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What is a loop in music?

By BBC Maestro

Last updated: 19 July 2022

Here’s a great question for any hip-hop aficionados out there: What connects the following songs? Eric B. & Rakim I Know You Got Soul, Jay-Z’s Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and The Notorious B.I.G.’s One More Chance. Apart from them being some of the most seminal tunes created in this genre, it may surprise you to discover that they all use the same sampled music loop. Namely, the drum fill from I Want You Back, written and sung by The Jackson Five (1969). 

In fact, music loops are not just used in recordings by producers. It has become an increasingly popular practice for musicians (such as Ed Sheeran) to record themselves live in front of an audience, using looper pedals. An artist may open their performance by recording a few beats or sounds on their instruments using loop pedals, before diving into the song. These recorded sounds can perform a ‘loop’ - acting as a backing track or backing vocals. It allows them to build up an arrangement of sounds by themselves - like if they had a band on stage with them. But what is a loop in music? Read on for our explanation of what a music loop is.

A person plays on a set of DJ decks

A beginner’s guide to the music loop

Try this.

1.    Clap your hands evenly 4 times.

2.    Repeat this step again, but this time, make your first clap louder than the following three.

3.    Now repeat this twice – amounting to 8 claps altogether. Your first and fifth clap here should be louder. Remember that the aim is to clap evenly. So don’t speed up or slow down when you clap. Just make that first and fifth clap louder.

Once you’ve got this, you’re very close to understanding what a loop is, even if you don’t know it yet. 

You now know how to play a repeated passage of music lasting for two bars and you also know where you are throughout. Most importantly, you know where ‘The One’ (the first beat of the bar) is. 

If you doubled that, to four bars (or 16 claps) you would reach the most commonly-used length of music that musicians and producers tend to use to create a loop.

Here’s where the magic begins. Once you have your 16 claps you’ve got yourselves a loop! When you reach the end of your 16th clap, loopback once more and repeat it. That’s all there is to it. You can carry on for as many rotations (or loops) as you wish, as long as your speed remains consistent throughout each.

You’ve just learnt what a music loop is. But just how simple is this technique? And how has it evolved over the history of modern music? We’ll dive into the answers to these questions below.

A record playing

The origins of looping 

Continuing with our story, imagine your 16 claps as a recording on an old piece of analogue tape. At the point where you reach your first clap, the tape is cut, and when you reach the end of the last clap the tape is then cut again. Now imagine taking this piece of tape and gluing the beginning to the end and creating a physical loop (a tape loop). This is where the name comes from. 

Whilst this technique had previously been experimented with for several years by quirky engineering academics in acclaimed institutions, its use in popular music began to develop traction in the late 1970’s. As musicians and producers decided to create bigger sounds and more complex soundscapes, they pushed against the limitations of the music technology that was available to them.  

One of the most successful and famous uses of this technique originated in an incongruous location (Stockport) and recording (a Ballad). The band 10CC wanted to create continuous backing vocals that would last for much longer than they could sing without needing to breathe.  

They achieved this by singing into the tape machine, physically cutting the tape with razor blades (as was the latest technology at the time), taping the front to the back, and then recording the loop from one tape machine into another holding a longer length of tape. By doing this, they were able to create amazingly long smooth notes. They then repeated this process with different notes to create chords.  So, the next time you listen to the song, I’m not in love by 10CC you can marvel at the ingenuity and industry that went into producing those backing vocals.

Hip-hop and early live looping

Around the same era, DJs in America began to realise that by using two turntables instead of one and two identical records, they could repeat particular sections of a song live (live looping), leaving enough musical space to add raps or scratching. Thus creating hip-hop. "A lot of singers love it because they go into a trance, and they find these melodies," says Mark Ronson in his BBC Maestro music production course.

The digital era

Digital recording usurped reel to reel tape machines and the need to literally cut and re-join tape. By using an audio interface attached to a computer, analogue signals (sound) were translated into a language that computers could understand (Analogue to digital or A/D). These were then translated back for humans to be able to hear (D/A). 

Samplers were born and musicians were able to take multiple pieces of music and trigger them from pads, on machines such as the legendary MPC 60 which still relied upon floppy disks. 

These were notoriously difficult to learn with and use - thanks to their tiny LCD screens. They also needed to communicate with other devices through MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which has now been all but taken over by the humble USB. These advances culminated in DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Ableton Live, Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, which now make the process of creating loops, cutting and manipulating audio in direction, pitch and tempo, easier than it has ever been. 

In his BBC Maestro course, Mark Ronson talks of the MPC 3000 - "a classic sampler of the 90s," he describes it. "When I use this machine, it can take me in any which way...it lets you chop up samples and arrange music on these different 16 pads which gets you out of the normal way of thinking about music. You might just get inspired by the way you hit one sound". 

Live looping evolved

Similar technological developments in live gear have created loop pedals or loop stations. These have become almost a full recording studio (with more tracks than the Beatles had in Abbey Road) that musicians can control simply with their feet. By using these, musicians can now create loops in real-time which they can then add to or use to back themselves as they play live. 

So now you understand how to make a loop and how they work in music. How will you use yours? Perhaps you’re aiming to produce a chart-topping hit or maybe you simply want to create a few loops to spark some inspiration for your own practice. It’s entirely up to you! Take it away…

Course Notes
Course Notes

Learn more about music production

Ever wanted to produce your very own hit song? Join Mark Ronson in his course as he takes you into his studio. You’ll learn everything from songwriting to tracking vocals, sharing all the secrets and tips he’s picked up across his remarkable career.

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