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how can I tell the difference between an accented and unaccented note?

(I am doing grade 8 ABRSM & Trinity theory, any tips?)

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Know first that these terms do not correspond to whether a note has an accent (>) written. Rather, the definition relates to where the note happens within the measure.

An accented note is simply one that happens on the beat, e.g., on beats 1, 2, 3, or 4 in 4/4 time.

An unaccented note is one that happens "off" the beat, e.g., on the & between the on-beats.

But tempo is a spectrum. If the music is fast enough and is in more of a cut time, beats 2 and 4 start to transition from on the beat to off the beat. But I would guess that, in an exam situation, they would give a pretty clear example to illustrate the concept.

These terms are especially helpful when it comes to labeling non-chord (or non-harmonic) tones. In the below example, the D marked "U" is an unaccented neighbor tone, whereas the D marked "A" is an accented passing tone.

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See also What are the On and Off beats?

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