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Beat (music)

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Beat (music)

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 (regularly repeating event), of the mensural level[1] (or beat level).[2] The beat is often defined as the rhythm listeners would tap their toes to when listening to a piece of music, or the numbers a musician counts while performing, though in practice this may be technically incorrect (often the first multiple level). In popular use, beat can refer to a variety of related concepts including: tempo, meter, specific rhythms, and groove.

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

Downbeat and upbeat

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

The downbeat is the first beat of the bar, i.e. number 1. The upbeat is the last beat in the previous bar which immediately precedes, and hence anticipates, the downbeat.[3] Both terms correspond to the direction taken by the hand of a conductor.

An anticipatory note or succession of notes occurring before the first barline of a piece is 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.[3]

On-beat and off-beat

Off-beat or backbeat pattern, popular on snare drum[4] play  
"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 (downbeat) 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".[6]

The effect can be easily simulated by evenly and repeatedly counting to four. 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 (bold denotes a stressed beat):

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- About this sound   
  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4—the stress here on the "on" beat About this sound    But one may syncopate that pattern and alternately stress the odd and even beats, respectively:
  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- the stress is on the "unexpected" or syncopated beat About this sound   

So "off-beat" is a musical term commonly applied to syncopation that emphasizes the weak even beats of a bar, as opposed to the usual on-beat. This is a fundamental technique of African polyrhythm that transferred to popular western music. According to Groove Music, the "Offbeat is [often] where the downbeat is replaced by a rest or is tied over from the preceding bar".[6] The downbeat can never be the off-beat because it is the strongest beat in 4/4 time.[7] Certain genres tend to emphasize the off-beat, where this is a defining characteristic of rock'n'roll and Ska music.


Back beat[8][9] About this sound   
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]

"A big part of R&B's attraction had to do with the stompin' backbeats that make it so eminently danceable."[11] An early record with an emphasised back beat throughout was "Good Rockin' Tonight" by Wynonie Harris in 1948.[12] Although 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, 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.[13] 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 Gal 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.

Outside U.S. popular 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[14] About this sound   

In his thesis, Garry Neville Tamlyn 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.[15] 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. 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.[16] Maddox had used this style as early as 1937.[17]

In today's popular music the snare drum is typically used to play the backbeat pattern.[4] Early funk music often delayed one of the backbeats so as, "to give a 'kick' to the [overall] beat".[14]

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.[18] In a double backbeat, one of the off beats is played as two eighth notes rather than one quarter note.[18]

Cross beat

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).[19]
  • Neal, Jocelyn (2000). Neal, Jocelyn; Wolfe, Charles K.; Akenson, James E., eds. Songwriter's Signature, Artist's Imprint: The Metric Structure of a Country Song. Country Music Annual 2000 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky). p. 115.  


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."[20] Further reading: Rothstein, William (1990). Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music, p. 12-3. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0028721910.

Related concepts

  • Tatum refers to a subdivision of a beat which represents the "time division that most highly coincides with note onsets".[21]
  • Afterbeat refers to a percussion style where a strong accent is sounded on the second, third and fourth beats of the bar, following the downbeat.[10]
  • In Reggae music, the term One Drop reflects the complete de-emphasis (to the point of silence) of the first beat in the cycle.
  • James Brown's signature funk groove emphasized the downbeat – that is, with heavy emphasis "on the one" (the first beat of every measure) – to etch his distinctive sound, rather than the back beat (familiar to many R&B musicians) which places the emphasis on the second beat.[22][23][24]


  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. ^ a b Dogantan, Mine (2007). "Upbeat". Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ a b Schroedl, Scott (2001). Play Drums Today!, p.11. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-02185-0.
  5. ^ Snyder, Jerry (1999). Jerry Snyder's Guitar School, p.28. ISBN 0-7390-0260-0.
  6. ^ a b "Beat: Accentuation. (i) Strong and weak beats.". Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. (subscription required (help)). 
  7. ^ "Off-beat". Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10. (subscription required (help)). 
  8. ^ "Introduction to the 'Chop'", Anger, Darol. Strad (0039-2049); 10/01/2006, Vol. 117 Issue 1398, p72-75.
  9. ^ Horne, Greg (2004). Beginning Mandolin: The Complete Mandolin Method, p.61. Alfred. ISBN 9780739034712.
  10. ^ a b "Backbeat". Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved February 10, 2007. (subscription required (help)). 
  11. ^ Beck, John H. (2013). Encyclopedia of Percussion, p.323. Routledge. ISBN 9781317747680.
  12. ^ Beck (2013), p.324.
  13. ^ "The Ultimate Jazz Archive - Set 17/42", Accessed August 6, 2014.
  14. ^ a b Mattingly, Rick (2006). All About Drums, p.104. Hal Leonard. ISBN 1-4234-0818-7.
  15. ^ Tamlyn, Gary Neville (1998). The Big Beat: Origins and Development of Snare Backbeat and other Accompanimental Rhythms in Rock'n'Roll (Ph.D.). ???. pp. 342, 343. 
  16. ^ "Riding the Rails to Stardom - The Maddox Brothers and Rose", NPR News. Accessed August 6, 2014.
  17. ^ "The Maddox Bros & Rose". Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 3 July 2011. Retrieved June 29, 2011. 
  18. ^ 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.  
  19. ^ New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986: 216). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  20. ^ Neal, Jocelyn (2000). Neal, Jocelyn; Wolfe, Charles K.; Akenson, James E., eds. Songwriter's Signature, Artist's Imprint: The Metric Structure of a Country Song. Country Music Annual 2000 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky). p. 115.  
  21. ^ Jehan, Tristan (2005). "3.4.3 Tatum grid". Creating Music By Listening (Ph.D.). MIT. 
  22. ^ Pareles, Jon (2006-12-25). "James Brown, the 'Godfather of Soul', Dies at 73". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-10.  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."
  23. ^ Gross, T. (1989). Musician Maceo Parker (Fresh Air WHYY-FM audio interview). National Public Radio. Retrieved January 22, 2007. 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.
  24. ^ Anisman, Steve (January 1998). "Lessons in listening - Concepts section: Fantasy, Earth Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth Wind & Fire Volume I, Freddie White". Modern Drummer Magazine. pp. 146–152. Retrieved January 21, 2007. 

Further reading

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