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

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As with any rule, there always appears to be an exception. Music has plenty of rules and some you can 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 bars 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 set of notes that precede the first measure (bar) of a piece of music.

But, what does that actually mean?

Well, the anacrusis, also known as the upbeat or pickup, 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 come before the first 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 bar.

An example of this would be the first 2 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 opens the next bar.

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 Bar

The anacrusis starts on a part bar 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 3 quarter notes in each measure.

The part bar, however, takes the place of a full bar and there will not be 3 quarter beats in the first measure.

You can expect to see either 1 or 2 notes amounting to less than the equivalent 3 quarter notes stipulated in the time signature.

We can see from the notation above that the dotted eighth note (quaver) and the sixteenth note (semiquaver) add up to 1 quarter note beat in the part bar 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 bar above is also not a full bar.

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 bar doesn’t have the required number of notes?

By sleight of hand, composers reduce the number of beats in the final bar 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 (minim) and that completes the piece by ensuring that the 2 quarter note beats in the part bar plus the half note in the final bar equal 3 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 to 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 bars that repeat throughout the song.

The Beatles – ‘Yellow Submarine

In Closing

I hope that my 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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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping 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. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.