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I'm a music noob just learning the theory and practice. I can read music well enough to enter the notes into a DAW or even play simple melodies on a keyboard but I'm still trying to understand rhythms. My books say that in 4/4 time the beats are Strong, Weak, Medium, Weak usually (although sometimes S W W W or S W S W) But all the examples in my books just use quarter-notes. However I have lots of sheet music in 4/4 time with nary a quarter-note in sight - just eighth-notes,semiquavers half-notes, etc. Where does the emphasis go then? If there are 8 eighth-notes are the first TWO supposed to be strong? Or should the eighth notes alternate SWSW, or what?
I realise there's a degree of subjectivity here but as a beginner what's a good default assumption to start with?

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    "Notes" and "beats" are entirely separate entities. Listen to the intro of Highway to Hell and count the beats -- some of them fall on absolute silence, but they're very clearly there, implied by the surrounding pattern of accented/unaccented guitar strums. – Peter Smith Jan 22 at 8:40
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A professor of mine in graduate school was fond of using the phrase "elevator operator" to illustrate multiple levels of accent. This could be the eighth notes in a 4/4 bar, for example. You can discern four levels of stress or importance:

P W M W S W M W

Where P is primary, S is secondary, M is moderate, and W is weak. The primary stress and the secondary stress can exchange places depending on which word is more important. For example, consider whether it is the answer to a question like "was that the telephone operator?" or "was that the elevator technician?" In the first case, the response would emphasize elevator, while in the second it would emphasize operator.

In longer phrases, there can be more levels of relative importance, in music as in speech.

General rules are of course dangerous, since there will generally be exceptions, but they can be useful. Ignoring triple and compound meters, odd-numbered beats are generally more important at all levels. The first half note is more important than the second; the first and third quarter notes are more important than the second and fourth, etc. To some degree, the relative importance at a higher level tends to influence the importance of the subdivisions, which is one way of explaining why the first quarter note is more important than the third. The first eighth note may also be more important than the fifth. But the more finely subdivided one gets the weaker this phenomenon grows: in a measure full of sixteenth notes the relative stress given to the first and ninth may be quite similar.

Two related thoughts:

The implications of this hierarchy for phrasing are quite different across the centuries. You will make different use of these principles for Monteverdi, Handel, or Brahms.

If you're just beginning to grapple with these ideas, you will probably implement them fairly clumsily at first. Musical stress or accent can be effected in many different ways. It's usually though of as volume, but it can also be the length of the note, the tone quality, or even the pitch, as well as a combination of these.

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The SWMW is the basic pulse in (most) 4/4 music. There are syncopations which feature longer or accented notes on weak beats or parts of beats. This sets up a kind of cross-relation (not the harmonic one); it displaces the loudness accent from its "normal" place. The practice is at least (from historical records) at least 1500 years old.

There may be more than one type of "accent" happening (same as in poetry). There is the loudness accent or long-note accent or even high note accent.

In the case of two eighths notes occurring on the first beat in 4/4, these two notes are accented relative to the rest of the notes (a common figure). A figure consisting of eighth-note, quarter-note, eighth-note (however notated) yields a syncopation; the first eighth-note gets the pulse stress and the second two eighth (even though written as a quarter or even as two tied eighths) gets the agogic (length) stress.

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  • Does the way they're beamed matter? Here's an example of one of the pieces that prompted this question: It has 4 pairs of beamed 8th notes in one measure and then 4 beamed eighth notes and some other notes in the next measure. [link]flutetunes.com/tunes/the-rights-of-man.pdf – user316117 Jan 21 at 3:27
  • Beaming can be used to represent accents. Whether correct or not, I tend to use beams a bit like a slur (not really for legato but just connected.) Take for example, a piece with some alternation between 3/4 and 6/8 (not uncommon, think "America" from West Side Story); one could change time signatures each measure or beam by three eighths in the 6/8 and 2 in the 3/4 sounding measures. (Or both.) When writing, I like to use the beams to reinforce the articulations. Still, beaming is weaker than explicit slurs or staccatos. – ttw Jan 21 at 3:42
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In my experience when there are two eighth notes on the first beat only the first eighth note is accented. Accents always occur on the first note of the strong beat regardless of the length of the note.

There are two exceptions to this.

One is when there is a grace note before the first note of the strong beat. A grace note is a quick little ornament and has no effect.

The other is when the phrasing demands a smooth increase or decrease in the loudness of the notes of a phrase. Phrasing is a subtle art but is often notated by an arc over the notes of a musical phrase.

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