Today I’m going to share something with you that will not only make you a better rapper but it will make you an outstanding entertainer! This “thing” I’m talking about is called “The 4 Bar Theory” and it doesn’t just apply to rapping but it’s also useful in songwriting, music production, and mixing as well.
The 4 Bar Theory is simple. 4 bars isn’t too long nor is it too short. If you can create a payoff for your listener every 4 bars you will have them locked in because your song will be highly entertaining!
Let’s take a quick look at the word “entertainment”. To entertain means to divert or distract. Well.. in order for someone to be distracted, some outside force must draw them away from what they were focusing on initially. Basically, in order to be entertaining, you must have the ability to not only get someone’s attention but to also hold the person’s attention as well.
The 4 Bar Theory is all about holding someone’s attention.
Many people have an inherently negative feeling about distractions because it’s the evil villain that causes them to be unproductive. Which is usually just a lack of discipline with time management. But on the flipside we also love distractions! It’s the reason we “Netflix And Chill” at the end of a rough day. Someone could distract you from giving up by sharing a word of encouragement or prevent you from getting hustled by giving you a heads up about a shady person you was about to do some business with. For the record, entertainment and distractions aren’t inherently bad!
You’re An Entertainer!
Now let’s get this straight… If you’re a rapper you are 100% an entertainer! Unless your goal is to only write raps for yourself then you likely want other people to listen to and enjoy your music. However, people can’t listen to your music unless you’re able to get their attention first right?
Building awareness around your music is known as marketing and promotion. I can’t stress enough how crucially important this is! It’s a huge topic which I won’t get into right now. One, because this article is already long enough, and two, it doesn’t even matter… at least not yet.
You see, getting someone’s attention is only half of the equation. If you don’t know how to hold someone’s attention then it’s a lost cause. You only get one chance to make a strong first impression on someone and if you apply The 4 Bar Theory you will be much more likely to get it right the first time!
Now that you understand that entertainment value comes before promotion. Allow me to give you some practical tips on how to keep someone’s attention using The 4 Bar Theory.
This is going to sound messed up at first but just follow me for a moment. Your listener is like a dog… well… more like a dog that you’re training. You see, dogs are easily distracted and in order to keep their attention, we must entice them with treats.
The same is true in regards to songwriting. If you want to keep someone’s attention you need to give them “treats” on a regular basis. How regular you may ask; at least every 4 bars.
What 4? (completion)
In music, the number 4 is a magical number. It’s the number of completion. There are 4 beats within one bar but if there were only 3 beats it would fill incomplete.
A verse is typically 16 bars which are four 4 bar sections. If your verse were 15 bars it would feel incomplete as well.
A hook is typically 8 bars which are two 4 bar sections. If it were 7 bars… yup you guessed it, it would feel incomplete. This is basic song structure.
So when you’re creating patterns with your cadences, delivery, and rhyme schemes try to structure it so that it’s 4 bars in length. And then change it as slightly or drastically as you wish for the next 4 bars.
The Perfect Length
4 bars isn’t too long nor too short. If you make drastic changes too quickly to your cadence, delivery or rhyme schemes it may come off as sounding random thus making it difficult for the listener to follow along with what you’re doing.
If you switch things up every 4 bars it’s a long enough pattern for people to follow along while preventing your patterns from being boringly predictable.
Let’s look at an example of a 4 bar pattern. We’ll call this “Pattern A”
When I say create a 4 bar pattern it doesn’t mean every bar should be exactly the same because that may be too predictable.
But rather create smaller patterns within each bar that are the same. I like to refer to these as anchor points. These are the points that you create which forms a connection from one bar to the other so that they have a strong relationship with one another. This is what creates the patterns.
Notice how Cadence 01 beat 03 and beat 04 are using the same combination of notes as Cadence 02 beat 03 and beat 04 with the exception of “an” which is leading into the next bar. Also, take notice of how there’s a pattern with the breaths or pauses which are blue.
These are the anchor points for the cadences which I also used for Cadence 03 and Cadence 04 as well to connect all 4 bars together. The only exception is Cadence 04 beat 03 but because I still have the anchor point on beat 04 there’s still a strong connection.
