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I've heard the words "forward momentum" in different context referred to music but I couldn't find any definition for it (and it might very well be that it is used with different meaning in different places..).

Here's three example:

I was asking to my drum teacher today whether a bit of a recording (ACDC's Back In Black) had the drum speeding up a bit or was it just my impression. And he replied that it probably wasn't and it was just that the song had more forward momentum there.

On this website you can read that: "When it comes to swing, music and syncopation, swing refers to the creation of the feel of a forward momentum, a forward momentum that seems to want to drive someone to dance and sway to the music." and I remember reading somewhere a famous jazzist saying that that's what swing amounts to: music with forward momentum (I can't remember the name of the person tough).

Right before illustrating swing Tommy Igoe's first plays a set of straight quarter notes on a ride cymbal and comments that you want them to have forward momentum and be evenly spaced (from which I infer that it doesn't have to do with where the notes land...they are evenly spaced! But you can feel, as he plays them, that there is something catchy and musical in them). [Edit: Here's the video!]

So, what is "forward momentum" in music?

Edit: I think this question deserves a long and referenced answer. The topic pops up everywhere and might have slightly or widely different meaning in different context. A full answer should compare them and possibly give historical context on the use of the word.

  • 1
    Good question, it's one of those things in music I highly appreciate in good performers, but don't really understand at all how they do it, physically. Stewart Copeland is the grand master of “forward momentum”, perhaps most extreme example being Rehumanize Yourself, which seems to be strongly accelerating throughout the entire piece, but somehow manages to be barely faster in the end than it started. – leftaroundabout Oct 28 '17 at 11:17
  • This is a cool example! The song you linked does look like it's always pushing you ahead! – Three Diag Oct 28 '17 at 16:44
  • BTW do you have a link to the Tommy Igoe demonstration? – topo morto Apr 26 '18 at 11:19
  • @topomorto I added in the question at the point where he discusses it: youtu.be/QfSK0HHInoc?t=86 ; I noticed he says forward motion rather than forward momentum, but I think the concept is the same. – Three Diag Apr 26 '18 at 16:39
  • Thanks. I think he's talking about concepts that I already touched on in the answer (getting the beats nice and smooth and even creates 'repetitions that are expected to continue') but I updated some of the wording - one of the 'contradictions' I'd inferred isn't quite as I'd thought. – topo morto Apr 26 '18 at 17:26
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+200

I honestly don't think you will find many people trying to give an earnest, precise, definition of "forward momentum" in music. It's quite a general and subjective term - a bit like saying that something is 'upbeat', or 'laid back', or 'soulful'.

Nevertheless, perhaps we can have a look at some references to forward momentum in a variety of sources, and see if we can find any commonality in what they are referring to:

http://ryanleach.com/on-forward-momentum-in-music/ :

Tension and release is a basic fundamental of composing music. Even a melody as simple as do-re-do captures the essence of tension and release. You start at home, you go somewhere, you come back. A common problem I hear in many of my students' work (and one I am guilty of as well), is having too much resolution and not enough tension. I don’t mean too many consonances vs. dissonances, I mean for the overall forward motion and flow of the music there are too many moments where everything feels finished.

https://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/tension_release :

In rhythmic or formal terms, short-term repetition builds up tension, which is released with the change in pattern. The forward momentum of the sequence comes from this constraint and break-out pattern...

An Alternative Temporal Approach to Jazz Improvisation in the Music of Andrew Hill:

The emotional effects of polyrhythm may vary (including uneasiness, humor, freedom), but this rhythmic device invariably creates a general perception of tension, an anticipation of resolution, and a sensation of forward momentum.’17

http://www.musiccrashcourses.com/lessons/harmony.html :

Dissonant harmonies can make listeners feel unsettled and tense. This tension makes listeners wish for the release and resolution of consonant harmonies. When dissonant harmonies change to consonant ones, it is called resolution. Longing for resolution can give music a sense of forward momentum, and the way that resolutions are granted or withheld can make listeners feel either satisfied or frustrated.

https://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/2013/10/30/5-ways-to-create-momentum-in-a-song/ :

as you play through your verse, you might choose to play louder as you go. That generates forward motion (momentum), because listeners subconsciously want to know where that crescendo of sound will lead.

Psychology of Music, ed. by Diana Deutsch :

Within Western tonal music, incidentally, the hierarchical organization of the levels of musical interpretation noted in the preceding section—in addition to having different associated time constants—contributes different and sometimes recursive levels of dynamism to the music. Thus, even after a melody has itself come to a stable resting point, the harmony may maintain tension by delaying resolution to the tonic; and even after the harmony and the melody have both subsequently resolved to the locally defined tonic, an implicit tension may remain at a deeper level until that locally established tonic finally modulates back to the initially instated global tonic of the piece as a whole. The forward momentum of music (as of life, generally) is thus maintained by a hierarchy of subgoals within subgoals

Dubstep Drumming By Donny Gruendler :

Listen to any Dubstep track. What makes the song groove and flow as you are listening to it? Does is feel like a train that cannot be stopped? Is the rhythm so incessant and repetitive that it could groove for days without wavering in its consistency? Are you tapping your foot without even realizing it? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you also realize the exact reason why many dub artists program syncopated hi-hat patterns alongside a static half-time drum groove: They add a relentless, repetitive, and unwavering forward momentum to a conventional kick and snare pattern. As a result, you must master a few genre-specific sixteenth-note hi-hat partials, which will add momentum and an inherent drive to your grooves.

