Nova: Rhythmic Elements of “Red-Handed”

This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of “Periapsis,” however please don’t get scared off!  Over the next year we will post a wide variety of conversation-starters for music lovers of any knowledge level and will begin each post with our modest guess of what demographic might enjoy it most.  So here it is again for this week: “This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of ‘Periapsis.’” – Nick


Of all of the songs on our album, “Red-Handed” certainly wins the award for “most rhythmically intricate.”  For the most part, while the rhythmic component of the song is extremely involved and syncopated, its skeletal structure is actually quite repetitive, and can most easily be witnessed in the bass as a series of rhythmic values, the most common of which is [five] (sixteenth-notes).  The first half of the repeating form is as follows:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 3 – 3 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 4 – 6

And the second half, quite similar but mussed up a bit in the middle:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – [2 – 5] – 5 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 6

These rhythms fall into surprisingly simple metering:

Taking this rhythmic skeleton and “muting” certain values during the verses created some breathing room in the arrangement to divert attention to the vocals while preserving the syncopated style of the music. Below, the numerical values in parentheses are muted, however still present:

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 7 – 3 – (3 – 6 – 3) – 4 – (4) – 6

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 2 – 5 – 5 – (5 – 5) – 4 – (4) – 6

That’s it for the numbers, don’t worry.  Translated into written music:

There are a number of textural and orchestral layers added on during the chorus, so the continuation of the rhythmic sequence is not all that apparent.  It is quite similar to the structure preceding it, but eventually departs as most developmental music inevitably does.  You can hear it most explicitly in the modulating electric piano hits.  Most of the changes and development upon the base rhythm were simply consequential from the stretching of the structure over a (gasp!) backbeat.  This thread of musical material exists alongside the primary elements of the chorus as an interlocking yet independent element rather than an orchestrational or complementary one.  Its inclusion was crucial to a feeling of continuity between the chorus and verse both because of the striking stylistic differences and the very different key areas of each section.  Even though “Red-Handed” is quite section-al, the continuation of the layer helps to mask this potentially unsavory characteristic by creating the illusion of a continuous flow.

The section after the chorus, which we so appropriately refer to as the “post-chorus,” undergoes a slightly more rigid and note-worthy development.  Here is the first portion of our skeletal structure depicted as a rhythmic grid (TUBS., anyone?):

We took the entire rhythm, copied it, moved it two 16th’s later, and dropped it back on top of the original (figuratively, of course).

...structure copied...


...and pasted back on top.

At the beginning of the post chorus, this rhythmic counterpoint takes place largely between the voice and the bass.

As you’ll notice, in the second half of the post-chorus, the counterpoint exists between two layers of vocals separated by an octave, but the lyrics flow continuously over it:

“the MEANS, the MO – tive, AND the, OP – por – TU – ni-ty

E – ven MORE – so IF you RE – fuse to deny!”

Yes, it’s a bit hard to make out the lyrics in this section if you don’t have them sitting in front of you.  But it sounds wild and kind of cool, right?

So the big question remaining is, “Why did Nova go to the trouble of weaving these patterns and development into the music in the first place?”  The answer is quite simple: Because we wanted to!  But to avoid a complete cop-out, here are some other things that we were not thinking at the time, but are nonetheless true:

  1. Human intellect recognizes patterns and complex development both consciously and subconsciously, so it doesn’t really matter if you actually “hear” the rhythmic development.
  2. We want the rhythmic aspect of our music to be a living, breathing, and growing element rather than an obligatory layer so often taken for granted in popular music.
  3. The complex, albeit organized rhythmic structure of the verses highlights the novelty of the backbeat in the chorus.
  4. The relatively complex rhythms make the music inherently different than a lot of other music that sounds sonically similar.
  5. It posed a challenge to record, which kept us interested, to say the least.

Question of the week:  From a distance, “Red-Handed” appears to be dance music, and we have always pictured it as such.  What do you think?  Please comment and give us your thoughts…or talk about something completely different if you wish!


8 thoughts on “Nova: Rhythmic Elements of “Red-Handed”

  1. Very informative! Loved the breakdown and it was really nice to see the lyrics written down, although I do enjoy the effect of it being a little difficult to understand without the lyrics in front of me.

