The backbeat: a literature review

Part of a study for Psychology of Music at NYU

The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.

Friends don't let friends clap on one and three

On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.

Every musician working in American popular or vernacular styles has had a similar experience. How do we make sense of such events? To what degree do audiences know that they are supposed to clap on the backbeat in the blues and music like it? Does musical training or practice correlate with knowledge of the backbeat clapping convention? Before answering these questions, we must address the following:

  1. Human rhythm perception generally.
  2. Syncopation, its musical function and the ability of untrained musicians to parse it.
  3. The history of the backbeat in American music.

Background on Rhythm Perception and Production

Musical and rhythmic behavior in humans arose in order to create “a temporal framework, collective emotionality, a feeling of shared experience, and cohesiveness to group activities and ritualistic ceremonies.” (Bispham 2006) Music is a means of establishing behavioral coherency in human groups. We see a shadow of music’s ancestral purpose when an audience claps in unison at a concert.

Group clapping helps unify the audience’s perception of the tactus (also known as the pulse.) This is necessary because tactus choices are ambiguous between individuals, and for individuals across different parts of a piece of music. While the tactus may be subjective, there are some common strategies we use to identify it. There is a “subdivision benefit” in tactus perception, since beats in the slower layer are also present in the faster layer, creating mutual reinforcement. Trained musicians are more likely to map the tactus to a subdivided pulse. Untrained listeners search for the tactus in surface features of the music, but if they do not detect a consistent pulse there, they will seek it at the next metrical level up (Martens 2011).

The variability in tactus perception may have its roots in the nature of the movements we make with our bodies in response to music. Bodily movement does not merely accompany listening; it enhances our ability to listen. We move different body parts with different periodicities—twice as fast with our arms as with our upper torsos, for example. Binary beat structures may arise from the fact that our massive torsos have two maxima and two minima in each periodic cycle of movement. A two-beat period in torso movement corresponds to a four-beat period of movement generally (Toiviainen, Luck & Thompson 2010). Grahn and Brett (2007) identify “[a] bilateral network of motor areas” that mediate both perception and production of rhythm. However, the motor cortex is likely used more for predictable or overlearned stimuli; for novel or unpredictable rhythms, the attentional system is required as well. It is probable that the motor cortex identifies all short-duration rhythmic events, and that the cortex assembles these into holistic structures. Our attention and memory are assisted in this binding process by regular accent structures in the stimuli.

How do we determine which beats in a pattern are accented? We perceive accents in rhythmic patterns even when all of the events have the same volume. We evidently draw on temporal cues to do so. For example, we perceive events as accented when they are not closely followed by other onsets in time (Grahn & Brett 2007).

Phillips-Silver, Aktipis and Bryant (2010) explore the ways that beat entrainment enables us to coordinate rhythmic movements with one another, and the purposes of such behavior. We are able to synchronize to an isochronous pulse even if it is embedded within complex, syncopated and ambiguous rhythms. Entrainment is “an active, self-sustained, periodic oscillation at multiple time scales, enabling the listener to use predictive timing to maintain a stable multiperiodicity pattern and synchronize movements at the tactus or other metrical levels.” We use coordinated rhythmic movements both for literal physical mirroring, and for metaphorical mirroring, i.e. empathy. We require a social context to perform rhythmic entrainment optimally.
Why should we care when anyone else claps during a concert? Perhaps it is because we experience physical rhythmic entrainment as empathy. Musicians like Taj Mahal find it distressing when their audience is not entrained because it feels a failure to emotionally connect.

Syncopation and Rhythmic Tension

Temperley (2010) draws an analogy between harmonic and rhythmic processes in common-practice classical music. Rhythms are organized hierarchically, with notes on weak beats conditional on the adjacent strong beat notes. He proposes a definition of syncopation as a rhythmic event that is improbable by the norms of classical common-practice rhythm. Furthermore, “[s]yncopation represents the aspect of rhythmic complexity that does not relate to repetitiveness.” By this measure, current popular music is extraordinarily rhythmically complex, even though it may be simple harmonically and structurally (Temperley 1999).

Why do we not swiftly become bored with repetitive grooves? Rather than hearing each iteration as another instance of mechanical reproduction, perhaps we experience repetition as a process, with each trip through the pattern opening the possibility of continued repetition or a break in the pattern. A groove is a present that is “continually being created anew.” We give particularity to each repetition based on our memory of the immediate past and our expectations for the future. Participatory discrepancies add power and interest to the groove, as they support the anacrustic tendencies of each iteration (Butterfield 2010). This can explain why a sampled breakbeat can carry more excitement than a recording of a drummer playing a repeated groove. There is a tension between the identical repetitions and the nuances of participatory discrepancy within each repetition, grabbing our attention anew each time they pass by.

