Most pop/rock music I hear in 4/4 time usually has a snare drum on the 2nd and 4th beats (upbeats). I understand the need to keep rhythm by alternating the bass drum and snare on successive beats. But any time I hear the bass/snare drums on reversed beats, it just sounds weird... I'm wondering if there is a reason why snare drums tend to sound better on 2nd and 4th beats. Is it just that I'm so accustomed to hearing it this way or is there a scientific/musical justification why the snare drums sound better on the upbeats rather than the downbeats (1st and 3rd)?
closed as primarily opinion-based by Todd Wilcox, Richard, Shevliaskovic, David Bowling, Tim H Mar 28 at 13:19
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Snare drums don't, of themselves, sound better on any particular beat. But there's a whole lot of jazz and rock-infulenced popular music that features a 'backbeat' where, although 'one' is still definitely 'one', 'two' and 'four' get a special accent, so that's where the snare drum goes.
Even in popular music there are exceptions. Reggae largely ignores 'one' but has a single backbeat on 'three' (yes, I know I'm over-simplifying.)
In the big wide musical world outside rock gigs and the Top 40, most music doesn't have a 'backbeat' of course.
I don't know of a scientific reason, but historically, rock's ancestors are definitely jazz, blues, and other similar types of music (ragtime, dixie, etc.), and all these types of music stress a syncopated beat (i.e., clapping/tapping to 2 and 4).
Does tapping/(playing the snare) on 1 and 3 sound weird to you? I can't scientifically explain that either, but you just described reggae. ;)
Every jazz teacher I know will teach their students to tap their toes on 2 and 4. A great resource for this is Emily Remler's video, in which she (and millions of others) refers to this phenomenon as "in the pocket":
The case in question is true only for western pop/rock styles based on the measure form 4/4 made of two sub 2/4 subcomponents, that is (2/4 + 2/4). Other styles based on different measure forms will have different use of drums (such as Reggae). So, please don't take it as a general formula of how to make music right.
In this particular case, there is a structural relationship that why it sounds better in downbeats then upbeats.
1st beat of a 4/4 measure is indicated with a kick drum which has the strongest impact to emphasize the beginning of the measure.
A common form of a 4/4 measure which is (2/4 + 2/4). In this form, 3rd beat is also indicated with a strong kick drum. This way the split structure of the 4/4 measure is indicated clearly.
In order to avoid confusion with syncopation, 2nd and 4th beats are emphasized with lighter but still strong snare drums. So that we know they are not syncopation but beats. Otherwise it will be easy to confuse these two 4/4 measures:
(2/4 + 2/4) + (2/4 + 2/4)
with a half-time one 4/4 measure:
(1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4)
So there is a hierarchy of Downbeat > Upbeat > Syncopation. The instrumentation Kick > Snare > Hi-Hat follows the same hierarchy.
If you follow the hierarchy it is easy to see that 8th's and syncopation are indicated with hi-hats and 16th's are indicated with closed hi-hats with lower energy levels.
Here are some examples from other measure forms for comparison:
Another common form a 4/4 measure is 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4. In this measure form we don't have any upbeats, so no snare drums but only a kick drum hitting on all 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th beats. Hi-hats still indicate the 8th syncopations.
In 3/4 waltz 1st beat is a downbeat (kick) and 2nd and 3rd beats are upbeats (snare).
There are a number of "Oom-pah" accompaniment styles (an accordion's Stradella bass section is explicitly designed for it) where you have a bass note on the beat and a chord fill-in on the off-beat. You'll find this pattern for the left piano hand in simple dances, ragtime, concert waltzes, marches and others. It usually makes sense to use the bass note on the beat since that is where the typical harmony changes occur and the main dance or marching step occurs in synch with the strong percussive pulse of a low note or drum.
So this musical tradition is not random.
Because snare is high frequency and bass drum is low frequency. Bass keeps the beat, as a fundamental given of physics. You could think of it as that bass can shake you - you can feel it in your heart, whereas snare does not have that effect by nature of its high frequency.
Reversing the bass and snare (bass on 2 and 4 and snare on 1 and 3) would re-alter the beat pattern in the listener's mind, unless the harmony was composed so dominantly that the rhythm would then confuse the layman listener's mind.