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THE “AMEN BREAK”
As composer and “beat creator” I have always been intrigued by grooves, vamps and licks. Some “patterns” stand out from the rest or play an important role in the development of music. The “Amen Break” is one of those “patterns” that played a major role in the development (sampled or imitated) of Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop, Broken Beat and Drum ‘n Bass music. All genres I listen to, play and produce music, and naturally like a lot.
In this article I will first share some info and youtubes about this break.
After that I will write something about a story that got around on the web, proclaiming that the popularity of this break has to do with the “Golden Ratio” (read now).
! NOTE: the author (Michael S. Schneider) that created that story has deleted his article.
WHAT IS THE AMEN BREAK?
“The Amen break is a 6 second (4 bar) drum solo performed in 1969 by Gregory Cylvester “G. C.” Coleman in the song “Amen, Brother” performed by the 1960s funk and soul outfit The Winstons. The full song is an up-tempo instrumental rendition of Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” which he wrote for the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field (1963) and which was subsequently popularized by The Impressions in 1964. The Winstons’ version was released as a B-side of the 45 RPM 7-inch vinyl single “Color Him Father” in 1969 on Metromedia (MMS-117), and is currently available on several compilations and on a 12-inch vinyl re-release together with other songs by The Winstons.”
THE “AMEN BREAK” MINI DOCUMENTARY (below on the left)
“This fascinating, brilliant 20-minute video narrates the history of the “Amen Break,” a six-second drum sample from the b-side of a chart-topping single from 1969. This sample was used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music, and became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle music, a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures. Nate Harrison’s 2004 video is a meditation on the ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and the history of a remarkable music clip.”
BBC 1XTRA (below on the right)
As featured on BBC 1Xtra Featuring: James Lavelle, Ray Keith, Chase & Status, Fabio & Grooverider, Dillinja, Alec Empire, J Majik, DJ Slipmatt, Luke Vibert, Wickaman, Michael S. Schneider, Nate Harrison, Richard Lewis Spencer and Gregory C. Coleman (The Winstons). You can also find the registration of this radio show at mixcloud.com).
THE AMEN BREAK and the GOLDEN RATIO
In February 2004 I came across a website “www.constructingtheuniverse.com” by Michael S. Schneider. One article in particular looked interesting, an article called “The Amen Break and the Golden Ratio”. In that article Michael S. Schneider compares the peak in the wave file of the Amen Break the Golden Ratio.
! NOTE: Michael S. Schneider has deleted his article “The Amen Break and the Golden Ratio”.
If you do not know what the Golden Ratio is, then I suggest you read this Wikipedia article first. In short: “In mathematics, two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities.”
According to the Wikipedia article the Golden Ratio has been used in music:
“Ernő Lendvaï analyzes Béla Bartók‘s works as being based on two opposing systems, that of the golden ratio and the acoustic scale, though other music scholars reject that analysis. French composer Erik Satie used the golden ratio in several of his pieces, including Sonneries de la Rose+Croix. The golden ratio is also apparent in the organization of the sections in the music of Debussy‘s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in Water), from Images (1st series, 1905), in which “the sequence of keys is marked out by the intervals 34, 21, 13 and 8, and the main climax sits at the phi position.”
The musicologist Roy Howat has observed that the formal boundaries of La Mer correspond exactly to the golden section. Trezise finds the intrinsic evidence “remarkable,” but cautions that no written or reported evidence suggests that Debussy consciously sought such proportions.
Pearl Drums positions the air vents on its Masters Premium models based on the golden ratio. The company claims that this arrangement improves bass response and has applied for a patent on this innovation.
Though Heinz Bohlen proposed the non-octave-repeating 833 cents scale based on combination tones, the tuning features relations based on the golden ratio. As a musical interval the ratio 1.618… is 833.090… cents.”
On his site Michael S. Schneider wrote:
“For more exact visual analysis I examined the wave image in my computer, in which I have a palatte of geometric forms and proportions for quickly identifying an object’s ratios. Sure enough, Golden Ratio relationships were indicated among the different peaks. Am I seeing things? You decide. But the appearance of the Golden Ratio may help explain its popularity.”
“So on the computer I simply laid down lengths divided at the Golden Ratio (yellow and blue lengths are in Golden Ratio), and Golden Proportion expansions, to see how many peaks appear simultaneously at Golden divisions.
Here’s what I saw:”
Visit his website for the full article.
Now, at first sight it might look like Michael S. Schneider was onto something here.
