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Okay, I have enough searching and now I'm just totally confused.

Prologue

I am not a professional musician and I don't know music terms and I can not read notesheets so bear with me. One day doing web-surfing about some music I came across a comment about song that I really like. Comment was like "Oh, I like this song, because it is so upbeat!".

"Okay" — I thought, — "I don't know what does it mean, something with beats, perhaps".

After that day I've stumbled over this kind of comments again, and again, and again, so at some point I start thinking that "upbeat music" is some kind of genre. Genre that I like, obviously.

Main part

Recently I saw comment about Megalovania in the same manner: "It is so upbeat". Curiousity finally got me and I start searching term 'upbeat' only to increase my confusion.

So, google says that upbeat is "an unaccented beat preceding an accented beat". It's just one beat, right? How the whole song can be upbeat? Further research give me this: "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.". Upbeat at the beginning also called "anacrusis".

Okay, how this can be related to the whole song? Further research tells me that upbeat is when conductor do upward stroke, and downbeat is when conductor do downward stroke. Well, I don't understand anything in conductor's gestures, so it means nothing to me.

And the final piece was: "In a measure considering: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, “1, 2, 3, 4” is the downbeat, while the word “and” is the upbeat". I'm done. I need help.

So, I asked my collegues. They aren't professional musicians either. One of them suggested: "May be upbeat is just means cheerful and happy?". Well, this may make some sense, but I personally can't call Megalovania a happy or cheerful song, especially considering context of this song in a game - it's battle with Sans and it is one of the most dramatic or even tragic moments in a whole game. How can someone call this "happy?". Other upbeat songs I like also came from boss battles.

TL;DR;

Is "upbeat" music means just "happy, cheerful, optimistic" music?

  • You beat me to 'question 10,000' ! And I hope this is allowed to stay! It might just count within the parameters we have here. I think you've just about answered it yourself. An upbeat is the anacrucis, as you found out. But the term upbeat generally means something creating happiness and good feeling. – Tim Mar 27 '17 at 17:20
  • "personally can't call Megalovania a happy or cheerful song" -- we can't help you with differences of opinion. Whether something is happy is purely subjective, so you shouldn't assume there must be some alternative explanation involving abusing an alternative definition! – Matthew Read Mar 27 '17 at 18:44
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In this context, the commenter is using it in the "happy, cheerful, optimistic music" sense; though I would be inclined to use more emotionally neutral terms like fast-paced and active, full of motion etc. -- as you've noticed "upbeat" doesn't always map straightforwardly to happy (for every listener).

Some of the details that make it upbeat in this sense include:

  • The tempo is above 240BPM,
  • The first melodic content are brash, loud synthesized horns, they alternate with a
  • slightly lower volume, but still high-pitched and active melody.

In turn, these melodic sections alternate with breakdowns -- really just the underlying rhythm in order to provide tension & release between the highly energetic melodic content and the less in your face breakdowns.

As far as I can tell, there is no strong relationship between this overall feel of the music and the more technical use of the term upbeat to refer to the un-accented subdivisions in the meter (or ever more stringently: the un-accented subdivision just prior to the start of the measure) . Indeed, you'd usually refer to music that accentuates the off-beats as being "[highly] syncopated', not upbeat.

An aside on the technical definition of upbeat

Especially in classical music the "upbeat" refers to what the conductor is doing. Here's a diagram of the conductor's hand motions for 4/4 time, with the upbeat highlighted:

enter image description here

On the beat preceding the first beat of each measure (the downbeat, labeled with a 1), the conductor raises his hand/baton to prepare for it; the upbeat (labeled 4 here).

Outside of classical music, people tend to be a bit looser with language, and may use "upbeat" to refer to any/all of the subdivisions that lie between the main beats -- as in the OP, the &'s in "1&2&3&4&".

  • So, basicaly you want to say in this example Megalovania is just fast-paced and active? Because I find it pretty tragic. – Exerion Mar 27 '17 at 17:32
  • @Exerion everybody is going to have their own emotional reactions to music. I've edited in some of the more objective features in this piece that, to my mind, qualify it as upbeat. – Dave Mar 27 '17 at 17:43
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"Upbeat" can be used by music critics (not necessarily performers) as a way of saying that the rhythm is lively. This may include music that is "hot", "hard" and so on but can include music that is "soft" and "light" if the tempo of the music is sufficiently quick enough. Take Frank Mill's "Music Box Dancer" as an example. "Hard" and "heavy" music can be considered "upbeat" if the rhythm of the song is comparatively above that of other songs of similar likeness.

Upbeat also has connotations of causing one to leap in dance. Quick marches are like that, as is quick jazz tunes which you see people doing the lindy hop to. In terms of metal, an upbeat tune will likely cause the audience to thrash less and perhaps engage in more hopping and jumping.

This is the answer for the music critic side. For the performers, upbeat can mean something completely different. It can mean the end of the bar where a conductor punctuates the end with an upward flick of his baton. The downbeat then is the start of the bar.

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