Today’s post is on the music theory topic of anacrusis (also called a pickup).
Attention Music Creators
Are you a music creator? (songwriter, producer, composer, etc.)
If so – learning music theory, particularly as it relates to popular music, can be very helpful.
Let’s start right now. Today we will be discussing a small, often-overlooked music theory technique. It’s called anacrusis.
Anacrusis a.k.a The Pickup
In Walter Piston’s textbook Harmony, anacrusis is defined as follows:
From the metric standpoint, the beginning of a melodic phrase is measured by the appearance of a downbeat, which may or may not be preceded by an upbeat. The upbeat, also called the anacrusis, is analogous to a weak syllable that begins a line of verse; it may include the entire beat preceding the downbeat, or just a portion of it…
The term anacrusis comes from poetry. It refers to one or more words which precede the beginning of a verse, standing outside the established meter.
In music, an anacrusis or pickup is when one or more sounds or notes precede the beginning of a song or musical phrase. Similar to the definition in poetry, the sounds or notes stand outside of the established meter in the upcoming section. The notes or sounds are generally weak, meaning they are not stressed.
Can I have an Example, Please?
Now that we’ve laid out a definition, next we’ll be taking a look at a classic example. After that, we will examine and study 13 more examples from real-life popular music – from the likes of Jay-Z, The Pixies, Bob Dylan and Maroon 5. We will see how these artists have used anacrusis, and see what we can learn from each song.
Along the way, we will be presenting some action tips for music creators. These tips will be your chance to learn how to apply these techniques to your own music, so that you can improve your songs and compositions. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about you!
A Classic Example: The Happy Birthday Song
The classic example of an anacrusis in music is the Happy Birthday Song.
Notice the anacrusis. Before the first measure even starts, there are some extra notes which do not add up to a full bar.
The word “happy” in the opening lines of the happy birthday song meet the criteria of an anacrusis:
- The word “happy” occurs before the start of the first measure of the piece (or musical phrase)
- The anacrusis does not add up to a full measure of music, it is just a portion of a measure
- The notes are weak, compared to “birth-“, which is stressed.
A pickup can be one or more sounds/notes, in this case it’s two: “Ha-” and “-ppy.”
Are you starting to see what an anacrusis is? Now, let’s dive into our examples from popular music.
1. Jimi Hendrix – Hey Joe
Jimi Hendrix – Hey Joe
Let’s start with an easy one. At about 0:02 seconds into the above clip, at the moment Jimi hits the low E, a 4/4 time signature is established, which remains for the duration of the song. However, there are two beats that occur before the beginning of that first measure, where Jimi is playing a few introductory notes (from 0:00-0:02). The notes sound to me like E-D-A-G-E. This is our pickup.
The anacrusis here adds rhythmic interest and makes for a compelling introduction to the song. It’s that little extra something that is so pleasing.
2. Radiohead – Everything in Its Right Place
Radiohead – Everything in Its Right Place
OK, I was obsessed with Radiohead’s album “Kid A” when I was in High School. The first ten seconds of the opening track, entitled “Everything in Its Right Place,” is embedded above.
Let’s talk about the established meter in the introduction portion of the song, the beginning of which can be heard in the clip above. It is definitely a loop of ten beats/pulses, but it can be challenging for many to hear because it is heavily syncopated. In my opinion, it would be most practical to think of this as being in the time signature of 10/4. Listen to 0:01-0:05 in the excerpt above to hear the loop.
To make things even more confusing, Radiohead adds an anacrusis before the loop – four notes: C-A♭-G-C. The total duration of the pickup is 2 beats. This adds a level of complexity on top of complexity, which seems quite appropriate for Radiohead.
3. Debarge – Time Will Reveal
Debarge – Time Will Reveal
This is one of my favorite songs of all time!
Here we have another anacrusis which is 2 beats long (they are not all that length, I promise). It is a simple octave in the keyboard along with a little hi-hat action.
What is cool about this example is that they continue to play with the octave idea throughout the introductory section (the first 0:10 seconds or so).
Try taking one of your songs, and add a quick and easy pickup to the very beginning of the song. Don’t overthink it, just a quick little ditty – maybe just a few notes somewhat related to the first section of your song. And then, refer back to those notes in either the introduction, or another subsequent section. Going the extra mile like this will pay off in your songwriting.
4. Beck – Say Goodbye
Beck – Say Goodbye
This beck song starts off with three extra pulses before the start of the established 4/4 meter.
What is unique about this anacrusis is that the end of the 3 pickup beats and the beginning of the established meter blend together almost indistinguishably. The usual weak anacrusis and strong downbeat is not there, and thus the downbeat is obscured. This creates a floating, almost airborne effect. We then “land” at 0:08 seconds in, when the drums come into the picture.
