I am composing a second species counterpoint in 4/4. The cantus firmus is on the bottom and consists of all quarter notes. The melody I have to compose will consist of all eighth notes.

My question is in regard to downbeats and upbeats. I know the first beat is the downbeat. But when I have an eighth note in between those quarter notes that are not on the quarter note. Is that the upbeat?

I know I know the answer and I am overthinking it.

  • please provide an excerpt
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 16:58
  • @NeilMeyer ibb.co/5sSFQb4 here is the excerpt. I am working on the top line Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 17:05
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    I would call the quavers in between the beats the offbeats. With the last beat in 4/4 the upbeat. But I don’t know if this is definitive, so this is just a comment. Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 19:40
  • Just for the record: looking at the posted image, I think @BobBroadley's comment above is the only answer that was not to some degree confused by the question. Yes, the best term for eighth notes that fall "between" quarter note beats is off-beat. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 17:29

4 Answers 4


A professor of mine in graduate school liked to use the phrase elevator operator to demonstrate that there is a subtle metrical hierarchy. Imagine that phrase set in eighth notes in a 4/4 bar. "Op-" comes on beat three. It carries the principal accent of the word "operator," but it (normally) receives less emphasis than the first syllable of the first word. Both words also have a secondary accent on their third syllable, which corresponds to beats two and four, and the unstressed syllables correspond to the even-numbered eighth notes.

I say "normally" above because the choice of primary stress actually depends on the context. For example it would be different depending on whether you're answering the question "is that the superintendent?" or "is that the elevator technician?" In the second case, you would emphasize "operator" over "elevator."

As a blatant oversimplification, but a good starting point nonetheless, consider this: the second instance of anything is less important than the first. Beat 3 is less important than beat 1. Beats 2 and 4 are less important than beats 1 and 3. And the off-beat eighth notes (the "ands") are less important than the on-beat eighth notes.

Now that we've got that out of the way, on to the terminology. It is unfortunately not very strict. In the strictest sense, a measure can have only one downbeat, the first beat after the bar line. But people don't always use the term in this strict sense. Suppose there are 16th notes in the measure: in a very real sense the 13th one is the "downbeat" of beat 4.

Furthermore, the meaning of "upbeat" is even looser and more flexible. In your example, it would not be unusual to hear someone refer to beat 4 as "the upbeat" to the next measure, but it would also be perfectly unexceptional if someone called the last eighth note "the upbeat." Indeed, I probably wouldn't think twice if someone referred to any of the off-beat eighth notes as the upbeat to the following beat. It depends on your "zoom level," if you will: what's the tempo? How long is the phrase? Are you talking about large-scale structure or more detailed articulation?

And now to your question:

When I have an eighth note in between those quarter notes that are not on the quarter note, is that the upbeat?

I would say that it is an upbeat, but it isn't necessarily the most important upbeat to you at any given moment.

  • Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question! :D Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 0:25
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    @DylanCataldo It sounds like this answered your question. Please consider upvoting it as thanks, and accepting it as having provided the information you needed.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 19:30

Wikipedia quotes some definitions:

The downbeat is the first beat of the bar, i.e. number 1. The upbeat is the last beat in the previous bar which immediately precedes, and hence anticipates, the downbeat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music)#Downbeat_and_upbeat

The second and fourth are weaker—the "off-beats". Subdivisions (like eighth notes) that fall between the pulse beats are even weaker and these, if used frequently in a rhythm, can also make it "off-beat" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music)#On-beat_and_off-beat

Both quotes point to a website which seems inactive now.

I'm not sure if these definitions are used in a strict way by musicians. I think the most universal are the definitions given at the beginning of the page


which mentions "beats" (which can be strong and weak) and "divisions" – notes in between.


The only concrete, well established, agreed upon bit is the downbeat. The first beat of a bar - any bar. That reflects what the conductor is doing with his baton. Consider what other strokes he does during a bar of 4/4, and the 4th beat is an upstroke, in order to bring it down at the start of the next bar.

So, in basic terms, beat 1 - downbeat, beat 4 upbeat. But it's never as simple as that. Some say beat 3 is down as well. As in 1 - kick, 3 - snare. Both more emphasised than 2 and 4, so it could be said that 2 and 4 are both upbeat.

If you want to subdivide again, into 8s, then (if you want) you can call 1,2,3,4 the down, and all the &s the ups. I think more important is that whoever you are working with establishes, with you at the time, which bits you're all going to call what. Then you all know. Or - be more specific, and call the beats by their names - 'beat 1', the & of beat 3', etc. Makes a lot more sense!

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    Unfortunately, I know from bitter personal experience that "down" doesn't necessarily "reflect what the conductor is doing with his baton." But that says more about certain conductors than about terminology.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 18:58

The "measure" lines were introduced in 17th century due to instruments being able to play short notes.

The notation we're stuck today is the half speed common time (may vary by region).

By definition, first and third (major) divisions are regarded as down beat, 2 and 4th as upbeat.

Subdividing further, we will have the same situation, except that the rhythm is there to support the melody, and we have 3rd and 7th subdivisions defined as "relative" downbeats.

(Kick and snare come later; better notion would be "heavy" and "light" metric division, and a relative "heavy" subdivision)

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