Strong Beat / Weak Beat: The Never-Ending Struggle Underlying The Music You Love

Strong beat. Weak beat. Strong beat…

Music is generally structured in patterns of alternating strong and weak beats.

Some say that music mimics the beating of a human heart.

Time to Collab

Today’s post is part of a collaboration with Allysia over at Piano TV.

Allysia posts great videos through her YouTube channel and her website, Piano TV. She offers interactive piano lessons, really cool music history videos, and lots more. I am a big fan of Allysia, so make sure you check out her stuff!

So, we decided to both teach the topic of strong and weak beats, each from our own point of view. This way, we are hoping that you will get a deeper understanding of this topic.

I am embedding Allysia’s video here. My article continues below the YouTube embed.

Strong Beat / Weak Beat: The Never-Ending Struggle Underlying The Music You Love

In a particular time signature, there are certain beats which are considered strong, and others which are considered weak.

However… In reality, the songs you listen to often stress beats that are NOT considered strong.

What’s more, songwriters often set the expectation that certain beats will be accented, only to challenge that later in the song.

I call this process a struggle because these stressed beats are fighting for your attention, duking it out against your mind’s expectations.

And this “struggle,” if you will, is what creates the rhythmic interest of a song.

Let’s Get Specific: The 4/4 Time Signature

When you are in a 4/4 time signature:

  • 1 is the strongest beat. It is often called the downbeat.
  • 3 is the second strongest beat…
  • followed by 2 and 4 which are the weak beats of the measure.

Sometimes 1 and 3 are called on beats, whereas 2 and 4 are called off beats.

(Side note: 3/4, on the other hand, looks like this: Strong-weak-weak)

In a Real Life Song, Which Beats are Accented?

As I mentioned previously, songs don’t HAVE to necessarily accent or stress the strong beats. Songs often stress “off beats” – using syncopation to add rhythmic interest to a song.

But remember, a “Top 40” style popular song, or any song going for mass appeal, has to strike that balance between adding some rhythmic interest and keeping it simple and accessible to everyday listeners.

In today’s article, we’ll listen to some songs and observe different ways that beats can be accented or stressed in a 4/4 time signature.

Some Examples Please?

If you’ve read Pop Music Theory for a while, you know that we are all about examples. Lots of them – from popular songs you actually listen to.

So, here we go!

1. Weezer – “Do You Wanna Get High?”

Weezer- Do You Wanna Get High?

This is one of the singles from Weezer’s new album, The White Album.

In the excerpt above, the downbeat is being emphasized strongly by the chord progression – every time the first beat of the measure occurs, an on beat, the chord changes in the bass and guitar.

Listen to the third and fourth measure of the excerpt – you will also hear the chords change on the third beat of each measure, which is the other on beat and the second strongest beat of the measure.

The 1st and 3rd beats of each measure are also reinforced by the drums – the first by the kick and the third by the snare. (though the kick is also playing around with eighth notes surrounding each downbeat to add rhythmic interest)

There is plenty of rhythmic interest being added on various off beats as well (for example, the vocal rhythm, the kick drum and the hi-hat).

Let’s move on to our next example.

2. Kendrick Lamar- “These Walls”

Kendrick Lamar – These Walls

In the previous example we saw this drum pattern (simplified):

Strong Beat 1

In this example, we see this drum pattern:

Accented Beat

Snare drum on the second and fourth beat, perhaps the most common drum pattern in all of modern popular music, is a pattern which emphasizes the “offbeat.”

So, by definition, this is an example of syncopation – which simply means, emphasizing the weak or “off” beats.

In other words, syncopation is any disruption of our normal strong beat/weak beat pattern.

The 2nd and 4th beat of the measure, where the snare drum is playing, can also be called upbeats.

Now that we have defined syncopation, let’s see some more examples of it.

3. Commodores – “Brick House”

Commodores – Brick House

If you like syncopation, look no further than funk and soul music.

If you live on this planet, you’ve no doubt heard the somewhat odd lyric “she’s a brick… house” – paired with a ridiculously funky bass line.

Although no known form of music notation could ever possibly represent the pure funk contained in this recording, below I will do my best:

syncopation example brick house

Let’s do a quick counting exercise so you can lock in your understanding of syncopation.

The quarter notes in the recording are played at ~100 bpm. Count along with the recording: “1, 2, 3, 4…..”

Now, let’s add in eight notes: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” (you should be counting twice as fast now)

Make sure you are doing this by 0:18 in the recording, when the lyrics come in.

Now, when you hear the lyric “house,” what beat of the measure were you on? If you did the exercise correctly, you should be on the and of the four.

