How to Compose Reggae Music

Posted by Ben Heckler

Reggae is a style of music that comes from the Caribbean. There are many ways to compose reggae music, and in order to really understand this music we should be listening to the masters—Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and many others.

But here we are going to analyze a solid reggae song and give professional advice about how to compose one ourselves. Let’s begin with the feel of reggae music.

Reggae music feel

Reggae normally has a 2/4 or a slow 4/4 feel with accented second notes on the rhythm section (typically guitar and hi-hat). Reggae usually has a slow tempo and its time signature means it usually has 4 beats per bar.

Typical to this type of music is an emphasis on the third beat. Many times a loud snare or rim shot can be heard on the third beat.

The bass drum can differ. Often it’s just on the first beat, the first and the third, every beat, or even simply the third.

The standard rhythm guitar in reggae utilizes fast downstrokes on the offbeat (either the ‘And’ in between the beats or the 2 of the beat depending on how you count it).

The guitar on the offbeats is typically described in reggae as the “skank” by players. This means this is what gives reggae its groove and sound.

A reggae bass line will give the foundation to the rhythm with emphasis either on the 1, the 1 and 3 or 1, 2, 3 and 4 depending on what the bass drum is doing.

Now let’s get into composing something ourselves!

Let’s start with a reggae beat

I borrowed this beat from the song ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley, and the beat, although groovy, is more complicated than you’d think!

The key thing with reggae is that you want to

You can notice the hi-hats are played on the offbeats (in this case the 2 and 4).

The bass drum is only on the 3 of the beat, which is an interesting feature that is only common to reggae music. There is a definite groove but the beat is not too contrived or repetitive.

The snare drum in the second bar has a bit of a variation on the ‘and’ of the 1, this keeps the groove interesting however many drummers will still vary snare drum every couple of beats.

Everything is easier once we have a beat. The drums are my main compositional tool for almost any genre of music since the groove is so important to developing a hit song. The groove doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be solid and inspire a melody.

Now a let’s establish the harmony

Here I’ve just started a simple chord progression of 2 chords—A minor and G major.

The chords land on the 2 and 4 of the beat, which coincides with the hi-hat in our drum pattern.

Reggae music is usually diatonic, so all you need to do is pick a key and learn the different chords within that key.

For example. We could pick the key of G major, which includes our two chords above. Those are just two chords of others we could choose from. Let’s check out six chords that work within the key of G.

chords in the key of G

The song does not have to be complicated, two, three or four chords will do. The chords can be major, minor, or any combination.

If you want a more complicated sound you can use seventh chords, however, the main focus of the reggae song will be the method the chords are played—that is to say, having the weight be on the 2 and 4 beats of the music.

Practice cycling through various chords until you find a progression that you enjoy.

Laying down a bassline

Once you’ve got this far, you may want to record a loop of this, with the drums and the guitar. From there you want to create a bassline that works with your chord progressions.

We then want to experiment, playing only the roots of the chord at first. If you want to get more complex you can add 3rds and 5ths as passing notes between chords, however, I would strive for simplicity and a solid groove rather than complexity.

This produces the characteristic backbeat related to reggae. Write a bass line that duplicates itself throughout the tune. Think about writing the bass line so it accentuates rotating beats with the rhythm guitar. Do not write a lot of movement in your reggae song. The solid groove (the off-beat rhythm) is the feel you wish to bring your song through to the end.

Now your lyrics

Lyrics are always a challenge, this requires that you really have something that you want to communicate out of the song.

Write your lyrics in a verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus format, with the ending chorus repeating up until fade out. The verses should inform the story of the tune and each ought to be various, where the chorus is generally the very same words and the part of a tune typically sung a number of times.

The rhythm of the music and the content of the lyrics is more vital than singing strategy. Compose with a melody that individuals can sing along with. A basic tune will not consist of numerous high notes or shouting. Prevent complex groups of notes sung together or big vocal jumps from low to high or vice versa.

Reggae lyrics typically talk to the masses about raising awareness and or communicating a message to the people. However, lyrics could also just be a story, fictional or actual. The song I Shot the Sherrif is a great example of a song that is kind of a fable however has a deeper meaning if one wants to look into it.

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