4

I'm very new to music theory and I've seen this taught two ways:

  • The On beat is on every 1 and 3 beat while the Off beat is every 2 and 4 (in 4/4 time)
  • The On beat is on every Strong/Secondary Strong and Weak beats in the bar (S w s w in 4/4) while the Off beat is any note in between these.

I personally think the first one is right while I think the second is actually talking about the Up and Down beats but it's kinda unclear to me.

  • 1
    1 and 3 are downbeats, 2 and 4 are upbeats. Being “on the beat” means playing at the same time as a beat. Playing “off the beat” means playing in between two beats. I’m not familiar with the terms “on beat” or “off beat” on reference to specific beats in a measure. – Todd Wilcox Jan 5 at 21:19
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox people do use the terms like that - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music)#On-beat_and_off-beat. But then my experience is that different people do tend to use these kinds of terms in various different ways. Incidentally the same article states that '1' is the downbeat and '4' the upbeat, which follows the most common 4/4 conducting pattern... – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 5 at 22:35
7

On and off beats really exist on a spectrum, and determining whether beats 2 and 4 are on or off is really a question of tempo.

If the music is fast enough, we can start to feel the 4/4 time in (as we say) a large 2, meaning that 1234 starts to sound like 1&2&. In such cases, 2 and 4 are definitely heard as off the beat, with 1 and 3 being on.

But if the music is slow enough, 2 and 4 are so far away from their surrounding beats that we really perceive them as being beats in their own right; as such, we then view 1234 as all being on the beat, and it's the material in between those beats (the &s, for instance) that are viewed as off the beat.

This is one reason why using the strong/weak terminology can be more helpful: beat 2 will (basically) always be viewed as weaker than beat 1, but sometimes beat 2 is on the beat and sometimes it's off. In other words, the on/off dichotomy is often too black and white, but the strong/weak spectrum is much more malleable.

  • 1
    So would it be valid to say 4/4 in a fast enough tempo would be no different from 2/4? – Brandon Jan 5 at 17:21
  • 1
    In my opinion, there is no aural distinction between a fast-enough 4/4 and a half-that-tempo 2/4. (Some may disagree.) There may be some historical distinctions, but they're minimal. – Richard Jan 5 at 17:23
  • In a sort of indirect way, I feel this answered my question. I understand that you can't get too bogged down by the "rules" in music. However, it's nice to know the guide lines. Thanks (^-^)b – Brandon Jan 5 at 17:27
  • @Brandon I'm glad to help, but other answers may answer you more directly; feel free to save the accepted arrow until you see some other answers if you like. Welcome to Music: Practice & Theory! – Richard Jan 5 at 17:29
3

Don't confuse 'The on beat/off beat' with 'on/off the beat'. The first refers to the strong and weak beats in each bar. In 4/4 one and three are 'on beats', two and four are 'off beats' The second refers to notes which aren't positioned on ANY of the beats.

enter image description here

Paradoxically, you're most likely to hear 'off beats' mentioned in reference to swing and rock styles where the 'off beat' is played louder than the 'on beat'.

Here's an audience which insists on clapping the 'on beat' being skilfully manoeuvered into clapping the 'off beat' instead.

  • That is a great clip ;) – ex nihilo Jan 6 at 4:56
  • Harry very cleverly plays a bar of 1/4 - I think! What is it? +1 for the clip at least. – Tim Jan 6 at 9:24
  • Wow! +1 for finding and spotting that. Amazing skill on the part of Harry. For those who haven't spotted it, the change happens just after 0:39 – chasly from UK Jan 6 at 10:02
2

I think it probably depends somewhat on the exact rhythmic feel of the song. The system of time signatures in music doesn't fully specify the relative strength of each beat, and 3 songs each with a 4/4 time signature might have very different feels to them. Compare a slow rock ballad to a house or techno piece, and a reggae song - all typically 4/4, but very different strength patterns to the beats.

The On beat is on every 1 and 3 beat while the Off beat is every 2 and 4 (in 4/4 time)

I would say this would be 'correct' (i.e. an appropriate and non-confusing thing to say) for a style of music that has a strong 1 and 3 - think of a classic rock beat, for example.

The On beat is on every Strong/Secondary Strong and Weak beats in the bar (S w s w in 4/4) while the Off beat is any note in between these.

I think that idea - of having 4 'on' beats in a 4/4 bar - would be correct in a '4 to the floor' type of rhythm - think of a house or techno piece (though in this context it might not be correct to say that the pattern is 'S w s w' - it might be more 'S s s s').

I agree with Richard's answer too, so I hope I've not contradicted it!

  • So in the end, it's up to me where the on and off beat end up aka where I put the accents – Brandon Jan 5 at 17:50
  • @Brandon when it's just a question of you alone with your own thoughts, yep, pretty much (though 'accents' might mean something slightly different to 'on' and 'off' beat)! When you're talking to others, you need to just look out for how they are understanding the words - unfortunately, 'informal' musical terms like these are often used differently by different people - which I guess is why you asked the question in the first place..! – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 5 at 17:53
  • It's confusing xD. My listening background may be the thing colouring my opinion on where the beat lies. – Brandon Jan 5 at 17:59
  • @Brandon that's a common experience in music - theory that fits one genre perfectly might suddenly not be so useful for another genre. – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 5 at 18:08
1

It seems that these definitions can change depending on the school of thought that the speaker learned from and from regional variations.

For example (in my experience) people in the classical world say:

  • "downbeat" to mean beats 1 and 3,
  • "upbeat" to mean beats 2 and 4, and
  • "off beat" to mean the beats directly between all four beats

But in jazz they would say:

  • "downbeat" to mean beats 1 and 3,
  • "backbeat" to mean beats 2 and 4, and
  • "and beat" to mean the beats directly between all four beats

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.