I need help understanding anacrusis (pickup notes). I'm no musician - I'm more of an anthropologist. I was reading some articles on ethnomusicology, and one of them makes reference to anacrusis in some indigenous musical traditions. In some cases, outsiders perceive indigenous music as anacrustic whereas the producers themselves do not.

Anyway, to understand the claims, I'd like to understand what anacrusis is. So, I turned to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia page for anacrusis states that:

In the song "Happy Birthday to You", the anacrusis forms the Happy and the accent is on the first syllable of Birthday.

This is difficult for me to make heads or tails of. In what sense does the the anacrusis "form the Happy". How could someone without a musical ear (like myself) perceive anacrusis on this melody? What other melodies give easily perceivable instances of anacrusis?

Other tips are appreciated!

Thank you.

  • 9
    This is probably obvious: if you get deeper into ethnomusicology, you'd be well-served by learning some simple musical instrument, like a harmonica, hand drums, and/or even voice. Making music is also fun! – Todd Wilcox Sep 2 '15 at 13:41
  • The concept of anacrusis (or "pick-up measure") is one of many basic principles of rhythm and meter, which is a fundamental component of music itself. If you want to understand this and other basic concepts, I suggest taking private beginning music lessons with a qualified music teacher, perhaps a piano or drum teacher. You will only grasp these concepts by actually playing an instrument and singing. Reading about them in books, without actually learning to play examples of these concepts on an instrument, is practically useless. – user1044 Sep 3 '15 at 23:35
  • ... That's a dismal outlook for all of us non musician researchers of sound ;( – Teusz Sep 4 '15 at 10:29
  • @Teusz, I cannot conceive of anybody seriously wanting to research sound but not wanting to become a musician as well. Learning to play an instrument is not only instructive, it's extremely fun and rewarding. Saying that you want to research sound but you don't want to learn music is like saying you want to be an oceanographer as long as you never have to actually touch the ocean, or saying that you want to be an archaeologist or paleontologist as long as you never have to dig in dirt. – user1044 Sep 10 '15 at 6:41
  • The grammar in the quote from Wikipedia is awful. The opposite is almost true: the "Happy" forms the anacrusis, not the other way around! – GreenAsJade Dec 7 '15 at 13:31

Anacrusis (pickup) is a bit more rhythmic than melodic. Hearing it seems easy to my musical brain, but I can understand how it would not be easy for others. Most music has a set rhythm, which we can understand in its simplest form by saying there is a fairly low number (most commonly 4), to which one can repeatedly count while listening to a piece of music, such that the piece will seem to flow with the counting.

Wait, what does that even mean? Let's use Happy Birthday as an example. If you count "one two three one two three one two three" repeatedly while someone is singing Happy Birthday, you'll hear/feel that the song seems to flow along with your counting, except you can't start the song with "one" right when the singer first says "Happy-". You have to start your count on "three" and then go back to "one", with the "one" matching when the word "Birthday" is sung. That's anacrusis. Here's a chart-like thing to hopefully make it more visual:

Count:    1     2     3     1     2     3     1     2     3     1     2    3
Singing:              Happy birth-day   to    you         Happy birth-day  to...

So by now you're probably ready to ask, "Wait, why don't we just make 'one' fall on 'Happy' and then 'two' for 'birthday' and so on?" Excellent question, and this is the very core of anacrusis, and even rhythm in general. How do we know that it's a three-count? How do we know where the 'one' is?

Mainly, we feel it. When we sing Happy Birthday, we tend to naturally emphasize the syllables "birth-" and "you". Having the emphasis on the "one" is a popular component of rhythm, so it's a good bet when we are counting a song to put the "one" on emphasized syllables. That means we have to get a sense of the spacing between emphasized syllables (or beats) in order to know how high to count (e.g., "1 2 3 1 2 3" or "1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4", etc.).

To get back to the question at hand, how can you determine whether anacrusis is part of the music you are hearing?

  1. Understand that anacrusis (also called "pickup") only happens at the beginning of a piece.
  2. Determine the rhythm of the piece by guessing and counting and seeing if the "flow" seems to match the count. If it doesn't match, try a different count and/or a different "one".
  3. Go back to the beginning of the piece and find the first "one". If the melody matches or starts right after the first "one", there is no anacrusis. If the melody seems to come before the first "one", that could and would often be considered anacrusis.

That last phrase in step three is really what the articles you read seem to be about. Anacrusis could be in the eye of the beholder. Going back to the question of why we don't just count "one" on "Happy" in Happy Birthday, we could actually count "one" on "Happy" and then count sixes or twelves or even fours (which would create a different feel, sometimes called "three over four") and then we would not consider there to be anacrusis for Happy Birthday. Anacrusis and the rhythms we typically apply to music are merely conventions of western music theory, and other cultures can and certainly do develop theories and musical ideas that don't match, or even outright clash with the concepts that have their origins in western Europe and even back to ancient Greece.

So when talking among people who understand western music theory, you might describe a piece as having anacrusis, but if the artist(s) who composed and/or perform that piece don't see it that way, or don't even have that concept in their view of music, that is a valid point of view.

