Beat (music)

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A Taiwanese taiko drummer
Metric levels: beat level shown in middle with division levels above and multiple levels below.

In music and music theory, the beat is the basic unit of time, the pulse of the mensural level[1] (or beat level).[2] In popular use, the beat can refer to a variety of related concepts including: tempo, meter, rhythm and groove. In modern pop music, the term "beats" has been used to describe whole pieces of composed music.[citation needed] This is a distinct and separate use of the term from the way "beat" is used traditionally as related only to the rhythmic element of music.

Rhythm in music is characterized by a repeating sequence of stressed and unstressed beats (often called "strong" and "weak") and divided into bars organized by time signature and tempo indications.

Metric levels faster than the beat level are division levels, and slower levels are multiple levels. See Meter (music)#Metric structure.


The downbeat is the impulse that occurs at the beginning of a bar in measured music.[3] Its name is derived from the downward stroke of the director or conductor's baton on the first beat of each measure. It frequently carries the strongest accent of the rhythmic cycle. However, in some cases, the downbeat may not be emphasized. Such departure from the normal stress pattern of a measure is a form of syncopation.


Beginning of Bach's BWV736, with upbeat (anacrusis) in red. About this sound Play 

1. An unaccented beat or beats that occur before the first beat of the following measure. In other words, this is an impulse in a measured rhythm that immediately precedes, and hence anticipates, the downbeat. It can be the last beat in a bar where that bar precedes a new bar of music.[4]

2. An anticipatory note or succession of notes occurring before the first barline of a piece, sometimes referred to as an ‘upbeat figure’, section or phrase. An alternative expression is "anacrusis" (from Greek. ana: "up towards" and krousis: "to strike"; Fr. anacrouse). This term was borrowed from poetry where it refers to one or more unstressed extrametrical syllables at the beginning of a line.[4]

3. The upward stroke made by a conductor to indicate the beat that leads into a new measure.

On-beat and off-beat[edit]

Off-beat or backbeat pattern, popular on snare drum[5] About this sound play 
"Skank" guitar rhythm[6]About this sound Play . Often referred to as "upbeats", in parallel with upstrokes.

In music that progresses regularly in 4/4 time, counted as "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4...", the first beat of the bar (down-beat) is usually the strongest accent in the melody and the likeliest place for a chord change, the third is the next strongest: these are "on" beats. The second and fourth are weaker - the "off-beats". Subdivisions (like eighth notes) that fall between the pulse beats are even weaker and these, if used frequently in a rhythm, can also make it "off-beat".[7] The effect can be easily simulated by evenly and repeatedly counting to four: Bold denotes a stressed beat. As a background against which to compare these various rhythms a bass drum strike on the downbeat and a constant eighth note subdivision on ride cymbal have been added, which would be counted as follows:

So Off-beat is a musical term commonly applied to syncopation that emphasizes the weak even beats of a bar, as opposed to the "normal" on-beat. This is a fundamental technique of African polyrhythm that transferred to popular western music. According to Grove Music, the “Offbeat” is [often] where the downbeat is replaced by a rest or is tied over from the preceding bar".[7] The downbeat can never be the off-beat because it is the strongest beat in 4/4 time.[8] Certain genres in particular tend to emphasize the off-beat. This emphasis is a defining characteristic of rock'n'roll and Ska music.


Back beat[9]
It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it - Chuck Berry

A back beat, or backbeat, is a syncopated accentuation on the "off" beat. In a simple 4/4 rhythm these are beats 2 and 4.[10]

An early record with an emphasised back beat throughout was "Good Rockin' Tonight" by Wynonie Harris in 1948.[citation needed] However drummer Earl Palmer claimed the honor for "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino in 1949, which he played on, saying he adopted it from the final "shout" or "out" chorus common in Dixieland jazz. However urban contemporary gospel was stressing the back beat much earlier with hand-clapping and tambourines. There is a hand-clapping back beat on "Roll 'Em Pete" by Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, recorded in 1938. A distinctive back beat can be heard on "Back Beat Boogie" by Harry James And His Orchestra, recorded in late 1939.[11] Other early recorded examples include the final verse of "Grand Slam" by Benny Goodman in 1942 and some sections of The Glenn Miller Orchestra's "(I've Got A Girl In) Kalamazoo", while amateur direct-to-disc recordings of Charlie Christian jamming at Minton's Playhouse around the same time have a sustained snare-drum back-beat on the hottest choruses.

But also outside U.S. american music, there are early recordings of music with a distinctive backbeat, such as the 1949 recording of Mangaratiba by Luiz Gonzaga in Brazil.

Delayed backbeat (last eighth note in each measure) as in funk music[12] About this sound play 

Tamlyn[clarification needed] found slap bass executions on the backbeat in styles of country western music of the 1930s, and the late 40s early 50s music of Hank Williams reflected a return to strong backbeat accentuation as part of the honky tonk style of country.[13] In the mid-1940s "hillbilly" musicians the Delmore Brothers were turning out boogie tunes with a hard driving back beat, such as the #2 hit "Freight Train Boogie" in 1946, as well as in other boogie songs they recorded.[14] Similarly Fred Maddox's characteristic backbeat, a slapping bass style, helped drive a rhythm that came to be known as rockabilly, one of the early forms of rock and roll.[15] Maddox had used this style as early as 1937.[16]

In today's popular music the snare drum is typically used to play the backbeat pattern.[5] Early funk music often delayed one of the backbeats so as, "to give a 'kick' to the [overall] beat".[12]

Some songs, such as The Beatles' "Please Please Me" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand", The Knack's "Good Girls Don't" and Blondie's cover of The Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone", employ a double backbeat pattern.[17] In a double backbeat, one of the off beats is played as two eighth notes rather than one quarter note.[17]

Cross beat[edit]

Cross-rhythm. A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged—New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986: 216).[18]

In Sub-Saharan African music traditions (and many Diaspora musics) cross-rhythm is the generating principle; the meter is in a permanent state of contradiction.


