Characteristics of Ska

There are distinct features of ska music that differentiate it from other genres of music.  One of the most important is the content of the lyrics.  The lyrics of ska music address harsh or difficult topics, such as talking about social or political change that the artists want to happen.  Because of this, some listeners and critics call ska music “disturbing music.”  This complex, intricate, and political music has unsurprisingly caused controversy due to its harsh and sometimes unforgiving nature.  One of the greatest ska songs of all time, “Ghost Town,” contains the following lyrics:

“Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place (town) is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry”

This song takes an accusatory tone towards the government, saying that they do not care about their citizens and that so many people have been forced to leave due to the lack of employment opportunities that their country is turning into a ghost town.

Ska music is a combination of Jamaican styles mento, calypso, and jump bands and American styles rhythm and blues, also known as R&B, and jazz.  By combining the older Caribbean folk and gospel styles with the more newly created American jazz and rhythm and blues, a new genre was more unlike anything that had been heard before.  In a traditional ska band, there is one singer, two guitar players, one bass, a drummer, and a horn line that includes, at bare minimum, a saxophone, a trumpet, and a trombone.  Many ska bands, especially newer bands, have a much more extensive horn line with more members and sometimes even alternate instrument choices.

Instruments included in the horn line. Left to right: trumpet, trombone, saxophone.
Instruments included in the horn line. Left to right: trumpet, trombone, saxophone.

Another extremely important characteristic of ska music is the bass line.  Unlike most other genres of music, ska music prioritizes and features the bass line instead of the higher vocals or guitar licks.  This was a new development that helped to focus on the lyrics and content of the music since the singer could concentrate on delivering the message instead of pleasing the audience with high virtuosic passages and difficult runs.  Ska music features a melodic, walking bassline, which means that the bass line of the music is extremely active.  Having an active and moving bass line allows for more chordal changes, deeper harmonic structure, and more chances for modulation.  Musical chords are the framework upon which music is built, and the bass line is the foundation upon which we build those chords.  When a more stagnant bass line is present, it is more difficult to quickly change chords, which limits the complexity of the music that can be written.

Generic bass line
Generic bass line

 

 

Walking bass line
Walking bass line

 

 

 

 

 

A third characteristic of ska music are the accented upbeats.  Typically, music will emphasize the downbeats, which are the strong parts of each individual beat in a measure of music.  Upbeats are the second half of each individual beat and are felt when music is counted in the following way: one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND, with the ANDs indicating where the upbeats fall.  This is significant because it gives the music an atypical feel and goes against musical conventions.  When partnered with ska music’s politically oriented lyrics, this unconventional choice of writing style adds to its uniqueness and progressive nature.

The arrows above the notes, called accents, show the emphasized upbeats.
The arrows above the notes, called accents, show the emphasized upbeats.

Ska music includes very sparse drumming.  When paired with its fast and driving tempo, ska music is very easy to dance to, making it a popular musical choice amongst young people.  Since so many different genres of music influenced ska music, writers of ska are very willing to borrow from outside the genre’s own boundaries.  This allows for constant evolution of the genre, allowing it to have a constantly growing fan base of new people with different interests.