Common Beat Terms
In this lesson I want to define some common beat terminology that you will often hear. Musicians use a lot of different words to describe different rhythmic points in a measure of music. These terms can be confusing because a lot of people use them differently from their technical definition. These terms apply to most meters, but we'll talk about them in the context of 4/4 time since you are already familiar and comfortable with it.
To define some of these terms I need to give you a quick primer on conducting. You probably know the conductor is the person who stands in front of the symphony waving their arms about. Many of you will not work with a conductor, but a little understanding of conducting will help you understand a lot of terminology about beats, meter and rhythm. It's worth knowing what Bugs Bunny was doing up there!
One role of the conductor is to act as a silent metronome for a large group of musicians. The motion of the conductor's hand or baton outlines the pulses of the meter. Each bounce of the hand or baton lands on a beat. [See video for a demonstration of the hand motion.]
The most important part of the motion to know is where beat 1 falls. Beat one is always marked with a straight, decisive down-stroke. Beat 1 lands at the bottom of the stroke.
This brings us to our first musical term to define: the downbeat. The downbeat is defined as beat one of the measure. The term comes from conducting and refers to the down-stroke defining beat one.
Now people use this term incorrectly quite often. A lot of people use it to mean every beat of the measure—one, two, three, four—instead of just beat one. The correct term for that is on-beat.
I think the confusion comes from two places. First, people often tap their feet down on the beat. Second, guitarists often pick or strum down strokes on the beat. So, both of these things lead people to call each beat a downbeat. But, the true definition for downbeat is beat one of the bar, and the term comes from the conductor's downward stroke on beat one.
This brings us to our next term: the upbeat. Now this one really gets used incorrectly all of the time. I am guilty of it, too. I think every great teacher I had burned it into me the wrong way.
Upbeat has two technical definitions: The first definition for upbeat is the notes preceding the first downbeat. Other common names for these notes are pickup, pickup notes or anacrusis.
The second definition is the upbeat is simply the final beat of the measure. Again, these definitions come from the conductor's upstroke on the final beat leading to the downbeat stroke. It makes sense when you think of it in that context.
But, seemingly everyone uses the term upbeat to mean the “ands” between the beat. “One and two and three and four and.” Again, I think this confusion came from people's foot tapping where their foot is up on the 'and' and down on the beat. And, guitarists often use an upstroke on the “and” and downstrokes on the beat. So, the confusion is not surprising.
But, the true definition of upbeat is the final beat of the measure or the pickup notes leading into the first downbeat. If you don't believe me, look it up in a music dictionary. The correct term for the “ands” in a measure is the off-beats. But, expect musicians to use the term upbeat to mean the off-beat “ands.”
These incorrect uses are okay as long as everyone is in agreement. But, if you're that person at parties who butts in with, “Actually...” you now have a few more ways to spoil a conversation!
Let's talk about another common term you will hear: the backbeat. A big feature of 4/4 time in many styles of music like blues, jazz, R&B, and rock is the backbeat. The backbeat is the strong accent placed on beats two and four in 4/4 time. You can really hear the accent in early rhythm and blues and rock 'n roll. Listen to Chuck Berry's song Rock 'n Roll Music. In the lyrics he states, “It's got a backbeat you can't lose it.” He's referring to the accent on 2 & 4.>
Listen to the whack of the snare drum on beats 2 and 4. That backbeat accent constantly propels and drives the music forward.
When the audience is into the music, they will be clapping on the backbeat 2 and 4. Some audiences get this wrong and frustrate the band by clapping on 1 and 3. Please don't do this! Here's a funny video of Harry Connick Jr. turning around an audience clapping on the wrong beats by sneaking in an extra beat...
(In the future I'll explain how James Brown created funk by turning music around from the backbeat accent to the one.)
The Backbeat and the Bassline
As you know, the drums and bass work together to form the foundation and groove of a song. You might be wondering, “If the backbeat is so essential, should my bassline accent it or stress it?” Well, it's not a requirement or responsibility of the bass to accent the backbeat, but there's also no rule against it. It always comes down to whether the groove works or not.
If you only accent the backbeat, it sounds a bit strange, no? [See video for example.] You probably wouldn't do that all the way through a song.
The Bassline and 1 & 3
Traditionally the bass has a lot more responsibility hitting on the grounding beats one and three. This is for a couple of reasons. First, chords often change on beat one, or on beats 1 and 3. And the bass helps define the chord changes in a song. Secondly, beats 1 and 3 are where the drummer often puts the kick, or bass, drum. The bassline and the bass drum are often tightly connected because they share the same acoustic space.
Working with Other Instruments
This is important. A basic rule when working with other instruments is: the more the instruments occupy the same frequency range, the more tightly they need to work together. The more separate the instruments are (like a bass and a flute), the more independent they can be.
Bass and the Bass Drum
Acoustically, the bass guitar and the kick drum occupy the same low frequency range between 30 and 100Hz. Your low E string is about 41Hz. The E an octave above is 82Hz. A lot of basslines sit in that bottom octave. Your low notes really need to lock in and connect with the kick drum. If they fight each other down there, it won't groove. It will be muddy and ill-defined. [See video for examples.]
Bass and the Snare Drum
The snare drum sits a bit higher than the kick drum—often between 100 and 200Hz. This is where the common higher notes of the bass live. Open G is about 100Hz and the G on the 12th fret is about 200Hz. So, higher notes might try to be sensitive to the snare drum. Sometimes you use higher notes to reinforce the backbeat. There are lots of basslines and riffs which mimic the bass/snare backbeat pattern. Listen to Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and you'll hear the whole band hitting the backbeat hard.
Another song with an octave riff imitating the bass drum snare drum backbeat pattern is My Sharona.
While not a requirement, riffs and basslines can and do accent the backbeat.
Getting in the Way of the Backbeat
Your bassline could also obscure or distract from the backbeat. Sometimes if you play too high and too much around the backbeat, you can really weaken the groove that it creates.
One strategy is to stay low and out of the way of the backbeat snare drum.
Other times you might match the snare drum in your bassline. You might play some high notes along with the snare drum.
Other times you might give the drummer all of the backbeat by leaving a hole on 2 and 4. Leaving a hole really lets the crack of the snare drum through and creates a great groove. Learning when not to play is one of music's hardest lessons.
When creating a bassline you want to be sensitive to these relationships with other instruments. A lot of it will be intuitive and just feel right. But, when things are going wrong, it gives you something to look at.
As you can imagine, this bass and bass drum relationship is a huge, complex subject and we'll cover it more thoroughly in future lessons.
This lesson covered a lot so let's review.
We briefly covered how conductors use their hand or baton to outline the pulse of the meter. Each bounce marks a pulse.
The term downbeat refers to the first beat of the measure, and it came from the conductor's downward stroke highlighting beat one.
The term upbeat is technically defined as the final beat of the measure or the pickup notes leading into beat 1. The term upbeat comes from the final upward stroke of the conductor's hand. But, many people use this term to mean the 'ands' in-between the beats.
The term meaning each beat is 'on-beats.' And the term for the 'ands' is the 'off-beats.'
The term backbeat refers to beats 2 and 4 in a measure of 4/4 time. Many styles accent the backbeat which drives the music forward. That accent often occurs in the drum part and not necessarily in the bassline.
Lastly, I gave you an introduction to working with other instruments that share the same low frequency range as the bass. One of the most important relationships is working with the drummer's bass drum. We'll talk about these intricate relationships with other instruments much more in future lessons.