Not all beats are created equal. If you want music to move forward (literally: to be compelling), then you have to make the movement happen. And you do this in part through strong and weak beats.
Not all beats are created equal.
As a sidenote, one of the academic arguments against disco in the seventies was that it equalled out the beats, and failed to define strong and weak beats. I can understand this critique, and can notice where it’s led in pop and electronic music. But I have a soft spot for disco, so I can forgive it.
The Most Common Thought
The most common thought on strong and weak beats (in 4/4 time) goes as follows:
- The first beat of the measure is the strongest (it’s the “downbeat”).
- The third beat of the measure is also strong, but not as strong as the first.
- The second and fourth beats are weak.
While this way of looking at it may be technically true, I don’t think it sounds very good. It tends to make everything into a traditional polka (“um-pah um-pah”).
This method fails to take into account musical movement, and the idea that some notes lead to other notes.
It also tends to encourage the “tyranny of the bar line”: that incredibly non-musical impulse to stop at a bar line, instead of playing over it to the first note of the next bar (which is the way that music more commonly works).
A More Musical Approach
As a different way of thinking about strong and weak beats that creates a long line, try this (still in 4/4):
- The first beat of the measure is the destination (the downbeat).
- The second, third and fourth beats lead to the next downbeat. (progressive upbeats)
So if we examine this more closely, we see that this means the second beat is the weakest. It creates a “negative energy” that we can then spring from to move us forward towards the next downbeat.
The third beat is indeed stronger than the second.
The Fourth Beat
The fourth beat (and this is where you’ll find the biggest difference) is the most powerful note of the measure. While not necessarily (though at times) the loudest, it has the most energy.
This is because the fourth beat sets up the next downbeat. It has the energy from the second and third beats leading up to it. When continuing this energy, it compels us over the bar and to the next downbeat.
If you completely back off (make quiet) the fourth beat, you have just reduced your “forward thrust” that you created through the second and third beats.
Often, you’ll have a bass note or harmony change on the third beat as well. So to maintain this energy, you may need to actually accent the fourth beat. (Many great pianists, such as Sergei Rachmaninov, often accented the fourth beat to keep a “spring in the step” of the music, and to make the music more compelling.)
Other Time Signatures
• The first beat of the measure is the destination (the downbeat).
• The second and third beats lead to the next downbeat. (progressive upbeats)
• The first beat of the measure is the destination (the downbeat).\
• The second beat leads to the next downbeat
This demands we consider strong and weak beats on multiple levels. There’s the big “2” within each bar. And there is the small three that fills in the gaps.
To move the musical action forward most effectively, the second group of three (beats 4,5,6) will have more power to lead us across the bar to a the next downbeat, and a likely harmony change.
This can be a delicate balancing act that demands we practice in creative ways, with specific goals. At root, seeking to understand the role of each note and how it fits into the whole is the best way forward. More on balancing the micro and macro below.
This may be a little confusing and potentially overwhelming at first, but with time, it becomes much more instinctive. (And even if you get everything wrong, no one gets hurt. The price of failure is extremely low, and the payoffs very high!)
Some Things Just Sound Better Than Others
Without getting overly philisophical or “woo-woo”, some ways of doing things seem more inherently “right” than others.
We instinctly recognize and appreciate when things operate in a way that we find “natural”. When dealing with sound, we have a soft spot for things that sound similar in some way to the human voice. We respond more emotionally to music that sounds in this way more “human”.
If you listen to the way that we structure sentences and thoughts, we use our words to bring our ideas forward toward an arrival, or destination.
Structuring your playing so that you’re constantly moving over the barline is like a sentence or thought completing. It will be more emotionally poignant than thinking of the first note of each measure as the big beginning with the other notes of the measure as inferior left-overs trailing out behind.
You can also pretend that you are having to entertain an easily distracted child with your playing. You have to constantly be saying, “look at this, and then over here, and now go over here, and now look at this, ….”.
If you require yourself to at all times be instructing the listener to pay attention to something, and be leading the ear toward something, you’ll be a much more interesting musician to listen to. You’ll also discover all sorts of new little challenges in your music!
Use Your Words
Another way to think about this is to assign these beat words. This can be a game-changer in working on your pieces, and immediately help you sound better, understand music more, and deepen your relationship with the notes on the page.
I often use “And Then To Here”.
- And: Second beat
- Then: Third beat
- To: Fourth beat
- Here: New Downbeat (next measure)
Notice, instead of thinking “1 2 3 4”, this way of approaching it is “2 3 4 1”. Completely different.
By using words that denote a destination (“here”) you naturally organize your thoughts to lead toward it. This is a much more musical way of looking at the music on the page.
If you use your dynamics and articulations to demonstrate these relationships (2 3 4 leading to 1), you have just created forward movement in your music. This makes it easier to understand and more enjoyable to listen to.
Thinking Smaller: Strong and Weak in the Micro
Within each beat, you’ll also encounter groups of four. Sixteenth notes can be organized in the same way.
The second, third and fourth sixteenths also lead toward the next downbeat.
This can (and should!) heavily influence the way you handle these intricate aspects of you music.
Of course, sometimes you’ll have longer passages that will lend themselves toward combining beats into larger groupings (such a descending scale containing 8, 9 or more notes.) Still, you can think of the last three as the most important of the group and work to use them to powerfully lead toward the arrival point.
In practice, you can use your words (“And Then To Here”) to guide these as well.
Thinking Bigger: Strong and Weak Measures
You can apply this same idea to larger structures.
In a standard four-bar phrase, the same rules hold true (most of the time).
- The first bar is the downbeat (the destination)
- The second, third and fourth bars lead toward the next downbeat measure (the “1”).
