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In the vast majority of modern popular 4/4 music involving drum kits (jazz, hip hop, rock, country, etc.) the snare hits (or equivalent 'pat' noise) occur on the backbeats (2 and 4). Of course, like all music rules, there are lots of counter-examples, but this is the default placement of the snare hits, if you will.

What is the equivalent default snare placement in 2/2 time?
Do snare hits go on the 'and of 1' and the 'and of 2'?
Or on the '2' of every measure? - effectively halving the speed of the drum beat.

I know there is no hard and fast rule, but if you were to improvise a drum beat for a 2/2 song you had never heard before, where would you place the snare hits? How would you explain the practical difference between 2/2 vs 4/4 to a beginner drummer?

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  • Are you really asking about 2/2 cut time or 2/4 time? Jun 15 at 20:32
  • I'm specifically asking about 2/2 because it is equivalent to 4/4 in terms of quarter notes per measure. I can see how my question implied 2/4 and I've edited the question to make it more clear.
    – Nigel
    Jun 15 at 20:41

4 Answers 4

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The time signature 4/4 means: each bar has 4 beats, and those beats are crotchets (quarter-notes). The strong beat is on 1, a medium beat is on 3, and beats 2 and 4 are both weak:

1 2 3 4
S w M w

The time signature 2/2 means: each bar has only 2 beats, and those beat are minims (half-notes). The strong beat is still on 1, and 2 is a weak beat:

1   2
S   w

NB: If the relative strengths of these beats is not apparent in some way, the time signature is largely meaningless.

Exercise 1

Count through the two patterns above out-loud, with significantly more emphasis on the strong, and significantly less on the weak beats.


In a simple rock-style groove: the bass drum goes on strong and medium beats, and the snare goes on the weak (back)beats. The hi-hat pulses both on and between beats. Hitting the crash cymbal on 1 helps mark this as a strong beat.

one bar 4/4 and 2/2


In the example below, the tempo indication changes from crotchet=100 to minim=50 (which is in some way equivalent). This halves the number of beats per minute (BMP) to maintain the duration of each note value.

Still, the difference between a single bar of 4/4 and two bars of 2/2 is somewhat subtle (two bars of 2/2 can sound like a slow bar of 4/4). It becomes more obvious when four bar phrases are considered. In the absence of other instruments (that say, play a chord every bar) adding fills solidifies the four bar phrase structure, and hence the "feeling" of the time signature.

To play-up the slower rate of beats, it also helps to keep the hi-hat pulses continuing with quavers. You can change the hi-hat pulses to crotchets (as above), but you'd have to be sure to really emphasise every beat 1 to be convincingly in 2/2 (unlike 4/4: every kick should get the same amount of strong emphasis in 2/2).

four bar phrases of 4/4 and 2/2

Exercise 2

Play a few repeats of each of the four bar phrases above on a drum kit (while counting in your head) and loop back the beginning without pausing in-between. Do this until 2/2 really feels like a different time signature. Then, try with crotchets on the hi-hat for the 2/2 section; it'll be harder to make it feel like four bar phrases of 2/2, but it is certainly possible if you get the relative emphasis right.

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  • I completely disagree with your half-time suggestions. Not only do these not establish a 2/2 feeling that's distinct from a slow 4/4, but they actually have the opposite effect to the characteristic alla breve feeling associated with 2/2 meter. Jun 19 at 22:53
  • @leftaroundabout, What time signature do you think best fits my examples then? Jun 21 at 7:01
  • 4/4 with semiquavers on the hi-hat. Jun 21 at 7:29
  • It's hard to pick an answer here because everybody seems to have their own opinion, but I think this best answers my question. Thanks
    – Nigel
    Jun 21 at 17:57
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When there are 4 beats in the bar, 'Back Beat' is accenting 2 and 4.

It's a 4/4 thing. Or music that COULD be notated in 4/4. Asking where to put the back beat in a two-in-the bar time is like asking where to put the 'Viennese lilt' in a march. Not saying you COULDN'T, but it's a waltz thing. There's certainly no standard place to apply it to a march rhythm.