There are also other patterns you can pick up on such as Cadence 01 beat 01 and Cadence 03 beat 01 as well as Cadence 02 beat 01 and Cadence 04 beat 01.
Notice how these patterns are on the same beat? This is what gives them such a strong connection regardless that there’s a bar between them that doesn’t match. This is what you call a Cadence Scheme and it works just like a rhyme scheme accept it’s with cadences.
Speaking of rhyme schemes, notice how I’m rhyming on the 4th beat of every bar? This is the anchor point for the rhymes. So not only is there a pattern (anchor point) with the cadences but with the rhymes as well.
From a delivery standpoint, I would also likely say all the rhymes on the 4th beat close to the same tone to create an anchor point with my delivery as well.
Now that you understand what makes this 4 bar pattern work what about the next 4 bar pattern? Well, you can make each 4 bar pattern unique or you can cycle back through them if you wish and create a 4 bar pattern scheme.
4 Bar Pattern Schemes
Each Pattern Unique (16 Bar Verse)
1st 4 bar section – Pattern A (bar 01-04)
2nd 4 bar section – Pattern B (bar 05-08)
3rd 4 bar section – Pattern C (bar 09- 12)
4th 4 bar section – Pattern D (bar 13-16)
4 Bar Pattern Scheme (16 Bar Verse)
1st 4 bar section – Pattern A (bar 01-04)
2nd 4 bar section – Pattern B (bar 05-08)
3rd 4 bar section – Pattern A (bar 09- 12)
4th 4 bar section – Pattern B (bar 13-16)
Apart from switching up your patterns every 4 bars, it’s also important for your song to progress every 4 bars from a lyrical and narrative standpoint.
The 4th bar of a 4 bar section is a great place to put a punchline and you can use the 3 bars before it to set it up so that it has maximum impact!
Let It Breathe!
The 4th bar is also a great place to complete a thought. Many rappers make the mistake of trying to fit a complete thought within 1 bar which is usually not enough space to do so adequately.
Instead, allow yourself more room to paint a vivid picture for the listener and use the 4th bar to complete your thought.
You can also use the 4th bar to shift your narrative. For example, if your song format is storytelling you can use the 1st 3 bars to explain where and when your song is taking place and the 4th bar to present a problem which pushes the narrative forward and sets up the next 4 bars.
You can also break the rules on the 4th bar and instead of giving the listener a sense of completion or progression you can create tension and or suspense.
For example, on bars 1-3 you’re describing something you said to a girl you liked and at the end of bar 3 you say “and then she told me” and on the 4th bar, you pause as if you’re thinking and then say “well… I’d rather not say”.
In this example, this not only creates tension with the pause but also suspense by not giving the listener the “treat”. Now the listener is invested because they want to know what she said. They want the treat!! Movie and television show writers use this technique all the time to keep you watching until the end where what’s been hidden from you is finally revealed.
When you’re using the 4 bar theory you will likely notice how the music itself is changing with you. That’s because producers typically introduce some type of change or progression every 4 bars and often times the 4th bar before the change sets it up with some type of fx, drop, etc..
If you’re trying to memorize your lyrics before you record in the studio or do a live performance, breaking down your song into bite size 4 bar sections is an excellent way to do so. Remember the way you eat an elephant is one piece at a time.
I’m also a fan of recording verses into 4 bar sections. This allows you to focus on perfecting how your vocals sound within each section instead of wearing out your vocals from rapping the entire verse over and over again in hopes to get that “perfect” take.
Also if you are wanting to study another rappers cadences, rhyme schemes, or delivery break them down into 4 bar sections. This is a much easier way to wrap your head around the intricacies of what they’re doing instead of trying to make sense of an entire verse at one time which can be quite overwhelming.
This is called the 4 Bar Theory, not the 4 Bar Rule! The next time you’re working on a song just experiment with this theory and do what you think sounds best. Remember in rapping there are no rules! Only techniques!
Let me know if you have used any of these techniques before? Was this article helpful? Got a question? Let your voice be heard in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!