    It makes me want to dance…if I was having a seizure or If I were from Bulgaria.

    • Let’s just hope that this music doesn’t induce seizures!

      I agree about the difficulty understanding lyrics is something of an asset at times. I guess the thing I like about it is that the music can sound completely zany, but you can still catch key words that may end up being more evocative than the sentences themselves. I’ve heard that plenty of times in Michael Jackson’s music, but part of that comes from him pronouncing words really strangely (and awesomely)…I particularly enjoy the way his voice is often used as a percussive instrument without resorting to vocables or straight up beat-boxing.

      By the way, all the lyric content on “Periapsis” are on our website: More specifically:


  2. great post! fascinating process. regarding dancing, i’m guessing zakir hussein could boogie
    to this one, but i myself would probably have to lay low, bobbing in a non-comital, inconspicuous way until the choruses at which point i could briefly get my freak on. but i can’t dance nor count to anything besides 4. speaking of which, you know where i can pick up one of these “human intellects”? apparently i need a better one.

    • We actually tried to weave a bit of sarcastic commentary on the “head-bobbing” issue into the actual music. If you try to keep a quarter note with toe-tapping or some type of head movement, you’ll inevitably end up on upbeats at some point.

      So we tried to musically “tip our hat” at this little piece of comedy by putting it in the ride cymbal in every chorus except the first. The ride isn’t all that audible because other percussion instruments and synths cover it up a bit, but at first it is on all the quarter notes, a la Kurt Rosenwinkle’s “Heartcore,” but after the hiccupy bar of 7/8 in the middle, that pulse becomes the upbeat, transforming the cymbal (quite seamlessly, I might add *raises eyebrow and glass and nods at himself in the mirror*) into some type of dance/techno beat. Ha.

  3. I think one of the more impressive aspects of this song is how the intense interlocking of rhythm, as described above, becomes the foundation for something even more intriguing (at least to me): the breakdown of language itself.

    I would suggest that the manipulation of linguistic content itself is one of the naturally assumed and yet utterly complex and critical aspects of modern pop music. This manifests in various forms; abrogations of syllable flow, the accentuation of unique dialects or accents as markers of compositional style, the purposeful isolation of sound segments within words, so on and so forth.

    This is clearly demonstrated in “Red-Handed” which very deliberately utilizes lyrical intelligibility as a compositional technique that quite brilliant in its implementation. The rhythm and cadence of each sentence unit is broken in a way that imposes disconcerting rhythmic uniformity on incongruous rhythm patterns, patterns which are naturally assumed in our daily speech. Oba’s performance and the electronic treatment of each sound exaggerates this effect; my mind was left intensely pondering each syllabic utterance without the rhythmic context which would give them symbolic meaning.

    • Not to go ‘musicologist’ on us here, but it is interesting how rhythms in popular music (previously known as secular music, before classical music went secular as well) most likely hail from the natural rhythm of speech in the first place…and it has been going on so long that the tables have now turned and a lot of popular music inadvertently redefines the structure of language and uses the relationship to create another layer of musical meaning.

      A great example of that, to me, is Rufus Wainwright. His lyrics and music feel completely natural, word by word, but his sentence structures, sentence groups, etc. are completely broken down by the music. He’ll finish a phrase without finishing a sentence, and then unapologetically finish the sentence over the next phrase without the slightest bit of pause between it and the next.

      MJ in a different way…almost completely opposite to Rufus. We can’t understand what he’s saying sometimes (“c’mon” somehow becomes “shaa-moan”), but the sentences are structured in very logical ways. And the rhythms often feel continuous rather than obligatorily phrased…so when he growls out his performance, we have something like jagged and indecipherable graffiti on top of huge mural of New York City made entirely out of beer labels. Now THAT’s art.

      So I couldn’t agree more, Sabir. So much popular music is naturally assuming this responsibility, even though, at its core, it is SO “utterly complex,” Hooray for music of all types!

    • Thank YOU, Dustin! Would you be down at some point to do a guest post on some of Z’s music?

      Everybody check out this guy’s band, @ibelieveinz! They are defenders of the galaxy!

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