Rhythmic Disorientation

I want to talk about a concept that I’ve taken to calling rhythmic disorientation. I started to notice it a few years ago at university when I was sinking my teeth into some funky music. If you enjoy challenging your ear, then this post is for you.

Check out this clip of the start of Michael Jackson’s Baby Be Mine.

You might think nothing of this. A tight drum fill and then straight into the groove, nothing unorthodox about that.

But if you interpret this the way I did for a good many years, you might find yourself unsettled.

It almost feels like there’s a gap. I would say to myself as I sat in the Gloucester Road traffic on the number 49 bus.. The snare hits at the beginning are perfectly measured, only to be followed by a flurry of toms that feels just slightly off. Surely Shreveport, Louisiana’s own Ndugu Chancler has no trouble counting a bar of 4?

Eventually I found out that the problem wasn’t with the musicianship, but with how I was perceiving the rhythm.

Let’s take a look at the music.

Baby Be Mine Wrong

Have a listen to the intro again and try and follow along. I’ve added a metronome to help out.

Oh, actually, now that I listen to it, this kinda sounds alright. There is nothing confusing about this after all it’s jus-

…Nah I lied. It’s not the actual recording, I edited it to make the beat fit the metronome.

Here’s the original recording (with metronome)

Woah there, what’s going on? Do you hear that? Is there a bar of 17/16 that starts this song or what?

No, Quincy wasn’t orchestrating a clandestine prog-rock career shift for MJ. The rhythm is actually just a normal bar of 4 – the odd rhythm we are hearing is caused by our frame of reference, we are “disorientated”.

It turns out, the very first beat we hear in the song is not the downbeat, it’s a swung 16th note before the downbeat.

It’s entirely common for songs to start ‘on the upbeat’ as it is known. Imagine the Pink Panther theme tune “duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh-duh-nuh-duh-nuh-duh-nuh” (Can you tell I got bored of editing sheet music?). Those “duhs” don’t fall on the downbeat, they come just before.

Or imagine “Happy Birthday”. The beat kicks on “Birth” – this entirely makes sense when you think about how the phrase flows – when you speak the sentence “Happy birthday to you”, the stresses naturally fall as “Happy BIRTH-day to YOU”. Imagine saying “HAP-py birthday TO you” – it totally sounds off, and this is how it would sound if it didn’t have this upbeat.

Anyway, back to the MJ example. Listen again, this time with a metronome that starts in the correct place.

The music might look something like this (I’m not an expert on drum score notation)

Baby Be Mine Legit
Wow! It has an entirely different feel now! It actually feels in time for a start. I don’t know whether I just have problems with my sense of rhythm, but when I first understood the intro in the right context, it had a profound effect on me, like seeing the faces instead of the vase. It’s so fun how although nothing has changed except our perception, yet that causes the rhythm to feel entirely different.

I call it rhythmic disorientation because there are similarities with physical disorientation (and re-orientation). I always enjoy that feeling that occurs when you take a different route to normal, think you’re lost, and then realise that you know exactly where you are. A new mental map that your brain has just assembled floods in, and there’s a sort of rush as you realise “Oh right, I was here the whole time, Quigley’s Drive actually just forms a right angled triangle with Bishop’s Place and Blarney’s Corner, of course!

Harmonic Disorientation
Music that stimulates in this challenging way is where I think some of the greatest joy can be found – not only in terms of rhythm, but also from a harmonic standpoint.

I reckon there can be such a concept as “harmonic disorientation”, and am sure that that’s part of what makes a good key change so rewarding; When you change key, your brain suddenly scrambles to process the new and exciting tonal environment, but is at the same time treading in familiar territory as the same refrain repeats itself once again.

I love this key change, it’s wonderful. It’s all fine and dandy plodding along with the flute in Db minor, then you reach the Ab chord and you are hoiked into the new realm of F minor – a whole major third up from where we started! Frantically, the brain reprocesses the new harmonic information we’ve been given and the thrill washes over you like a wave of ice water. Hehe.

I left the music going since I figure once that key change hits you might well want to see it through to the end.

If you’re interested in this, I’m curating a Spotify playlist of songs with similar moments, so leave a comment if you have any songs you think should be added!

By the way Baby Be Mine is arguably the best song on the Thriller album.



Last year I had the opportunity to be involved in an excellent production of Merrily We Roll Along at Imperial College. Our director, Izzy, was a mathematician, and introduced us to the idea of chaotic attractors through a fun physical warmup.

The 30 or so of us in the cast would stand in the room, and the idea was that you had to pick 2 other random people and try and move into a position such that you formed the three corners of an equilateral triangle.

What was interesting was that although sometimes this could go on for minutes, with no one showing any sign of reaching their ideal formation, other times we would end up in a steady state, where no one would need to move any further.

I have no idea of the maths behind what determines a deadlock vs an unending whirl of people, but being a computer scientist and not a mathematician I thought I’d try and create a simulation of the event for kicks.