I think there is some commonality in the ideas there - maybe enough to attempt a definition: forward momentum is a sensation that comes from the (possibly repeated) building of tension/anticipation, followed by the release or resolution of that tension. It seems that this can happen in a number of ways - through harmonic tensions and releases; through repetitions that are expected to continue (as each successive repetition of a rhythmic figure builds the expectation that it will repeat again); repetitions that aren't expected to continue (short-term repetition builds up tension, which is released with the change in pattern); or increases in volume.

You can probably think of other devices that build anticipation - the addition of additional instruments into the mix building up to a significant climax; sounds with slow attacks that build up to a climax, such as reverse cymbals, or vocal rises / reverse reverb effects; drum fills that build anticipation of the start of the next bar or section; even a small ritardando that creates a slightly longer moment of anticipation before a climax - all of these could be said to contribute to forward momentum.


On the subject of swing, you found two quotes that seemed somewhat contradictory - one saying that evenly-spaced beats provided forward momentum, while another saying that forward momentum was provided by swung beats. On actually listening to the example, Tommy is talking about playing nice even quarter notes (and he goes on to swing his eighths). On the other hand, some other quotes I found suggested that straight eighths (on instruments other than drums) can provide forward momentum - from Why Do Jazz Musicians Swing Their Eighth Notes?:

The common use of relatively "straight" eighth notes by improvising soloists helps to sustain forward momentum, whereas the less even, triplet-like "swing" eighth notes used more frequently by drummers facilitate the perception of a quarter-note beat

while Jazz Theory and Practice By Jeffrey Hellmer, Richard Lawn is another source associating the same concept with swung eighths:

The triplet, or 12/8 feel... provides a visual reinforcement of the same form of push, or forward momentum (anticipation), in the middle and end of each measure

Hmm. it seems that the relationship between 'swing' and forward momentum is a bit harder to pin down. Perhaps an example will help:

The verse section there is played straight, while the chorus is swung. Which has more 'forward momentum' and anticipation? I think it's hard to say - they both have a drive to them, just in a different feel, in my opinion. The phrase "forward momentum" does come up a lot in writing about jazz, and I wonder if there's some confusion of causation and correlation going on; Jazz certainly often has forward momentum, and it also often has swing, but I didn't find anything to suggest convincingly that forward momentum is the preserve of swung rhythms (or percussive pieces).

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    Another very complex term, probably impossible to define in any rigorous way. And yes, Running Bear is a great example. It's funny to read the comments on YouTube- lots of debate about whether it exalts American Natives or parodies them. Probably another unanswerable question. – Scott Wallace Apr 26 '18 at 9:07
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From a quick google search and scanning an article, it seems to be a reference to the expectation of "what's next".

In music, momentum is created every time you do something that makes the listener think that something else is about to happen.

Here is the article:

http://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/2013/10/30/5-ways-to-create-momentum-in-a-song/

  • Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. – Dom Oct 27 '17 at 20:12
  • @Dom ... added a pull quote - is that what you were thinking? – theGleep Oct 27 '17 at 20:18
  • I'd like to get a more detailed answer with some references to the history of the term and its meaning (I suspect not everyone necessarily means the same thing) as well as some examples of how to obtain it as a way to understand. Eg Tommy Igoe plays 4 straight quarter note and they have forward momentum, how's that possible given your definition (which is very interesting Btw) – Three Diag Oct 27 '17 at 23:27
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Tempo is an absolute, measurable value. 'Forward momentum' is a subjective description of a rather nebulous concept. In one way, all music has forward momentum - it exists on a time-scale that certainly can't go backwards! We could describe a Death March as having an inevitable, un-stoppable forward momentum. A Swing rhythm moves forward, but so does a Shuffle and so does the 'Four on the floor' of 'Sweet Caroline'.

'Clair de Lune' has a different sort of momentum, but the music still moves forward, you want to hear what comes next.

There's even 'forward momentum' in 4'33" - if only because we will time forward to get it to finish!

I think we just have to define 'forward momentum' as an attribute of a good performance. One that keeps you interested in what happens next.

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Here's a way to think about it that might help you understand this concept intuitively. Imagine a piece in which each phrase dovetails into the next. In a piece like this (such as for example a courante in a Bach cello suite), it wouldn't sound good to have a relaxed feeling of arrival at the end of each phrase. You have to keep the music driving forward through several phrases, until you get to a place that allows you a true feeling of arrival, and there you can finally take some time, relax into the arrival, and then take a deep breath before continuing.

Also, forward momentum can create a feeling of tension and excitement, that constantly impels you forward. (There's a lot of subtlety to exactly how to achieve this.)

For the momentum part, think about how a ball or a roundish rock rolls down a hill. It might start slow and then pick up speed. Think about something that has the momentum of a Mack truck! It's relentless!

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I'm reminded of a Louis Armstrong quote: If you have to ask, you'll never understand it. A bit pessimistic, but the gist is that asking may not be the key. You have to 'feel' that motion. It really is just energy and I like to say commitment. When you practice, try to groove ... always. Even with the dumbest, simplest exercises, make them cook! Listen for the music in the rhythm and then let it carry you along.

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