Other Examples

  • Hey Jude by The Beatles (one on "Jude")
  • Amazing Grace, traditional (one on the second syllable of "Amazing")
  • Do You Hear The People Sing? from Les Miserables (one on "Hear")
  • Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega (one on the third "doo")
  • Shake It Off by Taylor Swift (one on "late")
  • I Feel Good by James Brown (one right after/on the second mora of "good")
  • Symphony No. 5, start of first movement by Beethoven (one on the "duhn" of "dut dut dut duuhn....")

Here's a map of Mary Had a Little Lamb (non-blues children's version) to contrast with the Happy Birthday map above:

Count:    1     2     3     4     1     2     3     4     1     2     3     4     1     2    3     4
Singing:  Ma-   ry    had   a     lit-  tle   lamb        lit-  tle   lamb        lit-  tle  lamb
  • 1
    You might also check out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music)#Upbeat – Todd Wilcox Sep 2 '15 at 13:30
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    Thanks for this exceptionally clear reply! This is so much easier to get my head around than the stuff on the Wikipedia page. Just to make sure I understand correctly: it true that HAPPY only has one beat even though it is two syllables? – Teusz Sep 2 '15 at 14:41
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    Actually I over-simplified "Happy". Most people make the "-py" really short so the "Hap-" lasts for "3 ee &" and then "-py" comes on the "uh" just before the "1" for the first full measure with "Birth". As you might tell from my mentioning of mora, the timing for I Feel Good is even more tricky, where James Brown kinda drags out the word "good" and the downbeat is about the same time (maybe just before) that he's making the "d" sound. – Todd Wilcox Sep 2 '15 at 14:51
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    Many people learn to clap along with a rhythm to better understand it and that's a good way to start. When I'm analyzing rhythms I tap my fingers one at a time on a desk to I can watch which finger is going down and know what beat I'm on. That's how I count and sing at the same time. (i.e., index finger goes down on the 1, then middle, then ring, then pinky for 4 then back to index.) – Todd Wilcox Sep 2 '15 at 15:06
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    Man, this crystal explanation is the next-best-thing to hearing it at a music lesson. – bishop Sep 2 '15 at 20:58

I'll try to give you a clearer example of a tune with an anacrusis or pick-up: The Star Spangled Banner. This melody has three beats to a measure. The first full measure contains "Say, can you". The two little notes in the very beginning of the tune, sung to the word "Oh" are the anacrusis.

Now you need an example of a tune that doesn't have an anacrusis. Let's try Mary Had a Little Lamb. This melody has four beats to a measure. The first measure contains "Mary had a little lamb". There is nothing before that! The tune starts out cleanly right on Beat 1! So, we say that there is no anacrusis, or there are no pick-up notes.

beginning Banner

enter image description here

What's going on here is that the first measure of Banner is not complete; the first measure of Mary is.

  • Thanks! If I want to compare "Mary had a little lamb" with "happy birthday", along the lines described by @todd Wilcox, would you say that "Mary" repeats also on the third beat, like "Happy Birthday" or is it a different structure? That grid that he made really makes it clear. – Teusz Sep 2 '15 at 14:45
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    Is there a 'Mary had...' version that is not the 'Blues-version ? Because this one has its cue on 2 and has a anacrusis of 3 beats... - 1 2 3 4 - 1 2(Mary) 3(had a) 4(little) - 1(lamb)... – mramosch Sep 2 '15 at 14:53
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    Mary Had a Little Lamb is in four, actually. "Ma- ry had a" being 1 2 3 4 repectively, and then "lit- tle" being the next 1 2 and so on. – Todd Wilcox Sep 2 '15 at 14:53
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    @ToddWilcox: In the movie 'From Dusk till Dawn' with George Clooney - There seem to be some: music.stackexchange.com/questions/5165/… – mramosch Sep 2 '15 at 14:58
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    @Teusz - Musical notation will make things much easier for you. Just pick a simple tune that you are familiar with, find the score or sheet music by googling, and then sing it while you look at the notation. – aparente001 Sep 3 '15 at 17:00

If you clap slowly while singing, you'll clap on "Birth-", "You", "Birth-", "You", "Birth-", "whoever", "Birth-", "You".

Those are points of syllabic stress and melodic stress, so they are natural accents in the music. Since "Happy" starts before your first clap, it's an anacrusis.

Please refrain from mentioning the other syllables as the text to "Happy Birthday" is purportedly copyrighted (and the matter of ongoing law suits) and Times/Warner might command StackExchange to take down any allusions to the complete text.

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    A scholarly analysis of the tune would definitely fall under fair use. It should be OK. – Neil Meyer Sep 2 '15 at 15:01
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    The lyrics only have one word in them that isn't in the title! – Steve Jessop Sep 2 '15 at 18:14

It is the first part of a melody that sounds before the first beat of the rhythm. Might be at the beginning of the piece or when the melody of the next section of the piece starts (though many people don't consider this an anacrusis). It is something you feel with your body, singing, clapping and moving, so my recommendation is find a couple of examples (see other answers), sing the beginning of the melody and feel when the first beat of the rhythm starts, try to repeat many times while clapping.


Sometimes it's hard to tell. There are several contra dance tunes which are written with pick up notes, but are often played without them. The one beat is sometimes the two beat of the previous measure. It makes for much hilarity when musicians who don't play together often try to play the tunes. Everything is fine until the B part.

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