Years ago, I was listening to the radio when "Toxic" by Britney Spears came on. At the time I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about admitting I was into a Top 40 pop song, but with "Toxic" it was a different story—I loved it and felt no shame about that fact. There are many great things here: check out that funky-as-shit bass line, the chunky guitar part and how the chords in the chorus build tension with that chromatic descending progression the first time (forgive a few music theory terms here), then release with the incredibly satisfying flat-six-to-five the second time, for example.
But for me the infectiousness of "Toxic" comes down to one primary element, the backbone of the whole song: a rhythm I’ve come to call the Magic Beat.
The "Toxic" Effect
What’s the Magic Beat? There are many variations, but it’s all based on an upbeat tempo (usually in the ballpark of 160 bpm) with the kick drum thumping on the upbeat (the "and") of beat two, usually with a sparse kick beat for the rest of the pattern. Also, for a "true" Magic Beat, the groove has to be straight; swung versions can feel great, but there’s something about the straight Magic Beat that drives a song forward and just grooves harder. If you don’t know music terminology, I’ll give several examples below to help you get the idea.
I started calling it the Magic Beat because it has an uncanny ability to magically and instantly add an incredible amount of energy to a song irrespective of whatever else may be going on. And if there’s one thing that gets a lot of people into a song, it’s great energy. The Magic Beat can’t make your song a hit by itself, but it sure helps. In fact, a lot of hit songs (and songs that may not be huge hits but are nevertheless super-infectious) have employed it to predictably, but still satisfyingly, fantastic results.
I’d like to stress again that the Magic Beat doesn’t automatically make a song good. Every example cited here has some genuinely excellent songwriting and/or production to help it become a hit. And obviously this isn't the only way to add energy to a song, but you already knew that because you're not stupid. The Magic Beat is, however, one of the easiest ways to inject some balls into your recording with minimal effort. Here are a few good examples of the M.B. in action.
"Shake It Off" - Taylor Swift
One of the most recent examples of excellent use of the Magic Beat is "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift. I’m not personally a Swift fan by any stretch, but it doesn’t matter because this song (masterminded by a genuinely goddamned genius musician who embodies pop music, Max Martin) is chock-full of energy. Listen to it without bobbing your head a little bit, I dare you. Oh, you’re not bobbing your head at all? You’re trying way too hard to not bob your head. Stop it.
"Happy" - Pharrell
Another recent hit that perfectly employed the Magic Beat is Pharrell’s "Happy"—its ebullience is undeniable. You may have noticed that all of the songs I’ve used as examples so far are in the same ballpark for tempo ("Toxic" is a little slower, but "Happy" and "Shake It Off" are nearly identical). Also, Pharrell and Swift’s songs strategically employ a funky open hi-hat on the drums, though they do so on different beats in the pattern. Adding that one bit of legato-like attack helps break up the repetitiveness of the pattern and brings your ear right back in the groove, although in Pharrell's case it's pretty repetitive in itself. I also think adding open hi-hat can make largely-sequenced music sound more soulful, as it sounds like a deliberate dynamic choice by the drummer (listen to the straight-out-of-GarageBand beat of "Umbrella" for another good example). Oh my god, though, this Pharrell song is so fucking happy I can hardly stand it (yes I can).
"Tightrope" - Janelle Monae
Possibly my personal favorite example of a killer use of the Magic Beat is "Tightrope." Before she was pretty much destroying the Letterman set with awesomeness, Janelle Monae released one of the tightest and downright funkiest versions of the M.B. ever recorded. Note again that the tempo of this song is very close to both "Shake It Off" and "Happy." This recording does sound more "live" than any of what we’ve covered so far, and the beat pattern is definitely busier, but it works. Let's all just take a moment to soak in the bassline for this song. Soak it, dammit! So good.
"Hey Ya" - Outkast
This song was huge when it came out, and I mean titanically huge. That popularity has to do with many different things, but it’s definitely due in no small part to a key use of the M.B. Bonus points to Outkast for writing such a seemingly buoyant song with sad lyrics about a failed relationship. Took you a while to figure that out, didn’t it?
More Examples and Variations
There are so many other instances of the Magic Beat in all styles of music. Here are a few more examples and variations (click the titles for video). I’d love to hear about others in the comments if you have any!
I included this song partly because I'm really liking this band right now and partly because it's a great example of an indie rock version of the M.B. Fun fact: a young buffalo is actually just called a calf, but that's not nearly as catchy for a band name.
Beck knows a thing or two about making a groovy song. This one uses the M.B. to elevate a tune that probably wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy otherwise. Hear that open hi-hat again? I love the 8-bit Magic Beat in the intro. Are you sick of hearing me say "Magic Beat" yet? Because I totally am.
"Finding Something to Do" + "When We First Met" - Hellogoodbye
This is the first example where the tempo is pumped up quite a bit, so it's not quite a true M.B., but it's also not quite a punk rock beat because of the guitar chords being played underneath. Hellogoodbye actually uses a variation of the M.B. on two out of the first three songs on their excellent album Would It Kill You?, which kicks it off with such contagious liveliness that it’s hard to lose that emotional momentum for the rest of the record.
"Body of Work" - The Mynabirds
More indie rock. Notice how they cut out the first snare hit in the verse, which brings the dynamic down a bit and keeps you anticipating when it will kick in again. Anticipation is really one of the most important and effective elements of good music. It's also one of the most important and effective elements of pie. In fact, I really can't wait until I next get to eat a good piece of pie. See?? Anticipation!
"Get Some" - Lykke Li
Here’s a good example of what a swung version of the M.B. sounds like. The difference is subtle at this tempo, but you can feel it. The song still has great energy, but in a very different way from all the examples above. It grooves, but it doesn't have the same inevitable feeling of driving forward as the songs we've talked about already; it's more of a "sit back and groove" feel than a "lean forward and groove" vibe.
OK, time to go listen to "Toxic" 15 more times!