also another underlying rhythm that can be explained by thinking in 3. Considering the two-measure unit as a total of 6 beats, the snare hits at 2, 4, and 6. Thinking of the phrase in this manner evokes thoughts of Nightwish’s “Last Ride of the Day” and Sonata Arctica’s “The Boy Who Wanted to be a Real Puppet”, which utilize similar rhythms and are in triple meter (in 3) during most of the verses. The difference in implied meters creates a hemiola effect, where a rhythm of 3 is felt where 2 are felt normally. Going back to the strong beat concept, we can deduce that the unit of 6 beats would have a strong beat on 1 and weaker emphasis on 3 and 5. Writing both the assumed triple meter and the implied drum meter down gives us this:

Adam Neely, well-known YouTube music theorist and professional bassist, gives a much faster example of the counting rhythm in this video.

The drums are playing a pattern at half the speed of the vocal melody, which retains the bottom metric count. Their interaction thus creates rhythmic discord, which mirrors the inner conflict throughout the entire song. Overall, given both the vocal and drum cues, a case for the verses being in 3 is stronger than that of them being in asymmetric meters (4 and then 2). Therefore, we will treat the verses as being in 3 and then branch out from there.

For reference, the rhythms posited above are shown below in audio form. Strong beats are the longest cymbals (crash), secondary strong beats (3 in a bar of 4) are open hi-hats (moderately long), and the other beats are closed hi-hats (short). What do you think about how the time is divided?

Meter in the Rest of the Song

Having solved the mystery of the meter, we now go back to the beginning of the song, whose backing vocalizations are echoed in verses 2 and 3. Since the sections have parallels, it is prudent to think of the section as being in 3. However, there are two extra beats, like so (bolded):

1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 |

These 2 beats only retain ambient reverberations, so conducting them as two measures or as one measure of 5 beats is up to artistic choice, as the reverse engineering work of transcription removes information that may have been recorded previously. This leaves an asymmetric metrical structure in the introductions, almost as if Laurence’s thoughts trailed off during those two extra beats.

In the rest of the song, each measure takes up the equivalent of two beats in the verse sections. This is commonly associated with march rhythms, although this is about at the tempo (speed) of a relatively lively funeral march. However, the tempo seems to decrease even further during the bridge. The drums are stripped away, leaving six chords between 3 instruments, and the vocal notes change at about that speed as well, though the lyrics move faster than the actual shifts in notes. It could theoretically be felt in four, with “all I | know” taking two beats in one measure and two beats in the next measure. Despite that, applying off-beat (2 and 4) clapping rhythms to this theory proves odd, as if the feelings within the song are only expressed ironically.

Overall, that leaves us with this counting scheme for each section:

  • Intro (3 + 3 + 2 or 3 + 5) – asymmetric
  • Verses (3)
  • Pre-Chorus (2)
  • Chorus (2)
  • Bridge (2)
  • Outro (3 + 3 + 2 or 3 + 5) – asymmetric

Motifs: Development and Disappearance

Just as with literature, a musical motif is a theme or figure repeated throughout a work. “Arcade” includes motives as well. In the intro, outro, and verses, the song utilizes a long-short pattern, for example (bolded longer syllable) “heart is all that’s …”. The only verse not containing multiple examples of this pattern is the third verse, which is sandwiched between choruses as discussed in the first article. This may suggest an emotional development, potentially a pressing one, triggered by the addition of the drums. This contrasts with the emotions experienced and elevated in the first two verses.

Despite the differences in realization, all verses share the final line’s rhythm or a close variant therein. This is reinforced by the repeated lyrical theme of “carry[ing]”. When combined with the rhythmic aspects previously mentioned, the line acts as a short refrain.

In the chorus, the long-short pattern appears again. The bass and bass drum part play the pattern at the beginning of each measure. The continuity may add to a feeling of familiarity between sections, even as most of the musical content changes. However, like the third verse, the final chorus sees a change in the application of the rhythmic motif. While the bass drum stays constant, a long note similar to the string instruments’ behavior in the bridge emanates from the bass guitar before playing the long-short pattern. In bridging the two sections, listeners are transported from the mental apprehension found in the bridge, then to a bright, unfamiliar motivic spotlight as the final chorus hits, and back to an eerily familiar vocalization in the final seconds and its asymmetric meter.

Conclusion and What’s Next

Despite appearing simple to the ears, “Arcade” proves to be a rhythmic labyrinth holding back a flood of emotions within the lyrical content. The usage of refrains, motifs, hemiola, and other rhythmic intrigues scattered throughout the duration of the song have left many listeners enthralled by the deceptive simplicity that lies behind. The final article will focus on the harmonic content in the song and also some of the production elements found within. Stay tuned!

Sources and Resources:

“Meter and Time Changes” – Open Music Theory

Chingiz UNESCON performance with Elina Nechayeva

Compilation of discussions on African and African-American counting procedures

The March – A Quick Reference Guide

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