When working out your concepts and strategies regarding how to handle the phrasing of these larger sections, you can apply the same words (“And Then To Here”) to help you ingrain and understand the general role of the measures.
The Second Bar
Notice that using this approach, the second bar is the “weakest”. This means that you should generally not crescendo to the second bar of a phrase. (Many players make this mistake, especially when the first bar has a scale passage.)
Instead, this is the beginning of a long (ish) journey toward the next downbeat. Save your energy and know that you’ve got a long way to go.
The Fourth Bar
Notice also that this means that the fourth bar is again the “anacrusis”, the big setup for the next downbeat, the “upbeat”.
Composers often cadence into the fourth bar, creating a stopping point. There may be long notes, grand pauses (rests), or both.
It’s your job as the performer to “keep the ball in the air”. You have to do whatever you have to do so that the music doesn’t actually stop and/or relax, but instead act as a propellent that drives the music forward toward the next phrase.
Much of this relies on your conception of the music, and what you choose to call “the end”. If you call that long note in the fourth bar the end, you’ll relax. Then you have to start back over again in the next bar. You’ve broken the long line, and now have to overcome inertia.
Phrases With Fewer or More than Four Bars
Of course not every phrase has four beats. Some have three. Some have five. Get up to seven, and you can probably split it (conceptually) and work with a smaller section while still preserving the musical impetus of the whole phrase.
To use words in your “conducting” of these larger or smaller phrases, just make up whatever works.
Some possible examples:
- 3 bars: “And To Here” (still, “here” is the next downbeat)
- 4 bars: “And Then To Here”
- 5 bars: “And Now Then To Here” or “Then We Go To Here”
There is no real “right” way to do this. Just make it work, guided by a resolute intention to move the music forward toward some defined moment in time (a downbeat).
** This type of musical organization is even more important when the musical structure isn’t obvious to the listener. In modern music, for instance, it can be easy to alienate listeners by not demonstrating exactly where the phrase is going (or even that there is a phrase!).
Funky Phrases and the Bar Line
Above I mentioned the “tyranny of the bar line”, which lures players into stopping in their practice and concepts at a barline, instead of crossing it to the next downbeat.
In some music (impressionist, French, some more modern/20th century comes to mind) the composers experiment with longer phrases, and musical ideas that don’t conform to the usual idea of a “measure”.
Bar lines have little to do with the music itself.
In these cases, the bar lines serve mainly as a means to organize the rhythm on the page, and have little to do with the music itself.
In these cases, you may need to re-imagine the bars. Ignore the barlines on the page and create your own measures, based on what the music is doing and where it’s going.
Anything’s legal, so long as it helps you to understand the structure of the music, and helps you to demonstrate it to your listeners (even if it’s just the walls that hear your music!).
When you do this, it helps to write your beat numbers over the notes on the page so you remember what you’re doing.
Side-note: Placing Slurs in Your Music
As a quick side-note, if you are seeking to move the music toward the next downbeat, you may need to evaluate the placement of slurs in your music score.
“Hammer-ons” and “Pull-offs” generally follow a “strong-weak” scenario. The second note is usually quieter than the first. (You can do it opposite, but it’s trickier, and takes practice.)
Knowing this, if you see a slur on the last upbeat of the measure, you may want to reconsider it. If your goal is to crescendo right up to the bar-line (as it often is), a slur will suck energy out of your musical line.
In many tunes that you read through, you’ll see tons of slurs that go against this notion of strong and weak beats. They’ve been put there (usually) because the composer or editor thought it would be easier on the guitar.
However, slurs are (or should be) a musical choice, not a physical one. While they may indeed make things easier, the main goal should be to move the action forward. If they hinder that in any way, we’ve essentially “put the cart before the horse”.
To make it easy to remember, don’t slur on the last 16th of the beat.
Whenever you see a slur written in your music, question it. Try to find the motivation of the person who put it there. If it makes the music sound better, or if it lends the right character (such as in a jig), keep it.
But if it goes against the laws of momentum (upbeats leading to downbeats), change it. It’s not sacred.
So to make an over-generalization (but easy rule to remember that works most of the time) don’t slur on the last 16th of any beat.
Baby Steps Through the Office
Re-conceiving music in this way can be a huge change at first. Don’t freak out!
Instead of getting overwhelmed, just take one small part that you’re working on. It could be in a new piece, or one that you already know.
Play the section slowly, using the words “And Then To Here”, if you choose. Make the second, third and fourth beats lead toward the downbeat of the next measure.
As with all practice, exaggerate like crazy. If you are getting louder as you move through the bar, then start very quietly and grow to extremely loud. Be garish and brash in your demonstration of your ideas (in this case, the crescendo).
As you get used to this way of working, it will start to become habit, and everything you play will naturally move forward more musically. You’ll find greater understanding in the music that you play, and when you don’t understand something, you’ll have ways to explore it and get to know it better.
So in short, we can narrow this rather large idea to this:
Most of the time, the first beat of the new measure is downbeat. This is our destination, and our job is to make all the notes since the last downbeat lead the ear forward to this one. And all the notes in the bar after the downbeat exist to move us toward the next.
This basic idea can be taken to a micro level, within each beat.
And it can be taken to a macro level using measures (bars) instead of beats.
Our job is to understand (as much as we can, and it’s a process) where the downbeats are, and what notes should lead us toward it. From there, we can make our musical decisions (dynamics, articulations, etc) based on our musical goal to move the music from one downbeat to the next.
Over To You
Can you think of other places in your life where you are called on to decide and balance the importance or hierarchy of events, things, or situations? Do you have any system or way to decide what’s “strong” and what’s “weak”? Leave your answer in the comments!