But, I was not completely convinced yet and decided I should look into the matter a bit more, before writing about it in a blog article. I decided to Google a bit more on “Amen+Break+Golden+Ratio”, to see if other sources write about this subject. And, yes, there it was, an article by Sean Barrett called “The Amen Break Does Not Involve The Golden Ratio”.
In his article, Sean Barrett questions the proclaimed relationship by Michael S. Schneider. He mentions the following:
“If you click through to the audio linked from Schneider’s article, you will not hear the full Amen Break. You will instead hear what appears to be measure #2 looped four times.”
In his article Michael S. Schneider links to a “Amen Break” loop at free-loops.com. As Sean Barrett mentioned, it is a 4-bar loop of the 2nd measure of the Amen Break. Another thing to make note of is that the tempo of this version is much lower then the original (see the beginning of this blog article).
Sean Barrett continues:
“This is, admittedly, the common use of the Amen Break. Indeed, the real significance of the Amen Break was probably nothing magical about it, just that it was a decent, funky beat which could be found with no accompanying music, allowing it to be sampled and reused as a pure beat in a way that the drums in most recordings could not be.
So if the Golden Ratio were going to explain the popularity of the Amen Break, it should probably be describing properties of the part that everyone samples, and everyone has heard. However, that is not the part that Schneider studies.”
Sean Barrett in this case refers to the difference between then wave-form (image) provided by Michael S. Schneider with the audio-loop he linked to.
The image below is one provided by Sean Barrett, with what the wave-form actually looks like, if you use the audio-loop referred to by Michael S. Schneider on his site (above).
And now the images of the wave-form Michael S. Schneider provided on his site and used as foundation for his theory (while referring to the loop above):
Sean then looked-up the exact part of the audio selected on image used by Michael S. Schneider as containing the Golden Ration from the audio of the full Amen Break. I have colored the particular selection of Michael S. Schneider yellow in the wave-form image provided by Sean Barrett:
Sean Barrett concludes:
“What part of the song is this? It starts on the 3rd eighth note of the third measure, and his end point is the 8th eight note of the fourth measure (not the end of the fourth measure). It’s the syncopated part of the drum break, starting from and ending in a weird place.
The period in which he’s finding the golden ratio is just a totally non-musical-choice of subsection of the Amen Break (and a part that is hardly ever sampled or imitated). It’s not even an even number of beats long; it is 6 and a half quarter notes in length, i.e. 6 1/2 beats long.
If you listened to that in a loop it would sound bizarre. (It’s actually a sort of “odd-time signature” thing I personally like a lot, but it’s the opposite of popular. The nice powers-of-two ruler-marking pattern of measure 2 is the quintessence of popular.)”
Below an audio cut I made to let you hear how the loop would sound if we would loop the audio as selected by Michael S. Schneider:
The loop (above) – cut as shown in Michael S. Schneider’s image with the Golden Ratio bar – starts with a snare hit on the first click of the messure instead of a kick-drum. This it is not a very common way to start a beat loop (with a snare) nor is the “odd-time signature” (13/8). Using the “Golden Ratio” loop – as proclaimed by Michael S. Schneider) is definitely not “mainstream” enough to explain the “popularity” of the Amen Break (that is generally used as loop in a basic time signature, such as 4/4).
Sean Barrett writes in his article also a little about the ratios of the drum sounds in relationship with the proper loop and provides additional images and information disproving Michael S. Schneider’s story.
For more information, I do suggest read the full article by Sean Barrnett.
- The Golden Ratio does NOT explain the popularity of the “Amen Break”, in the first place because the part of the break that has the Golden Ratio proportions (as shown by Michael S. Schneider) is not used to create the beat loop used in so many tracks.
- We could also conclude that Michael S. Schneider has not “studied” the “Amen Break” and the wave-form very well. After all, to refer to a wave loop that does not match the wave-form (image) is not a very “scientific” approach.
! NOTE: Perhaps Michael S. Schneider realized his claim was not correct and thus deleted the article from his website?
A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE:
I do like to make clear that I do NOT support Sean Barrett’s description of Michael S. Schneider, being a “a kook or a charlatan”. I do not know Michael S. Schneider nor know his intentions with his article, and thus do not like to “mark him” with those terms.
What I can say is that I do wonder how much Michael S. Schneider knows about music theory and sound editing, because an experienced musician or sound engineer would not use an audio reference that does not match the wave-form you are writing about.
To me personally the “Golden Ratio” cut from the “Amen Break” does not sound bad at all, but perhaps I have been living in Bulgaria so long that irregular grooves feel natural to me as well.