stresses out

Back beat

In music, back beat (also backbeat) is a term applied both to a specific style of rhythmic accentuation with accent on even beats and those even beats.

In a simple 4/4 rhythm, counted aloud as "1 2 3 4", this applies to the beats 2 and 4, as opposed to the odd downbeat, beat one, and beat 3, also odd. As beat four immediately precedes a new bar in 4/4 rhythm, it is also termed upbeat.


The up and down refer to movements of the conductor's baton. The effect can be easily simulated by evenly and repeatedly counting to four:

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- robotically, with no stress

One may find that one has added stresses out of habit or for interest. One may alternate strong and weak beats on the even and odd beats, respectively:

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- the stress is on the "expected" beat

Or one may syncopate that pattern and alternately stress the odd and even beats, respectively, creating syncopation:

  • 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 -- the stress is on the "unexpected" or syncopated beat

Bold denotes a stressed beat.

So that one may have a background against which to compare these various rhythms a bass drum strike on the downbeat and a constant eighth note subdivision on ride cymbal have been added, which would be counted as follows:

  • 1&2&3&4&1&2&3&4& --

History and use

Today in popular music drum kits the snare drum is typically used to play a backbeat pattern such as quarter notes on the backbeat or the slightly more interesting:

In the 1920s, Boston Time, with the entire band emphasizing the back beat, became popular in New Orleans music. Similarly, Fred Maddox’s trademark back beat (Maddox was a member of the group known as the Maddox Brothers and Rose), a slapping bass style, helped drive a broad change in popular music, sporting a faster, immediately discernible rhythm that came to be known as rockabilly, one of the early forms of rock and roll. Maddox had used this style as early as 1937.

There is a hand-clapping back beat on "Roll 'Em Pete" by Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, recorded in 1938. A distinctive back beat can be heard on "Back Beat Boogie" by Harry James And His Orchestra, recorded in late 1939. Other earlier examples of back beat include the final verse of "Grand Slam" by Benny Goodman in 1942.

In the mid 1940s "hillbilly" musicians the Delmore Brothers were turning out boogie tunes with a hard driving back beat, such as the #2 hit "Freight Train Boogie" in 1946, as well as in other boogie songs they recorded.

Emphasizing the back beat entered rhythm and blues recordings in the late 1940s, and is one of the defining characteristics of rock and roll and is used in virtually all contemporary popular music, bossa nova being a notable exception. Drummer Earl Palmer states the first record with nothing but back beat was "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino in 1949, which he played on. Palmer says he adopted it from the final shout or out chorus common in Dixieland jazz. While "The Fat Man" may have been the first Top 40 song with a back beat all the way through, urban contemporary gospel was stressing the back beat much earlier with hand-clapping and tambourines.

Early funk music often delayed one of the backbeats so as, "to give a 'kick' to the [overall] beat":

Related concepts

  • Afterbeat refers to a percussion style where a strong accent is sounded on the second, third and fourth beats of the bar, following the downbeat.
  • In Reggae music, the term One Drop reflects the complete de-emphasis (to the point of silence) of the first beat in the cycle.
  • James Brown’s signature funk groove emphasized the downbeat – that is, with heavy emphasis "on the one" (the first beat of every measure) – to etch his distinctive sound, rather than the back beat, familiar to many R&B musicians, that placed the emphasis on the second beat.

See also


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