Try writing an anacrusis in one of your songs which is practically indistinguishable from your first established meter. Since this runs the risk of confusing the listener, this technique will work better in a simple song which needs an added dose of complexity for balance.
5. The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
Why play your anacrusis on a guitar or keyboard when you can sing it? The Beatles give us this timeless example of a pickup in “Yellow Submarine.”
When Ringo sings “In the town where I was born,” the words “In the…” occur before the beginning of the first measure; this is our anacrusis.
Take a look over some of your songs to see if you have ever written a lyric whose rhythm begins before the 1st downbeat of the first meter of a given musical phrase. Try pulling this out and sticking it at the very beginning of your song, just like what has been done in Yellow Submarine. The result may be quite interesting!
6. Jay-Z – 99 Problems [Warning: EXPLICIT LYRICS]
Jay-Z – 99 Problems
There is an incredible video on YouTube you can find where producer Rick Rubin suggests to Jay-Z that they start 99 Problems with the acapella lyric (a genius idea).
The anacrusis here are the words “if you” in the lyric “if you havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you son…” Notice that the established meter starts on the word “havin’.”
This pickup is very natural as it stems from the natural rhythm which is part of the lyric already. I am a huge fan of hip hop. Because of the rhythmic complexities in the genre, my instinct is that there are a lot of pickups in hip hop.
7. Radiohead – Paranoid Android
Radiohead – Paranoid Android
Very simple percussive anacrusis here, right before the beginning of the first measure. It sounds like a Cabasa to me (pictured to the right). Really just a nice extra touch, but it makes a big difference.
The same sound is used throughout the rest of the intro (similar to Debarge example above) and then continues to be used as we move into the verse and subsequent sections of the song as well.
Try pulling out a percussive element in your song which occurs either on the fourth beat or the and of the fourth beat, and have that sound be the very first sound in your song (as an anacrusis of course). It’s a nice touch.
8. Kurt Vile – That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)
Kurt Vile – That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)
A couple notes on an electric piano make up this anacrusis. As soon as the guitar comes in, 4/4 common time is established.
This anacrusis is a little different from our previous examples. It is an odd pulse going into the first established meter (two eight notes and an eigh note rest). If you count the measure with eighth notes (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and), it is the “and 4 and” where the anacrusis occurs.
Like many of the songs here in this list, this example reminds me of why I love the anacrusis. It starts the song off with a moment of interest and confusion – then after a few bars, when the meter is established in your mind, you think to yourself, “Oh, I get it!” It’s a really cool way to start a song.
9. Maroon 5, Wiz Khalifa – Payphone
Maroon 5, Wiz Khalifa – Payphone
Another classic two-pulse pickup in the vocal.
This is very similar to Yellow Submarine, except here, the song is starting with the hook – whereas Yellow submarine starts with a verse.
Look over the catalog of songs you’ve written – have you ever written a chorus which starts with a vocal pickup like we see in Payphone? (“[I’m at a] payphone…”). If you have, try creating a vocal anacrusis just like we did in the action tip for Yellow Submarine – pull it out and start the song with it. The difference between this and Yellow Submarine, however, is that you would be starting your song with the hook.
10. Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone
One of the most classic examples of an anacrusis is the drum fill. In this case – one beat, two drum hits. Timeless and classic.
Start your song with a drum fill! It’s so easy, and an awesome way to start a song.
11. Pavement – Cut Your Hair
Pavement – Cut Your Hair
Another one beat anacrusis. This pickup features the vocal hook of the song (“ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh”). Like we saw in the Payphone example above, sticking your hook right at the beginning of the song is a classic pop move, and it can work really well.
Try starting your song with the hook. If the vocal of your hook starts before the downbeat of the first measure, like it does in this Pavement song, even better – you’ve got yourself an anacrusis.
12. Soundgarden – Outshined
Soundgarden – Outshined
The 90’s! Why won’t they come back? Here we have a one-beat, crunchy metal anacrusis – transitioning into a palm-muted riff in 7/4.
Overall, this song is rhythmically complex. First of all, the meter changes throughout the song. Second of all, the main riff starts off in 7/4, which is in and of itself, rhythmically challenging. The mystery pickup beat before the opening riff adds yet another layer of rhythmic complexity, and therefore fits in quite nicely with the rest of the rhythmic complexity found in this Soundgarden song.
13. Pixies – Here Comes Your Man
Pixies – Here Comes Your Man
I was a huge fan of the Pixies in college (and yes, they have more than just that one song from Fight Club).
Just like the Beck song above, here we have another 3-beat anacrusis. I’m ending with this example because it is a real classic.
The way the guitar melody is phrased, it just makes sense for the song to start here. This pickup is truly a great start to the song.
And there you have it.
Thirteen examples of anacrusis and lots of great action tips for you music creators.
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