Here’s something confusing. We just said that conducting patterns have a “beginning” and an “end”—but it’s actually very common that music doesn’t start at the “beginning” of the measure (downbeat), and it’s rare for the last note of a song to occur on the ending beat of the measure (upbeat).
What’s the difference between a downbeat and the beginning of the music? A downbeat marks where we expect particularly significant, noticeable events in the music to happen. These include chord changes, bass drums and other very low sounds, stressed syllables of text, and more. Sometimes these things happen right at the beginning of the music, but sometimes there’s a short bit of music that leads into the first particularly significant, noticeable event (downbeat). Where there’s a lead-in like this, we call the music before the first downbeat a pickup or anacrusis (plural “anacruses”).
The song “Happy Birthday to You,” for example, begins with a pickup. The most-stressed syllable, “birth-” of “birthday,” comes on the first downbeat; this is also often where an accompanying instrument such as a guitar or piano will play its first chord. “Happy,” then, is a pickup, which in this case lasts one beat.
Perhaps determining whether music starts on a pickup or a downbeat is simple and intuitive to you, but perhaps not, and that’s ok—here’s some advice. Factors that contribute to the perception of downbeats include chord changes, accompaniment rhythmic patterns (such as guitar strumming patterns or piano left-hand patterns), repeating rhythms in the melody, and bass (low) notes. Above all, instead of just counting out the measure to see if it feels right, make a significant bodily motion—say, a particularly forceful downbeat with your arm, or a sway of the entire body—on what you think is each downbeat. Using your internalized bodily habits, it may become clear whether you are aligning with the measure or conflicting with it. And if not, as always, work with someone one-on-one; they can help you understand what it feels like to align your bodily motion with downbeats.
Goal: Practice determining whether a melody starts on a pickup or a downbeat
- Listen to the following songs. As before, find the beat and the beginnings of measures.
- Once you feel comfortable tracking the measures, go back to the beginning of the melody and determine: does it start with a downbeat or a pickup?
- If you find yourself getting more comfortable with this skill, skip the step where you find the beat and the beginnings of measures; instead, just listen from the beginning of a song, and as soon as you hear the melody starting, see if you can determine whether it begins on a pickup or a downbeat.