Reggae is a genre of a popular music that originated out of Jamaica in the 1960s, made famous by artists such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. It grew out of traditional Jamaican musical styles such as Ska and was heavily associated to Rastafarianism – a religious movement that took root in Jamaica in the 1930s. Since then, reggae has been a musical voice for Jamaicans to tell the world about their history, culture and struggles in a political system that had enslaved and marginalized plenty of Jamaicans. Till today, a lot of reggae music has lyrical content that touch on political and social-economic issues in Jamaica and around the world.
As reggae is so specific to Jamaica, it is worth exploring its musical characteristics and learn more about how we can incorporate them into our music projects. You may not want to compose or produce a whole reggae tune, but you may find that learning about a specific genre will be a great help in learning more about music and more specifically, grooves.
To ascertain how a musical style works, we would need to quantify them into a few categories. Some of them can be applied across multiple genres and some are a little more specific to reggae. For this week, we shall break down and analyze reggae by looking at its vocal style, tempo and meter, instrumentation, and harmonic and rhythmic content.
Breaking it down
1. Vocal Style: Since reggae originated from Jamaica, the Jamaican accent is evident in most reggae music. Lyrically, most reggae music comes from a deep sense of animosity and need for survival and to be fighters.
2. Tempo & Meter: A decent amount of reggae songs, if not all, are written using the 4/4 meter with heavy emphasis on the back beat (more on that later). The average tempo of a reggae tune would range between 80 – 110 bpm, slightly slower than the usual commercial pop songs. Reason being is that reggae has a strong groove that would only make sense with slower tempos.
3. Instrumentation: Reggae music employs similar instrumentation as other pop tunes found here in America. The instruments that form the foundation of a reggae song would be drums, electric bass, electric guitar and keyboard. However, over the years, other instruments such as horns, brass and afro-cuban percussions have been introduced into reggae to spice the music up. It is worth noting that reggae music is bass heavy. Most reggae songs have the bass upfront in the mix with low subs that are meant to rock the dance floor.
4. Harmony: The chord progressions of reggae songs are fairly straightforward. Most of the chords follow common progressions such as the I – V – vi – IV (in the key of C, it is C maj – G maj, A min – F maj) like in Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry“. Peter Tosh made this two-chord progression of i – VII (in the key of A minor, it is A min – G maj) in “Johnny B Goode“ pretty popular in many reggae hits.
5. Rhythm: Everything about reggae has to do with the rhythm. One can clearly differentiate a reggae tune against another genre by just identifying the rhythm patterns. Reggae incorporates plenty of off-beat rhythms. These are usually staccato beats played by a guitar or piano (sometimes both) on the off-beats (upbeats) of a measure. This gives most reggae music a “jumpy” feel. The “One Drop Rhythm” is another rhythm pattern noticeable in reggae. In application, it emphasizes the third beat while having no beat on the first. The bass guitar plays an important role in holding the rhythm down in reggae. Most reggae bass parts are just repeating riffs (melodic patterns) with frequent octave jumps. While the bass provides the weight and anchor, other instruments such as percussions and guitars to fill in the “holes” to create complex poly-rhythm patterns.