The Musical Upbeat

An Unaccented Beat in a Measure

Classical music in Montreal flourishes courtesy of the Schulich School of Music's free concerts.
Photo courtesy of the Schulich School of Music

While upbeat might mean happy and optimistic when talking about a person, when referring to an upbeat in music, it means an unaccented beat that comes before an accented beat that typically comes as the last beat in a measure.

The upbeat essentially prepares the ears of listeners for the first beat in the next measure or the next accented beat in the rhythm. The upbeat is, therefore, weaker than and foreshadows the downbeat; when counting "1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3," the 3 should be the weakest beat and can be considered a pick-up note, which is a synonym for anacrusis.

When trying to explain meter and rhythmic divisions or time signatures, an instructor will often demonstrate the downbeat by conducting the class through a specific time count and moving his or her hand upward before the start of the next count, making the last number in the count the upbeat.

Time, Tempo, and the Upbeat

Understanding music truly starts with understanding rhythm and timing, and when it comes to conducting music and leading musicians through songs, conductors and sheet music alike use time signatures, tempos, and rhythmic divisions to dictate the speed at which a song progresses from note to note.

While some songs are off-beat or have irrational rhythms, most follow strict structures to keep instruments playing in a way that's pleasant for an audience to hear, interpret, and feel. In individual measures, these tempos are kept in up and downbeats, but on the scale of an entire song, (BPM) beats per minute determine the song's overall tempo.

Rhythms can change mid-song, though, as expressed by time signatures at the beginning of the measure, so it's important to distinguish BPM from the song's rhythm. Rhythm, which is controlled by the up and down beats allow musicians to know how quickly to play musical tuplets or individual notes in time with the overall song.

Difference Between Upbeat and Downbeat

The first beat of a measure is called the downbeat, and while it often appears as the first beat in a rhythm, that's not always the case. Still, a conductor signifies the downbeat by flicking his hand downward (as opposed to the upward flick of the upbeat).

When looking at the count "1 and 2 and 3 and 4," the upbeats would be all the numbers while the downbeats would be every occurrence of "and" (an unstated "and" appears between 4 and 1 when repeating the count). By looking at this example, you can see that the upbeat would, therefore, be the beat that appears at the end of a measure to prepare for the downbeat of the first beat of the next measure.

Being able to tell the difference between the up and downbeat helps musicians determine if their timing and pace are right or wrong. By looking at where the next note is supposed to appear in the time signature indicated on the sheet music, musicians can gauge whether or not they are off-beat with the timing of the music.