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

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I always thought the downbeat was 1, and sometimes 3.The kick drum generally plays on the downbeat - it's heavier and more pronounced, so designates the beginning of a new bar. – Tim Dec 30 '14 at 18:52
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    @Tim The term is the backbeat: music.stackexchange.com/questions/22246/… – Dom Dec 30 '14 at 19:09
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    @Dom - downbeat is so called due to the baton going down. I know we don't conduct 'pop music' that way, but downbeat is not going to be 2 and 4, surely? – Tim Dec 30 '14 at 19:17
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    Simple answer - it sounds 'better' there because that's where you're used to hearing it. Try some early reggae [or anything else not 'western pop' oriented yet in a clear 4/4 format], to see how it's not compulsory. – Tetsujin Dec 30 '14 at 19:46
  • @Tim: Thanks for the clarification. I updated my question accordingly. – Paul Dec 30 '14 at 19:55

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":

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    I'm not sure "in the pocket" means that the performer has a clear interpretation of 2 and 4; but rather a clear interpretation of the entire beat and meter as a whole. Whether something grooves or not doesn't necessarily mean a heavy emphasis on 2 and/or 4. – user6164 Dec 31 '14 at 4:59
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    Props for the EmRem reference though! She was a hoss! – user6164 Dec 31 '14 at 5:00
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    @Mark - like Shawn, don't think the phrase means that, exactly. Just asked the question, for a definitive answer, I hope! – Tim Jan 1 '15 at 15:48

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).

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    Plenty of arithmetic, but doesn't answer the question. – Tetsujin Dec 30 '14 at 19:53
  • @Tetsujin I don't agree. There is a structural relationship that why it sounds better in downbeats then upbeats. – Guney Ozsan Dec 30 '14 at 20:21
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    Your answer is very specific in such a way that it sounds like it is fact. In reality, I would disagree with much of what you wrote, if only on the level how it is said. Specifically, you say "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" but this is not true in a large number of cases, especially syncopated phrases or places like reggae. You also seem to have some confusion about downbeats/upbeats. I think your answer would benefit from things not being defined and more about general approaches/thoughts. – Basstickler Dec 30 '14 at 20:59
  • To clarify, it's not that you shouldn't include definitions but you should not say "this is what the drums do" but more like "this is often how structuring a drum beat is approached". Any definitions you do include should be accurate as well. – Basstickler Dec 30 '14 at 21:00
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    I would make sure to include 'western pop/rock' or similar, because not all music emphasises those beats - reggae has a form in which almost nothing ever happens on the 'one' [one-drop] many 'south american' styles are also very keen to de-emphasise the one, often by making the 'downbeat' or strongest emphasis actually one 8th before the one. It is not a universal form, it is cultural, or 'what you get used to'. – Tetsujin Dec 30 '14 at 21:29

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.

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    "Bass keeps the beat, as a fundamental given of physics." -- this is definitely not a law of physics. Note also that jazz drummers tend to keep the beat on the ride cymbal. – David Bowling Jan 23 '18 at 8:35
  • Your comment is a red herring, because I never said it was a law. I said it is a given. You're conflating cultural conditioning with objective reality. Sometimes the right answer is the simple answer. Going deeper, frequencies themselves have inherent rhythm by their periodic oscillation pulse (hence the word frequency). It's not 1:1 but the physics supports it. If high frequencies were as good beat candidates as low frequencies, then everything would inherently be recognized as techno music. There's a reason flute isn't part of the rhythm section, but string bass / electric bass is. – Johnny Jan 23 '18 at 9:18
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    You said that it is a fundamental given of physics that bass keeps the beat; there is no such "fundamental" in physics. I have no idea what you mean when you say that I am "conflating cultural conditioning with objective reality." – David Bowling Jan 23 '18 at 9:27
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    Counterpoint: metronomes which are designed to just keep time typically make their click sound about 440 Hz which is closer to a snare than a bass drum. – Dom Jan 23 '18 at 15:54
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    ohnny - I think you have posted an opinion without any basis in fact, hence the downvotes. There is nothing to say any particular frequency keeps the beat. I can think of countless examples where high, medium, or low frequencies keep the beat, and where volume is the beat indicator. You'd be better off coming at this from musical theory rather than something you have come up with. – Doktor Mayhem Jan 24 '18 at 12:56

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