Strong and Weak Beats in Time Signatures: Rhythm Lesson

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Today’s video is a collaboration with my friend Eric over at popmusictheory.com. He’s awesome and does really good in-depth blog posts once a week on nerdy theory topics, but in a really accessible way – by relating it to pop music.

So today we’ve decided to collaborate on a rhythmic topic: Strong and weak beats in different time signatures. You might not have thought about it before, but when you’re listening to a song, not all beats are equal. Some land with a stronger “thud” than other beats.

In this episode, we’ll talk about rhythmic conventions – for example, what are the strongest beats in 4/4 time? We’ll also talk about rule-breaking, aka syncopation, and how composers twist and turn standard rhythms to make them more exciting.

Here’s the link to Eric’s blog post on the topic, definitely go check it out. We’ll be covering some of the same ground, but his focus will be using pop music as examples, whereas I’ll be using classical music for my examples.

Let’s get into it!

Time Signature History

Back in the middle ages, rhythm didn’t exist like it does today. There was no structure, and no bar lines, no strong and weak beats. In the early days, music was often just a single melody that meandered without any real organization.

But with the passing of time, music became more and more complex. Harmony became a thing and people started singing with multiple melodies all at the same time (called polyphony). As music grew more complex, the need to keep things structured and organized became more and more important.

So time signatures as we know it were born, evolving in the Renaissance (roughly the 16th century).

Time Signatures – Their Purpose

Time signatures work to give a song a sense of unity. Say you have a time signature that’s 4/4 – it’s telling you that you’re going to have 4 beats in each measure. Every time you hit a bar line, you reset the count back to one.

This adds an element of predictability to a piece, and it’s something that virtually all music has now. Unmeasured music is a thing of the past.

Strong and Weak Beats

Whenever your music has a time signature (which is basically always), there are going to be some beats that are naturally more important than other beats. We call these strong and weak beats.

For example, in any time signature, the first beat is really strong. This just makes sense. If your time signature is 4/4, or 4 beats in every bar, the sound of that first beat is going to be a little weightier and heavier.

That’s why the first beat is also called the “downbeat”.

You’ve probably heard the terms “upbeat” and “downbeat” before. In really simple terms, the upbeat is the beat right before the downbeat (beat 1).

The best way to understand this is to look at a conductor baton pattern.

When a conductor waves her baton, she goes UP for the upbeat, and DOWN for the downbeat.

So in 4/4 time, beat 1 is the downbeat. So I would move my hand DOWN as I say “1, 2, 3” – and when I get to beat “4”, the upbeat, my hand moves UP.

Every time signature has its own pattern of strong and weak beats, but a general rule of thumb is that the first beat is always going to be strong.

Unless you get into the topic of syncopation, which turns everything upside down. Right means left, day means night, strong means weak.

But we’ll come back to syncopation in another video.

Strong and Weak Beats in Various Time Signatures

So let’s jump to some examples of various time signatures – today we’ll look at 4/4, 3/4, 2/4 and 6/8.

We’ll figure out where the strong and weak beats are in these time signatures, and what types of songs tend to use them.

4/4 Time Signature

Since we’ve already been using 4/4 time as an example, I figure that’s as good a place to start as any. It also happens to be the most common time signature – unless you listen to a lot of waltzes, the vast majority of your playlist is probably in 4/4 time.

So what are the strong and weak beats in 4/4 time?

(The “S” stands for strong, and the “w” for weak.)

Beat 1 and 3 are the strongest. Beat 1 is the strongest because it always is in any time signature, and beat 3 is the next strongest.

The second and 4th beat would be our weak beats. These beats are subtle and unaccented.

Canon in D: 4/4 Time

Take a listen to Canon in D, which is in 4/4 time, you can clearly see that beat 1 and 3 are, in fact, the strongest beats. The left hand is playing a half-note rhythm, changing chords/harmonies every two beats. You should still be able to hear the strong and weak beats even when the performance grows more complex. See if you can count “1, 2, 3, 4” while you listen.

3/4 Time Signature

3/4 time is still sometimes used in pop music, but it’s a lot less common than 4/4 time. 3/4 is the time signature of waltzes and minuets, and we’ll be listening to a waltz as our example today.

So where are the strong and weak beats in 3/4?

Well, we already know that the first beat is going to be strong. But what about beat 2 and 3? They’re actually both weak.

Waltz in A Flat Major

Let’s take a listen to a waltz by Brahms. It’s his Waltz in A Flat Major. In the left hand, the first beat – the strong beat – features a low bass note, and a harmony change. The other two weaker beats are filling out the harmony.

This really propels that 3/4 sound. Take a listen and see if you can count along in threes to the recording.

2/4 Time Signature

In 2/4 time, it’s really easy to figure out the strong and weak beat, because there’s only two beats in the whole bar!

So of course the first beat is strong, and the second beat is weak.

Generally this time signature is reserved for polkas or marches. Polkas and marches tend to be very fast and upbeat, but sometimes you’ll have slow marches (like Chopin’s famous Funeral March).

Wagner: Bridal Chorus

Even though there are some wacky dotted rhythms in Wagner’s Bridal Chorus, which you can listen to below, you can still easily notice the emphasis on beat 1 of each bar. There’s always a note on beat 1 – never a rest or a pause.

See if you can hear that 1-2 count throughout.

6/8 Time Signature

Lastly, we’ll take a look at the strong and weak beats of 6/8 rhythm. I’ve discussed in a fair amount of depth the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 in a previous video, so check that out if you want more information (More on Rhythm: 6/8 time).

There are lots of genres that use a 6/8 time signature – my favorites tend to be barcarolles, which is a boat song. 6/8 really has a “rocking back and forth” sound to it which you’ll hear in a moment.

The strong and weak beats in 6/8 are the first beat (of course), but a medium-weight beat falls on beat 4. This gives us two groupings of three.

Grieg: Morning Mood

In Grieg’s Morning Mood, you’ll notice there’s a definite emphasis every 3 beats – the left hand harmony changes either on beat 1, or beat 1 and 4. Let’s take a listen – see if you can pick out the groupings of threes when you listen.

Conclusion

Thanks for checking out today’s video and blog post on strong and weak beats in the primary time signatures! And again, definitely go check out Eric’s blog post on the same topic.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.