Characteristics of Music: Reggae

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been taking a closer look at the characteristics that make each musical genre unique and different from the last. We started our journey with a look at pop music’s characteristics, before moving on to jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, and lastly, R&B. Let’s keep that ball rolling this week with a look at the 5 critical characteristics of reggae.

What is Reggae?

Today, while the term is sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of popular Jamaican dance music, the term reggae actually refers to a particular style of music that was originally influenced by traditional mento and calypso music, with a dash of jazz and rhythm and blues, especially New Orleans R&B performed by artists like Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint, and evolved out of earlier genres like ska and rocksteady.

Reggae originated out of Jamaica in the 1960s, and was made world-famous by artists like Bob Marley, Peter Toch, and Jimmy Cliff. In fact, the genre even gets its name from the 1968 single “Do the Reggay” by Toots and the Maytals. That same year, songs like “Nanny Goat” by Larry Marshall, “No More Heartaches” by The Beltones, “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker, and “People Funny Boy” by Lee “Scratch” Perry broke big in Kingston and helped establish reggae as a key form of Jamaican popular music.

Heavily influenced by and associated with Rastafarianism – a Jamaican religious movement that began in the 1930s. Since then, reggae has become the voice of the Jamaican people, who have used it to tell the world about their history, culture, ad struggles in a political system that had enslaved and marginalized countless Jamaicans.

To this day, reggae continues to use lyrical content that comments on political and socio-economic issues in Jamaica and around the world.

Characteristics of Reggae

Vocal Style

In many musical genres, the vocal style itself can be a defining characteristic. And while the vocal style associated with reggae is somewhat less important than with other genres, there are a few unique elements. For example, it’s quite common for reggae songs to be performed with a Jamaican patois, Jamaican English, and Lyaric dialects. Vocal harmonies are common, either throughout the melody, or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line. One unique aspect of reggae’s vocal style is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather than vibrato (pitch oscillation).

Lyrical Themes

When it comes to its lyrics, reggae is mostly known for its tradition of social criticism, although many reggae songs discuss other, lighter subjects, like love and life. However, most reggae lyrics try to raise the political consciousness of the audience by criticizing materialism or discussing controversial socio-political topics like Apartheid, Black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, criticism of oppressive political systems, and Babylon.

Tempo & Meter

The majority of reggae songs employ the 4/4 meter, with a heavy emphasis on the backbeat. Generally, the average tempo of a reggae song ranges from about 80 to 110 beats per minute. This is slightly slower than the average commercial pop song, and can be attributed to the strong groove reggae is known for – a groove that only makes sense with a slightly slower tempo.

Instrumentation

Despite the differences, reggae uses similar instruments as most popular music. The instrument that make up the foundation of a typical reggae song include drums, electric bass, electric guitar, and the keyboard.

However, over the years other instruments have made their way into the average reggae band. Instruments like horns, brass, and afro-Cuban percussion have been introduced over the decades to spice things up a bit.

It’s also worth noting that reggae is often rather bass-heavy. Most reggae songs put their bass up front in the mix with low subs that are meant to move the dance floor.

Harmony

Reggae songs tend to stick with fairly straightforward chord progressions. Most of the chords follow common progressions like I-V-vI-IV ( in the key of C, this would be C-G-A min-F). A great example of this is Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”

Rhythm

Reggae is all about rhythm. In fact, you can clearly tell the difference between reggae and pretty much any other musical genre simply by identifying the rhythmic patterns.

Reggae incorporates a lot of off-beat rhythms. These are usually staccato beats played by the guitarist or pianist (and sometimes both) on the off-beats (or upbeats) of each measure. This is what gives reggae its “jumpy” feeling. The “one-drop rhythm” is another popular pattern found in many reggae songs. When applied, it emphasizes the third beat, while having no emphasis on the first beat at all.

The bass guitar plays an important role in holding down the reggae rhythms. Most reggae bass parts simply repeat the riffs with frequent octave jumps. While the bass gives a reggae song its weight, other instruments, like the drums and guitar, fill in the “holes” to create an incredible, polyrhythmic pattern.

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