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A Taiwanese taiko drummer

The beat is the basic time unit of music, the pulse of the mensural level[1], also known as the beat level[2]. However, since the term is in popular use, it often connotes the tempo of a piece or a particular sequence of individual beats, the meter, rhythm or groove. In hip hop and R&B music, the term 'beat' commonly refers to the entire instrumental, non-vocal layer of the song, which is frequently based on a looped recording of a drum-rhythm. It may also refer to particular beats in the measure. Much music is characterised by a sequence of stressed and unstressed beats (often called "strong" and "weak") organised into measures and perhaps indicated by a time signature and tempo indication.



The downbeat is the impulse that occurs at the beginning of a bar in measured music.[3] Its name derives from the downward stroke of the director or conductor's baton at the start of each measure. It frequently carries the strongest accent of the rhythmic cycle.


(Ger. Auftakt).

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

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.

N.B. This expression is sometimes loosely used outside the field of music to denote anything positive-sounding; e.g. an "upbeat assessment of a company's prospects".

On-beat and Off-beat

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".[5] 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:

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4—the stress here on the "on" beat About this sound play But one may syncopate that pattern and alternately stress the odd and even beats, respectively, creating syncopation:
  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- the stress is on the "unexpected" or syncopated beat About this sound play
Off-beat or backbeat pattern, popular on snare drum[6] About this sound play

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".[5] The downbeat can never be the off-beat because it is the strongest beat in 4/4 time.[7] 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[8]

A back beat (also backbeat) is a syncopated accentuation on the "off" beat found in rock'n'roll. In a simple 4/4 rhythm these are beats 2 and 4.[9] Today in popular music the snare drum is typically used to play the backbeat pattern.[6].

It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it - Chuck Berry

Similarly, Fred Maddox’s (of The Maddox Brothers and Rose) trademark back beat , a slapping bass style, helped drive a broad change in popular music, sporting a faster, immediately discernible rhythm that came to be known as rockabilly, one of the early forms of rock and roll.[10] Maddox had used this style as early as 1937.[1]

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 earlier examples of back beat include the final verse of "Grand Slam" by Benny Goodman in 1942. In tapes of Charlie Christian and Thelonious Monk jamming at Minton's around the same time, the drummer plays sustained back-beat for the hottest choruses. 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.[2]

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

Emphasized back beat defined rhythm and blues recordings in the late 1940s and so became one of the defining characteristics of rock and roll and much contemporary popular music. Drummer Earl Palmer states the first record with nothing but back beat was "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino in 1949, which he played on. Palmer says he adopted it from the final shout or out chorus common in Dixieland jazz. While "The Fat Man" may have been the first Top 40 song with a back beat all the way through, urban contemporary gospel was stressing the back beat much earlier with hand-clapping and tambourines. Early funk music often delayed one of the backbeats so as, "to give a 'kick' to the [overall] beat"[12].

Related concepts

  • 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.[9]
  • 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.[13][14][15][16][17]

See also


  1. ^ Berry, Wallace (1976/1986). Structural Functions in Music, p.349. ISBN 0-486-25384-8.
  2. ^ DeLone et al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, p.213. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  3. ^ "Downbeat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10.  
  4. ^ a b DOGANTAN, MINE (2007). "Upbeat". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2007-02-10.  
  5. ^ a b "Beat: Accentuation. (i) Strong and weak beats.". Grove Music Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10.  
  6. ^ a b Schroedl, Scott (2001). Play Drums Today!, p.11. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-02185-0.
  7. ^ "Off-beat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10.  
  8. ^ "Introduction to the 'Chop'", Anger, Darol. Strad (0039-2049); 10/01/2006, Vol. 117 Issue 1398, p72-75.
  9. ^ a b "Backbeat". Grove Music Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10.  
  10. ^ NPR News Riding the Rails to Stardom - The Maddox Brothers and Rose
  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. ^ "James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul’, Dies at 73". New York Times. 2006-12-25. Retrieved 2007-01-10.  
  14. ^ Gross, T. (1989). Musician Maceo Parker (Fresh Air WHYY-FM audio interview). National Public Radio. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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.”
  17. ^ 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.


  • J.-J. Momigny: La seule vraie théorie de la musique (Paris, 1821/R)
  • H. Riemann: Musikalische Dynamik und Agogik (Hamburg, 1884)
  • M. Lussy: L’anacrouse dans la musique moderne (Paris, 1903)
  • E. T. Cone: Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York, 1968)


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