The Accent in Music

Note Articulation and Beat Emphasis

closeup of sheet music

Glowimages/Getty Images

In music notation, accents appear on notes to express added definition, emphasis or articulation to a specific note or chord. The main groups of accents fall within the dynamic, tonic or agogic accent families. Usually, when composers use accents in a composition they are seeking to create a specific texture in a musical phrase. 

Accent Emphasis on Beats

Commonly in classical music, accents fall on the primary beats of a measure. For example, in 4/4 time the stress is on the first and third beat of the measure. The less emphasized offbeats are on the second and fourth beats of the measure. When accents are applied to the offbeats — the second and fourth beats — the resulting rhythm feels syncopated because those beats are now stronger and more stressed due to the accent articulation.

This is easy to understand with 3/4 time. In 3/4 time, each measure has three beats. The first beat, which is called the downbeat, is heaviest, and the following two beats are lighter. Most waltzes are written in 3/4 time and the corresponding dance steps emphasize the first beat as well. If you try counting in 3/4 time, it might sound like this: One-two-three, one-two-three, and so on. If an accent is applied to the second beat, however, the emphasis of the beat is shifted and now sounds like this: One-two-three, one-two-three, etc.

Dynamic, Tonic, and Agogic Accents

Different accents are grouped into three categories: Dynamic, tonic and agogic. Dynamic accents are the most commonly used accent types and involve any accent that places added stress on a note, which usually creates an attack-like and "dynamic" emphasis on the music. A tonic accent might be used less frequently than a dynamic accent, emphasizing a note by heightening its pitch. An agogic accent adds length to a note resulting in a note that is usually perceived as longer because the musician is placing attention to that particular note in order to shape a musical phrase. 

Types of Dynamic Accents

Accent marks can be articulated in different ways in music notation.

  1. Accent: The accent mark, which resembles a > sign, is what most musicians refer to when they say a note is accented. Classically trained musicians might call this a marcato or an accent. If an accent mark appears above a note, it means that the note should have an emphasized start; relative to notes around it, its execution is stronger and more defined.
  2. Staccato: A staccato resembles a little dot and means that a note should be played crisp and defined, where the end of the note is truncated to create a clear separation between it and its following note. Usually, staccatos alter the length of a note ever so slightly; a succession of quarter notes that are played staccato might sound shorter than regular quarter notes without a staccato. 
  3. Staccatissimo: A staccatissimo is literally a "little staccato" and its mark resembles an upside-down raindrop. Most musicians interpret this to mean that the staccatissimo is shorter than the staccato, but performers who specialize in a period of music performance, such as the classical era, might use the staccato and staccatissimo interchangeably, as it was stylistically accepted during the time. 
  4. Tenuto: In Italian, tenuto means "sustained," which helps understand its accent marking. The tenuto mark is a straight line that resembles an underscore. When it's placed on a note or chord, it means that the performer should play the full value of the note and typically add a slight emphasis, which is usually added by playing the note slightly louder and fully sustained.
  5. Marcato: The marcato articulation resembles a pointy party hat. In Italian, marcato means "well-marked" and can cause a note to be played with added emphases, usually expressed with an increase in dynamic. 

Perfecting accent marks in music performance requires learning different technical skills that can help a musician execute the accents properly. Depending on the style of music, including pop, classical or jazz, and the instrument, such as the piano, violin or voice, accent marks can have different execution technique and a variety of musical results.