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  • After some thinking I realized House of the Rising Sun is a good counter example. While not in 2/2, it is in 6/8 which is also a two-in-the bar time. The Animals version of that song uses a light snare sound on the 'two' of each bar, which sounds natural to me. I think the same concept could be extrapolated to 2/2
    – Nigel
    Jun 24 at 20:50
  • 'House of the Rising Sun' is usually notated in 4/4 with triplets. Jun 25 at 0:12
  • I would argue that anyone writing sheet musing for HotRS in 4/4 is wrong. Writing that song in a duple meter is equivalent to writing a jazz piece with straight eighth notes and "swinging" them by explicitly writing them out as quarter or eigthth note triplets. sure it may sound the same, but it just doesn't capture the intent of how to play the song.
    – Nigel
    Jun 25 at 0:28
  • Also, if we go by the convention of 4 bar phrases, that would make each chord a single bar, making the arpeggio notes quarter note triplets, and putting a beat right in the middle of each triplet. There is no feeling of such a beat in the song, and the arpeggio notes definitely don't feel like quarter note triples over a duple meter.
    – Nigel
    Jun 25 at 0:31
  • OK, write it in 12/8 then. Still 4-in-a-bar, backbeat on 2 and 4. Jun 25 at 0:40
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The question has fallen into the traps of thinking that the drum beat and back beat are based on quarter notes and that the drum beat necessarily corresponds to the time signature.

What's "really" happening with a back beat is that the drum plays on the weak beats within the larger metric structure, so every other pulse in a 2-based metric structure (or, potentially, every second and third pulse in a 3-based metric structure).

In 2-meter (2/2, 2/4, 2/8, ...) or 4-meter (4/2, 4/4, 4/8, ...) the back beat will occur on every other beat, with the exception of a double-time feel, in which case it will occur every other half-beat.

Said another way: it's impossible to tell from the back beat alone whether a rock song was written in 2/2, 4/4, 2/4, 4/2, etc., because popular music in general doesn't differentiate in the way Classical music tends to. (See @leftroundabout's answer, which much better conveys what I was trying to say in this final sentence.)

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  • 3
    1. I think we are seeing people poisoned by DAW thinking: time signatures do not stand by themselves, but are organizations of an underlying "beat" concept. 2. I sort of disagree with you that you can't tell 2/4 from 4/4: in much popular music beat 3 is weaker than 1, but stronger than 2 or 4. In "western" music (not country, really western) the beat is more a true 2/4. Ok, you said "rock". Still. Jun 19 at 18:06
  • @VictorEijkhout I'm in total agreement about the relative strengths of beats 3 and 1 in 4/4 and 2/4 (or 2/2), respectively, but while Classical musicians will adhere to that more closely, "popular" musicians tend to be less strict. I left the distinction of out my answer for that reason, but I think your comment is a valuable addition.
    – Aaron
    Jun 19 at 18:12
  • @VictorEijkhout what is DAW thinking
    – Nigel
    Jun 24 at 20:53
  • @Nigel Digital Audio Workstation. Those things are based on "beats" which have some relation to time signatures, but not to theory. Jun 24 at 21:29
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As Laurence Payne wrote, the question isn't answerable in a satisfactory way, because 2/2 meter isn't really a thing in the genres you asked about – very seldom will people say a piece is in 2/2 (or 2/4 for that matter), rather they think of it as being always in 4/4 with different tempo and emphasis. There's no convention for what it means when you do say 2/2 or 2/4.

However, historically those meters were used, and they did convey a meaning that was different from 4/4. So IMO it would make sense to look for historical analogues.

In classical music, 2/2 is typically used for movements (often marches or similar) in rapid tempo, where there is a relentless motion in crotchets but they are too fast to be really felt as the beat (or indicated by the conductor). That is quite the opposite effect of what you would get by playing a rock groove on drums with the snare once on each bar only, on “3” – which would generate instead a heavy, dragging feeling.

A better match to what 2/2 means to me could be a fairly simple rock groove with 2-and-4 backbeat, just making sure to emphasize beat 3 but not with the snare, something like

a simple rock groove that should work

If you're going to put the snare on beat 3 but want it to be clearly 2/2 and not half-time 4/4, make sure to keep it marching. Perhaps the simplest way to do that is to add a 4-on-the-floor based kick.

How to keep a suitable feeling with snare on the 3

Also don't be afraid to think out of the box. The snare doesn't have to fulfill a backbeat role. Actually it can be pretty cool to use it instead on all emphasized beats, i.e. on 1 and 3. For example in a metal context, you could do

A more brutal realization

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  • First paragraph is very well said. I've added a link from my own answer.
    – Aaron
    Jun 19 at 23:02
  • 1
    I'm having a hard time hearing your first example as 2/2, what tempi did you have in mind? Jun 21 at 7:44
  • @ElementsinSpace yeah, that one has to be pretty fast to work. Think Walking On Sunshine. Jun 21 at 16:16

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