The cross-rhythmic ratio three-over-two (3:2) or vertical hemiola, is the most significant rhythmic cell found in sub-Saharan rhythms. The following measure is evenly divided by three beats and two beats. The two cycles do not share equal status though. The two bottom notes are the primary beats, the ground, the main temporal referent. The three notes above are the secondary beats. Typically, the dancer's feet mark the primary beats, while the secondary beats are accented.

Three-over-two cross-rhythm. About this sound Play 

The example below shows the African 3:2 cross-rhythm within its proper metric structure.

Three-over-two cross-rhythm.

Novotney observes: "The 3:2 relationship (and [its] permutations) is the foundation of most typical polyrhythmic textures found in West African musics."[19] 3:2 is the generative or theoretic form of sub-Saharan rhythmic principles. Agawu succinctly states: "[The] resultant [3:2] rhythm holds the key to understanding . . . there is no independence here, because 2 and 3 belong to a single Gestalt."[20]


The three-against-four (3:4) cross-rhythm consists of a "slow" cycle of three beats over four main beats. The three-beat cycle is represented as half-notes in the following example for visual emphasis.

Three-against-four cross-rhythm. About this sound Play 


Hypermeter: 4 beat measure, 4 measure hypermeasure, and 4 hypermeasure verses. Hyperbeats in red.

A hyperbeat is one unit of hypermeter, generally a measure. "Hypermeter is meter, with all its inherent characteristics, at the level where measures act as beats."[21]

Related concepts[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Berry, Wallace (1976/1986). Structural Functions in Music, p.349. ISBN 0-486-25384-8.
  2. ^ Winold, Allen (1975). "Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, p.213. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice–Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  3. ^ "Downbeat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  4. ^ a b DOGANTAN, MINE (2007). "Upbeat". Grove Music Online. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  5. ^ a b Schroedl, Scott (2001). Play Drums Today!, p.11. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-02185-0.
  6. ^ Snyder, Jerry (1999). Jerry Snyder's Guitar School, p.28. ISBN 0-7390-0260-0.
  7. ^ a b "Beat: Accentuation. (i) Strong and weak beats.". Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  8. ^ "Off-beat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  9. ^ "Introduction to the 'Chop'", Anger, Darol. Strad (0039-2049); 10/01/2006, Vol. 117 Issue 1398, p72-75.
  10. ^ a b "Backbeat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved February 10, 2007. 
  11. ^ The Ultimate Jazz Archive - Set 17/42
  12. ^ a b Mattingly, Rick (2006). All About Drums, p.104. Hal Leonard. ISBN 1-4234-0818-7.
  13. ^ The Big Beat: Origins and Development of Snare Backbeat and other Accompanimental Rhythms in Rock'n'Roll. Garry Neville Tamlyn. 1998. PhD thesis. pages 342, 343
  14. ^[dead link]
  15. ^ NPR News Riding the Rails to Stardom - The Maddox Brothers and Rose
  16. ^ "The Maddox Bros & Rose". Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 3 July 2011. Retrieved June 29, 2011. 
  17. ^ a b Cateforis, C. (2011). Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s. University of Michigan Press. pp. 140–141. ISBN 978-0-472-03470-3. 
  18. ^ New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986: 216). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  19. ^ Novotney, Eugene D. (1998). The Three Against Two Relationship as the Foundation of Timelines in West African Musics Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
  20. ^ Agawu, Kofi (2003: 92). Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-94390-6.
  21. ^ Neal, Jocelyn. Wolfe, Charles K., and James E. Akenson (eds.) (2000). "Songwriter's Signature, Artist's Imprint: The Metric Structure of a Country Song", p.115, Country Music Annual 2000. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-0989-2.
  22. ^ Tristan Jehan, Creating Music By Listening. PhD Thesis, MIT 2005, section 3.4.3
  23. ^ Pareles, Jon (2006-12-25). "James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul’, Dies at 73". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-10. 
  24. ^ Gross, T. (1989). Musician Maceo Parker (Fresh Air WHYY-FM audio interview). National Public Radio. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
  25. ^ Lessons in listening - Concepts section: Fantasy, Earth Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth Wind & Fire Volume I, Freddie White. (1998, January). Modern Drummer Magazine, pp. 146–152. Retrieved January 21, 2007.
  26. ^ According to the New York Times, by the "mid-1960s Brown was producing his own recording sessions. In February 1965, with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” he decided to shift the beat of his band: from the one-two-three-four backbeat to one-two-three-four. “I changed from the upbeat to the downbeat,” Mr. Brown said in 1990. “Simple as that, really.”
  27. ^ According to Maceo Parker, Brown's former saxophonist, playing on the downbeat was at first hard for him and took some getting used to. Reflecting back to his early days with Brown's band, Parker reported that he had difficulty in playing "on the one" during solo performances, since he was used to hearing and playing with the accent on the second beat.

Further reading[edit]