The dynamic accent, despite being the most common, is only one of four types of accents used in music.
In this lesson, we’ll define accents in music before delving into the four main types of musical accents.
Definition of accents in music
In music, an accent is when a note (or a chord) is given more emphasis or stress than the notes around it.
We create emphasis in the written word by using bold, italics, commas, and other symbols to indicate that a word or group of words should be given more emphasis.
We usually do this in spoken language by changing the pitch of syllables or words.
Notes in music are accented due to their metrical position, loudness, duration, or pitch.
Types of accents in music
1. Metrical position accent: Strong vs weak
A time signature can be found at the beginning of a piece of written music. This shows how beats and pulses are organized into bars, which gives us the meter of the song.
For example, if the time signature is 4/4:
1. Each bar has four main beats (the top number tells us this).
2. Each main beat corresponds to a quarter note, or crotchet (we get this from the bottom number).
However, the time signature also implies that the first beat of a bar is strong, the second and fourth beats are weak, and the third beat is strong but less so than the first.
A 3/4 time signature indicates that the first beat is strong, while the second and third beats are weak.
As a result, when a note falls on a strong metrical position, it is naturally accented since a note in a strong metrical position is perceived as stronger by the brain even if it is not played louder (dynamic accent).
To understand this, set a metronome ticking with no accented beats. At first, you start hearing tick-tick-tick-tick-tick, but after a while, your brain will start chunking the beats into groups of two, three or four and you’ll start hearing: tick-tick- tick-tick- tick-tick if you’re grouping the beats in two, tick-tick- tick- tick-tick- tick if your brain happens to be chunking them in groups of three, and tick-tick- tick-tick- tick-tick- tick-tick if you’re chunking the beats in groups of four.
In the following example, despite the fact that no accent is indicated in the music, the notes on the first and third beat are naturally accented due to their metrical placement. (They are also longer than the other notes. A type of accent we’ll look at below, the agogic accent is a natural accent a note gets due to its duration. Remember that a note can be emphasized by more than one accent at the same time).
Which beats get a natural accent due to their metrical position varies from one time signature to another, but the first beat of each bar is always a strong beat.
2. Dynamic accent: Loud vs soft volume
Dynamic accents are the most common in music and are caused by a note being played louder than the notes around it, such as by striking it harder with the pick. (All of the accents in these guitar accent exercises are dynamic accents).
If the louder note is in a strong metric position, it is not usually indicated in sheet music or guitar tabs.
Dynamic accents are usually indicated by an accent mark (>) when they fall on the weak beats.
The following example is a variation of the guitar riff given above, but has dynamic accents on weak beats:
Accenting a beat that the brain is not expecting to be accented creates rhythmic dissonance, also called syncopation. If done right, syncopation creates rhythmic variety in the music.
3. Agogic/duration accent: Long vs short notes
Another way to emphasize a note is to make it last longer than the notes around it.
If the long note is on a strong beat, this will sound natural.
The long notes in this example are on the first beat of each bar. As a result, this note is accented by virtue of being in a strong metric position as well as being a long note.
In the following example, the long notes (the dotted quarter notes) are placed in a metrically weak position. The agogic accent creates a contrast, something the ear is not expecting, rhythmic dissonance – syncopation.
Thus, both the dynamic and the agogic accent can produce syncopation. The dynamic accent creates syncopation by increasing the volume of a note that would otherwise be unaccented, whereas the agogic accent creates it by disrupting the flow of the music.
4. Tonic accent: High vs low pitch
A tonic or pitch accent happens naturally when a note is significantly higher in pitch than the notes around it.
A note in a melody can progress to the next in three ways:
1. By step – the note moves a minor or major second interval forward or backward. For example, if your last note was A, moving by step means going to A#, B, Ab, or G.
2. By leap, the note moves to intervals wider than major second.
3. Repeated Tone motion – repeating the same note.
Since a note higher in pitch is perceived as stronger by the brain, a tonic accent happens when the melody moves forward and by leap.
In the next melody, I want you to notice the last note of the first two bars.
They’re placed in a weak metrical position but are longer than the notes around them so they get an agogic accent.
But the main reason these two notes sound accented is that they are reached by leap forward from the previous note, whereas all of the other notes move by step.
As you can see, many accents occur naturally and do not require any musical instructions on how to play the note.
Some accents, such as staccato, the regular accent, and marcato have acquired their own symbols.
Other accent marks include sforzando (sfz), fermata, tenuto and crescendo.
Remember that these markings indicate one or more of the types of accent in music discussed in this lesson, namely the dynamic and agogic accent.
Are there other accents in music?
Since any element of music that can emphasize a note or chord creates an accent, accents that do not fit neatly into any of the above categories exist.
An example would be accenting a note by virtue of timbre.
In the following example, the notes on the metrically weak beats two and four are accented (thus creating syncopation) by virtue of a different instrument, a synthesizer, playing the notes.
This changes the sound quality of the notes and as a result, emphasizes them.
That being said, the four main types of accent explored in this lesson cover almost every musical accent that you may encounter as a performer or use as a composer.
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