Music Theory

What Is An Anacrusis In Music? A Complete Guide To Pickups

Written by Dan Farrant

Last updated

As with any rule, there always appears to be an exception. Music has plenty of rules. Some you must obey, and others you can safely ignore without destroying the composition. But what happens when you ignore the time signature in a piece of music?

Well, in this article, we’ll delve deep into the world of missed beats and exceptions to rules so that you can better understand how to read a musical score and understand just what is going on with some very well-known pieces of music.

We look at where anacrusis is used and what the effect is on how a composition is played.

We also discuss part measures and how they enable composers to waltz around the rules without getting themselves into trouble with the musical police.

And finally, we will unravel one of the secrets used to build yellow submarines.

So, let’s begin…

Definition of an Anacrusis

An anacrusis (from the Greek “to push up”) is best described as a note or group of notes that precedes the first measure of a piece of music.

But what does that actually mean?

Well, the anacrusis, also known as the pickup and sometimes an upbeat, precedes the first downbeat of a piece of music.

An anacrusis is also known as an upbeat because of the way a conductor’s hands move when directing an orchestra.

Their hand moves up just before the first beat of each measure (which is called the downbeat), and so we call it an upbeat.

How to Play an Upbeat

There are a few things to know about how to play an upbeat in a piece of music.

Because upbeats are the last beat of a measure, they are often unstressed.

This means that you will normally expect the notes making up the anacrusis to be played with less of an accent or strength than the first downbeat that occurs at the beginning of the next measure.

An example of this would be the first two notes of one of the most recognized songs in the world, “Happy Birthday.”

It is quite clear that the word “Ha-ppy” is articulated in a softer tone, followed by the more accented and louder “Birth-day” that starts on the first beat of the measure.

You will find that some songs only include the anacrusis at the beginning of the score, while others include it as a repeating theme throughout the song.

This affects the phrasing and rhythm and dictates the way in which the piece should be performed.

It is especially relevant when the anacrusis reappears at regular intervals throughout the piece, which brings the musical form into play.

What is a Part Measure

The anacrusis starts on a part measure, and we can clearly see that the full measure of time is not in evidence.

So what is going on?

To understand how an anacrusis works, we need to have a basic understanding of time signatures.

The time signature is made up of two numbers on top of each other like a fraction:

  • the top number – which tells us how many beats there are in a measure
  • the bottom number – which tells us what kind of beat to count

For example, let’s look at the time signature 3/4 from Happy Birthday to You, which means there should be three quarter notes in each measure.

The part measure, however, takes the place of a full measure, and there will not be three-quarter beats in the first measure.

You can expect to see either 1 or 2 notes amounting to less than the equivalent three quarter notes stipulated in the time signature.

We can see from the notation above that the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note add up to 1 quarter note beat in the part measure and so do not add up to the equivalent of 3 quarter notes as the time signature indicates.

It’s missing two quarter note beats required to make the measure complete.

Where have these beats gone?

Well, if you’re looking closely, you’ll notice that the last measure above is also not complete.

In order for the music to adhere to the time signature, the composer must not introduce more or fewer notes into the complete work.

But how do they do this if the first measure doesn’t have the required number of notes?

By sleight of hand, composers reduce the number of beats in the final measure or at the repeat to make sure that they are not introducing any additional beats.

You will see that the final note is a half note and that completes the piece by ensuring that the two quarter note beats in the part measure plus the half note in the final measure equal three quarter notes as required by the time signature.

Other Uses for Anacrusis

If a composer wishes to introduce a weighted first beat into the rhythm of the entire composition, then they can utilize the anacrusis as a recurring theme throughout the piece.

This technique is used by Johann Straus in his waltzes to exaggerate the rhythm and mark the tempo.

This strengthening or articulation of the meter plays an important part in conveying the composer’s intentions and helps the musician interpret the way the piece should be performed.

Examples of Anacrusis

Let’s see what Johann Strauss does with the anacrusis in his famous Täuberln-Walzer.

Johann Strauss – ‘Täuberln-Walzer, Op. 1’

And now on to modern popular music.

The Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine” makes interesting use of anacrusis, which works particularly well.

Listen carefully to see if you can pick up the part measures that repeat throughout the song.

The Beatles – ‘Yellow Submarine

In Closing

I hope that this simple explanation of what an anacrusis is and how to interpret it has helped your understanding.

The technical requirements to achieve the composers’ aims can sometimes be a little difficult, but with practice, you will be able to successfully perform this rhythmic sleight of hand with ease.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.