What Is an Upbeat in Music? The Definition of a Musical Upbeat

An upbeat in music is the last beat before the barline. But it’s much more than that. Upbeats have a special role and purpose.

In this article, we’ll explore the upbeat definition, as well as different types of upbeats. And we’ll discuss how to use and play upbeats for maximum musical effect.

What is a Musical Upbeat?

In simple terms, the upbeat is the last beat of a measure. But more, it is the last beat of the preceding measure, which leads to a downbeat in the next measure.

Note: We’ll use “bar” and “measure” interchangeably in this article. For our purposes (and generally in music), they are the same thing.

upbeat musical definition

An upbeat is the last beat of a measure, which leads to the downbeat of the next measure.

The first beat of a measure is called a downbeat. Downbeats are strong. They often mark a change in harmony (chord), an arrival, or landing.

When we tap our toes along with music, we may naturally tap loudest on the downbeat.

The upbeat leads to the downbeat. Upbeats alert us to the fact that a downbeat is coming. They can be like a finger pointing forward at a point of interest.

As such, upbeats drive momentum and forward movement in music. This is an important role and can bring more life and vitality to the music.

Why is it called an “Upbeat?”

The term “upbeat” comes from the world of conducting.  In marking the time, the conductor makes a series of movements with a hand or baton.

The first beat of each bar is a downward movement (the downbeat).  And the note just prior is a lift (the upbeat).  So the conductor goes up on the upbeat and down on the downbeat.

How to Play Upbeats in Music

So how do we play them? Well, it depends.

First, we need to understand the nature of the downbeat they precede. Some downbeats are large arrivals. The downbeat may be a surprise chord or note. It may be the culmination of a large phrase.

Or the downbeat may be less interesting in the scheme of the piece. It may fall on the weak bar in a phrase.

When we understand the nature of the downbeat, we can then decide how to best announce its arrival.

For many bars, it works well to crescendo (get gradually louder) the last notes before the barline. We can do this regardless of how we play the upcoming downbeat.

upbeats on guitar
In Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,’ we hear the last notes of each bar leading to the downbeat (beginning) of the next bar. A slight swell toward the barline helps the music to thrust forward.

We also want to ensure that we play the rhythm such that it pulls the listener forward. This will usually mean staying in strict time, as it’s written on the page. No slowing or speeding up the last beat.

Other times, we will inflect the rhythm to better demonstrate the nature of the downbeat. We could do this by slowing down slightly (ritardando) or by using an agogic accent.

upbeats in Bach for guitar
Bach – Prelude from Cello Suite No.1. The last three 16ths usher us to the downbeat. We can use the words “and then to..” to help understand the nature of these notes.

Like a stage actor or presenter introducing the next act, we can tailor our phrasing for maximum dramatic effect (within appropriate bounds and in good taste, of course!).

We can also use words, such as “and then to…” for the last three 16ths of a bar. Using words like these can help us create the forward movement in music.

When we understand the role of upbeats, we can also expand our idea of them. This can help us create even more momentum and movement in our pieces.

Bass Upbeats

The technical definition of an upbeat is the last beat of a measure. But we can also think of upbeats in larger structures.

For example, in 4/4 time, we often see half notes in the bass. When we do, we can think of the second half note as the upbeat to the next bar.

bass upbeats
Bach Prelude – Half notes in the bass are common in music. Each can be thought of as an upbeat to the next bar.

For these, rhythmic placement is important. A slight agogic accent may be in order. This can help the mid-bar half note spring forward, leading toward the downbeat.

Here in Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, we see half notes in the bass, which we can treat as upbeats to the next bass note.  And we have clear upbeat phrases in the melody.  These work together to create a cascade of forward momentum.

Repeated Bars and Material as Upbeats

We also may find repeated bars or material as an element of a piece of music. Oftentimes, the second (repeated) bar can act as an upbeat to the upcoming measure.

So while the notes may be the same in each bar, the role is different.  We can inflect them in different ways to communicate these contrasting roles.

When we look at repeated bars in this way, we can explore them as “harmonic upbeats.” Here, a chord can serve as an upbeat to the next chord. (For example, in music theory, a dominant chord often leads to a tonic chord.)

Repeated material in the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1.  The first statement is an arrival.  The second is an upbeat leading to the change in harmony.

We can combine all these different conceptions of the upbeat.  And when we do, we can add loads of energy and force to our pieces.  In a given measure of music, we make have all the different types of upbeats mentioned above.  Then, we have to balance each and make it all sounds natural and flowing.  This makes for great practice.

Study Upbeats for More Active Engagement and Deeper Practices

Upbeats are one of the most powerful levers we have as musicians. The better we get at using them for effect, the better our music will sound.

And not only that, but by taking advantage of the upbeats in our music, we become more engaged in our practice.

It takes constant attention and intention to play upbeats well. And performing them well also demands a nimble technique. We must be able to use subtle (and not-so-subtle!) shadings of loud and soft, rhythmic placement, and tone quality.

When we set out to play upbeats in their musical roles, we must make decisions. We must listen to the music and ask exploratory questions.

All these pull us forward as musicians and challenge us. And in the process, we have more fun and enjoy more growth in our practices. Yes, please!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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