Some Basic Music Theory For Lighting Humans

You gotta know where “one” is.

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The “big boss” at my regular gig is a drummer. He loves the “technical” end of playing the instrument – all the subtle and not subtle things that percussion can do to drive a song. We once had a conversation regarding “strange” grooves and weird time-signatures, and he related to me a tiny piece of advice that had revolutionized his thinking:

“You just gotta know where ‘one’ is.”

In his drumming context, even the most bizarre phrasing could be managed and worked into a tune, just as long as the drummer maintained an awareness of when everything was supposed to resolve, sync up, and start over. If the player knew when one musical pattern was about to give way to another, there was very little chance of getting lost or confused. The tune might get very complex and off-center, but there would always be a moment when everything “locked up” again and anchored the music.

So, what does this have to do with people who build and drive light shows?

Timely Event Acknowledgement

If you’ve ever seen a show where the lighting had nothing at all to do with the music, you probably didn’t enjoy it very much. Lights flashing at random, with chases just randomly switching up haphazardly aren’t much of a show. It gets into the realm of visual noise – information entering the eye that’s disorganized and hard to pattern-match. If it’s bad enough, the light “show” never ends up correlating with the music at all, and is internally random enough that the brain just ignores it.

On the other hand, light shows that acknowledge musical events, and acknowledge those events at the right time, are tremendously fun and bring the entire experience up to a new artistic height.

The key to that is timing, and the key to timing is understanding a little bit about how music is constructed.

A Turn Of Phrase

Most of the music that you’re likely to run into is built using “phrases.” Phrases are often discernible as repeated patterns or modified patterns of musical events, although more complex music has phrasing which isn’t always based on readily identifiable repetition. In music that most people find to be “easy to listen to,” phrase boundaries occur at very specific and predictable points in time: The beginnings and ends of measures or “bars.” Each bar is subdivided into a number of beats, which are a sort of internal, logical synchronization for musical events inside each bar.

If all of this sounds confusing, you don’t need to worry. You probably already have a workable grasp of all this in an intuitive sense. For instance, if I describe some bog-standard techno music as going “thud, thud, thud, thud,” and you can imagine bobbing your head in sync with each “thud,” then you know what beats are. In this particular case, each “thud” is a beat. There are multiple thuds per bar, and within each bar is enough space for at least one musical phrase. You might have a very fast phrase between the first beat and the second, or a longer phrase that takes up half the bar, or an even longer phrase that takes up the whole bar…or a much, much longer musical idea that develops over several bars before coming to a logical conclusion.

For a slightly more involved example, take a listen to this short excerpt of The Floyd Show playing the bridge bridge from “Pigs: Three Different Ones.”

I don’t know how Pink Floyd formally represents the music, but what I hear are two bars of four beats each. (Musical timing using four beats per measure is so ubiquitous that it’s even called “common time,” but be aware that all kinds of other timing schemes exist. You might hear music built around three, six, seven, or even other numbers of beats per bar.)

The drums play a repeating pattern that cycles every two beats. The “major” kick hits are on beats one and three. The snare hits are on two and four.

The lead guitar plays non repeating phrases. The first phrase is a higher note with vibrato, that lasts through the first bar. The second phrases is a lower note that lasts through the second bar.

The rhythm guitar plays a repeating phrase, itself constructed of repeating sub-phrases, with each complete phrase cycling once per measure.

The bass plays four phrases of increasing complexity. Each phrase lasts the better part of two beats, with “pickup notes” especially audible before the bulk of the last phrase. (You might say that pickup notes are like taking an audible breath before speaking.)

The point of describing all of this is so that you can use multiple elements to help figure out where each bar starts. The start of the bar is “where one is,” and provides you the reference point for the other beats in the bar. If you’re going to call a different light cue or start a different chase, it’s musically appropriate to call that cue in exact sync with a beat. It’s even more musically appropriate to call that cue in sync with the first beat of a bar.

Calling light cues in a way that acknowledges the timing of the music has a way of making things look right, which is especially helpful if you’re – to put it bluntly – pulling the show out of your rear. The show might not have been synchronized in advance, but to the audience, it LOOKS like it was. This increases the show’s perceived production values, and that’s something we always want, right?

As you get more and more practice, it will become easier for you to “feel” the timing of a song without having heard it before.

Additional Ideas

If you want to try for still greater heights, try to get a sense for when major parts of a song are transitioning into other sections. It’s not always the case, but it’s true (often enough to be useful) that these transitions can be musically telegraphed. Listen to what happens in this next excerpt from “Pigs,” at around 10.5 seconds or so:

The musicians break off from the phrasing patterns they’ve been using, and use a “fill” to signal that a different musical section is coming up.

Different sections of a song tend to have different emotional themes, and using the lighting rig to punctuate that major musical shift at exactly the right moment is A Very Cool Thing To Do™. In a way, this is the ultimate case of “knowing where one is.” Not only is the cue-call on the beat, and on the first beat of a measure, but it’s on the first beat of the measure that’s the first measure in a larger musical thought.

This same basic premise can be used as a guide when calling cues over a song that starts with a count-in. It’s the ultimate signal for a big transition: The one from “not playing a song” to “playing a song.” It also gives you the timing on a silver platter. The drummer clicks the sticks together on what will become the beat, and you can watch to see if it looks like the percussionist’s next step is to hit the drums…or keep counting.

Not all count-ins are as obvious, it’s true. At the same time, you can listen for clues that come together to give you a pretty good picture of what’s going to happen. If other musicians are seemingly wrapping up musical thoughts as they play to the end of phrases, and the drummer starts doing something to “feel” the timing they’ll have to keep, then it’s a good bet that the song is about to go full-tilt-boogie. Again, an example from “Pigs:”

About four seconds in, you start to hear the drummer count in with the hat. The patterns you hear in the other instruments’ phrases give you a clue that you’re probably going to hear eight clicks on the hat before the big drum accent occurs. If the phrases don’t seem to be about to finish a full cycle when compared to what’s already happened, it’s probably not quite time for the big musical shift to take place.

A final thing to listen for is a musical phrase that I mentioned earlier: A “pickup.” Pickups are lead-ins to phrases that occur before the measure where the “phrase proper” actually resides. Here’s the beginning of “Have A Cigar:”

Depending on how you count it, the snare-tom pickup that leads into the first beat of the next bar happens entirely within the fourth beat. The kick-hit is where the first beat of the next measure actually is, and the pickup gives you a small window of time where you can prepare to call the cue precisely.

(Of course, nothing beats actually knowing the songs. Nailing everything with no prep at all is pretty darn difficult.)

Getting Out Of Major Trouble


What happens if you’re really struggling? You can’t seem to get synced up with the musicians, and the songs are all over the map. You can’t figure out what’s going on. What can you do?

Frankly, it’s almost always safe to do less, and do it more slowly. There’s nothing awful about calling a single static cue at the start of each song. If the fade time on that cue is set so that the lighting transition is very gradual, you don’t have to worry much about calling that cue on the beat. Sharp, yet “sparse” lighting transitions become jarring if they don’t sync with the music, but gentle transitions tend to sit in the background of the audience’s perception anyway.

If you can’t figure out where “one” is, that’s okay. Adopt a strategy that’s makes it unnecessary to know, and you’ll most likely get through in a decent fashion.

Otherwise, feel the beat, and let ‘er rip!