That HUGE emphasis on the and of the four – a seemingly random, unimportant beat – that’s what syncopation is. Isn’t it beautiful? :-)

Another example please!

4. Selena Gomez – “Good For You”

Selena Gomez – Good For You

I am including this example here, because it is a listener question that I received. By the way, you can contact me by clicking here. Al C asks:

Is the song “Look Good For You” by Selena Gomez syncopated? If I’m understanding it right, then it is, and she even mentions syncopation in it. Thanks for your write-up and explanation.

Thanks for the question Al, I will do my best to answer it.

I have excerpted the song Al mentioned above. As a side note, as you start to listen to it, notice we have the same upbeat “snare” pattern that we identified in example #2 (but in this case, snaps instead of snare drum).

Listen to 0:06 – 0:09 in the excerpt, where she sings “syncopate my skin to your heart beating.

Quarter notes are being played at ~90 bpm. If you count out sixteenth notes (1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a…), you will notice that she is stressing the e and a, which are the “off beats” at the sixteenth notes level.

While this example is, in my opinion, a little more awkward than it is funky, it is nevertheless an example of syncopation.

Now let’s move onto something much different.

5. The Happy Birthday Song

The Happy Birthday Song

In my previous article about anacrusis, we began discussing the concept of strong and weak beats.

An anacrusis or pickup, are those few notes or sounds that precede the first complete measure of a song or musical phrase.

A perfect example is the Happy Birthday Song, which is commonly sung in the U.S. when it’s someone’s birthday.

Here is how the anacrusis works:

The lyric “happy” occurs on an upbeat before the start of the first measure of the song. Take a look at the notation below:

anacrusis unstressed beat

Then, the melody proceeds to the downbeat, which is the “birth-” in “birthday.” That is the start of the first measure.

Click here to check out the full article with 13 more examples of anacrusis.

Let’s finish off with one more example which is much different than the others.

6. Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker The Berry” [CLEAN]

Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker The Berry [CLEAN]

Kendrick Lamar is a visionary, a genius and one of the most important living artists, in my opinion.

So, he gets two examples in today’s article!

In the introduction of this article, I wrote that songs sometimes set up the expectation of an accented beat, only to break that expectation later.

Although this happens frequently and subtly in most songs, here is a very explicit example for your learning purposes.

In this song, the kick-snare pattern generally occurs as notated in the first six measures of this sequence:

kick snare beat pattern

The first three repetitions in the above chart are identical, but on the fourth repetition (measures 7 and 8), you will see that the snare drum hits twice in place of the first kick.

This occurs at 0:16 in the excerpt above, as well as numerous times throughout the full track.

This is a great way to add rhythmic interest, and it breaks up the repetitiveness of the beat.

That’s It for Today

I hope you are starting to see all the different ways you can emphasize beats in a 4/4 time signature.

If you enjoyed this write up, please subscribe to Pop Music Theory in the box below. Also, don’t forget to check out Allysia’s video embedded above!

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the comments.

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Leave a comment
  • Yes, this was really interesting. As the beat is something I know almost nothing about theorywise (I just compose the beat the way it feels natural), it was really valuable to learn about this side of music theory. + a thumbs up for your idea to collaborate :) Having both your and Allysia’s approach to the same topic made it more insightful and easier to remember some of the terminology. E.g. she made it really easy to remember why downbeat is called downbeat :) But your approach with contemporary music puts all of the theory in current context.
    Thanks for continuing on with your site Eric. Cheers :)

    • Thanks Jaanis, glad you liked the collaboration with Allysia. For others reading this, I would love your honest feedback about the collaboration. What did you think?

      Thanks for your frequent comments my friend!

      • It is beautiful that you and Allysia are collaborating and encouraging each Other. Talking about the same topic with classical vs pop music example is really cool. We want more! I think it’s amazing to be able to find references for things that happen in pop harmony or pop rhythm in classical music. It sounds so different but follows the same logic. This is what I got from your collaboration. It’s awesome!

  • Finally, Happy Birthday sung the way it is meant to be sung! Ha ha, it’s a long-standing tradition in my family to belt it out as awfully as possible, so I wanted to high-five you for that. :)

    Syncopation is super difficult to explain, but this was really clear and helpful! What are those images called with the rhythm going horizontal and the notes going vertical? It’s a really cool way to explain a concept without assuming someone knows how to read music.

    Great post as always, and I had a blast with the collab! :)

    • Hey Allysia,
      Yes, I also had a blast with our collab!

      The image is called a piano roll or sequencer and is found in many modern software DAWs like Pro Tools, Acid, Logic, Reason, etc…

      I like to keep my lessons accessible to those who cannot read music the old fashioned way. Also just one of my little unique twists on teaching music theory :-)

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