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Metric Accents

Question: Hi, I just wanted to ask some short questions:

  1. Explain the following time signatures and tell where the accents fall in each: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4.

  2. What are accents and what effect do they have?

– Courtney

Albert’s reply: Courtney, these are really one and the same question. You’re referring to metric accents. These are accents that naturally occur with each time signature, or meter.

Essentially, the downbeat of each measure (beat 1) is always the strongest. Other beats are accented less, relative to the downbeat.

In 2/4, beat 1 is accented while beat 2 is unaccented. Simple enough!

(Note that 2/4 time, 2/4 meter and a 2/4 time signature all mean the same thing in this context.)

In 3/4 meter, beat 1 is accented, and beats 2 and 3 are weak beats.

In 4/4 meter, beat 1 is the strongest, beat 3 is slightly accented since it’s in the middle of the measure, and beats 2 and 4 are weak beats.

It’s important to point out first that metric accents are always very subtle, and secondly that skilled composers can and do play around with metric accents. For instance, a Viennese waltz might subtly emphasize beat 2 (not just in terms of dynamic accent, but also by taking slightly more time).

Similarly, in special cases, two 3/4 measures might combine to form one “virtual” 3/2 measure, an effect called hemiola.

There’s no need to worry about such “special effects” at the moment – you’ll encounter them later. Just be aware that they exist… breaking the expected rules is part of what makes music interesting!

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