Strong And Weak Beats

Grouping beats into bars is useful because not all beats are equal. In four-four, the first beat of the bar is usually emphasized the most. The third beat is emphasized, but not as much as the first, and the second and fourth beats are the least emphasized. This pattern of strong and weak beats determines how the listener dances to the music. It also gives the music some predictability. Without beats grouped into bars, music can sound random or chaotic (which is cool if that’s what you’re going for).

The three most common time signatures in western music are four-four, three-four, and six-eight. These time signatures usually follow a pattern of strong and weak beats.

Time Signature Pattern of Strong and Weak Beats
Four-four Strongest-weak-strong-weak
Three-four Strong-weak-weak
Six-eight Strongest-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak

Here is an example of a song in four-four. The words to this song naturally have an emphasis on some syllables. Try saying it out loud with underlined syllables emphasized with more volume: Mary had a little lamb. Try saying these words with the opposite emphasis: Mary had a little lamb. See how the first example felt much more natural? That’s why this song fits into the time signature of four-four, with emphasized syllables landing on beats one and three.


Here is a song in three-four. Strong syllables are placed on beat one.

Grouping Beats Exercise 1: Improvising With Time Signatures

Try improvising some rhythms in four-four with a metronome. Play or tap notes of different lengths just like you did at the end of chapter 3. To put your improvisation into the time signature of four-four, emphasize beat one by playing or tapping a loud note, and then play whatever rhythms come to mind for beats two three and four. Now, try improvising in three-four by playing an emphasized note on beat one, and various other rhythms on beat two and three. (Some metronomes can be set to play in different time signatures. Make sure your metronome isn’t set to the wrong time signature because that will mess with you. If your metronome doesn’t have time signatures, you won’t have a problem.)

Grouping Beats Exercise 2: Emphasizing Weak Beats

It is not necessary to strictly follow the pattern of strong-weak-strong-weak in the time signature of four-four. There are many other options. In western popular music, usually beats two and four are emphasized by the snare drum. If you ever find yourself wanting to clap along to a song, it is almost certainly good to clap on beats two and four. If you clap on beats one and three, you will likely be seen as “square” or “uncool”. However, emphasizing beats two and four only works if some other instrument in the group is emphasizing beat one. You have to establish where beat one is in order to emphasize beat two. In popular music, beat one is usually played by the bass drum and the bass guitar.

In general, the pattern of strong-weak-strong-weak is a surefire way to communicate to the audience that you are playing in four-four. But, this predictability might also make your music sound a little boring. Emphasizing weak beats, or even emphasizing notes that don’t fall on the beat (for example, the 8th note between beat two and beat three), is what makes music more rhythmically interesting.

If you always emphasize the weak beat, it will be harder for your listener to follow along. The listener might think that beat two is beat one, and they won’t understand the music. You have to strike a balance between playing rhythms that are so predictable that they are boring, and playing rhythms that are so interesting (to you) that they are confusing. I suspect you’ll be able to strike this balance without even thinking about it. You’ve listened to enough music that you know what sounds good to you and what doesn’t.

While you’re improvising, I hope you’re not constantly thinking about which beats you’re emphasizing and whether you have the proper balance between emphasizing strong and weak beats! What you should be thinking instead is “What rhythm would make me want to dance?” or “What rhythm communicates the emotion I’m feeling?” However, if you find yourself bored by your rhythms, you might want to try emphasizing some weak beats, or some notes between the beat. And if you find that your listeners are confused by your rhythms, try emphasizing beat one a little more.