Syncopation is intrinsic to African-influenced American musical forms like rock and jazz. While classical music generally aligns stressed syllables in lyrics and important melodic notes with strong beats, rock and jazz routinely place these events on weak beats. Unstressed syllables in rock lyrics, like those of the Beatles, are commonly metrically stronger than adjacent stressed ones. Rock, like jazz, derives its energy from such metrical tension. Rock is predicated on rhythmic counterpoint rather than melodic counterpoint (ibid).

The backbeat is an exceptionally prevalent form of syncopation. It is used to create rhythmic tension and anticipation, eliciting more active and participatory listening. Jazz drumming typically combines backbeats played on the hi-hat with a swung pattern on the ride cymbal. This combination creates a continual sense of anacrusis. The specific beat-upbeat ratio of the swung eighth notes can vary between musicians, and even within a single musician’s phrasing. The continual flow of information provided by swung eighth notes draws focus to the quarter notes—the shortened upbeat eighth note is perceptually grouped both with its predecessor and the following on-beat, binding the groove together into a strong and unmistakable tactus. Likewise, the backbeat, the rubbery beat-upbeat ratio and various forms of syncopation all combine to draw attention to larger metrical structures. All of this rhythmic tension keeps the listener actively engaged, and encourages audience participation. (Butterfield 2011).

How do we parse syncopated rhythms like the backbeat? Fitch and Rosenfeld (2007) tested listeners’ abilities to perceive and reproduce complex syncopated rhythmic patterns. They found that when we become lost in a difficult rhythm, we tend to reset the phase of our internal pulse sense, “re-hearing” the rhythm as less syncopated. The author occasionally mistakes an accented backbeat for the tactus; it is then challenging to reorient to the correct beat structure. When we hear a syncopated pattern against a steady pulse, we may use one of three strategies to parse it:

  1. We can simultaneously process both the syncopated pattern and the original pulse.
  2. We can attempt to integrate the two into a single coherent stream, perhaps by mentally shifting syncopated events to strong beats.
  3. We may reset our sense of the tactus to follow the syncopated pattern, rather than the original pulse.

Fitch and Rosenfeld found that either of the first two strategies may be used, but that the most complex syncopations require the third strategy of resetting. This is especially true when the syncopated rhythm is stated over an implied pulse. Since it is difficult to attend to multiple streams of input simultaneously, the resetting strategy reduces our attentional load. The pull between different streams of metrical information are the source of structured rhythmic tension and resolution in African, Afro-Caribbean, and Brazilian music, analogous to harmonic tension and resolution in western tonal music.

Ladinig, Honing, Háaden and Winkler (2009) tested whether musically untrained adult listeners form hierarchical representations for a rhythmical sound sequence using varying degrees of attention. They found that their subjects performed syncopated patterns better when the syncopations occurred in metrically stronger positions, indicating that musical training is not required to parse hierarchical metrical structures. “Metric salience” is a value assigned to each sequential event in a rhythmic sound pattern according to its position within the pattern, by “recursively breaking down a musical pattern (with an initially specified length) into subpatterns of equal length.” The more subdivisions it takes to reach a given event, the lower its metrical salience. The downbeat is the most salient position, and it would seem natural to clap on the most salient beat—indeed, this is what many untrained listeners do. However, the Afro-Caribbean core of American popular/vernacular music asks us to accent the less metrically salient backbeat instead.

The confusion between accented downbeats and backbeats is exacerbated by the considerable variation in our perception of tempo. While most listeners have a “preferred tempo” range between 80 and 160 beats per minute, salient tempi are commonly perceived as lying well outside this range. Our perception of meter is also quite variable, and can depart dramatically from the notated meter. McKinney and Moelants (2006) examine tapping studies to see whether preferred tempo and implicit meter is dependent on musical content. They find that while we default to tempo ranges centered on 120 beats per minute, dynamic rhythmic accents within the music can draw our perceptions away from this default. While tactus nearly always falls within the preferred tempo range, the perceived tempo may be any one of several different multiples or divisions of the tactus, depending on the distribution of accented rhythmic events in the music. Tempo is more ambiguous in jazz than in metal or punk, which is unsurprising given the difference in those styles’ rhythmic complexity. Interestingly, variation in tempo perception is not affected by musical training.

History of the Backbeat

Baur (2012) defines a backbeat rhythm as one that places percussive accents on weak beats, typically the second and fourth beats in 4/4 time. The backbeat is most commonly played on the snare drum, but it can be accented by any instrument. Originating in Dixieland jazz, country and gospel, the backbeat is now ubiquitous throughout American and global popular music. While accenting weak beats was a common device in American popular music throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the term “backbeat” did not enter common usage until the advent of rock and roll in the early 1950s—appropriately enough, since the backbeat is a foundational component of rock.

Tamlyn (1998) gives an exhaustive historical overview of the evolution of rock rhythms, specifically the snare backbeat. He argues that the backbeat arose independently from several different sources:

  • Early jazz banjo and piano accompaniment patterns
  • Chicago-style” drumming in loud tutti sections, final choruses or instrumental solos, both on the snare and hi-hat or choked cymbal
  • New Orleans processional drumming, with roots in Africa and the Caribbean
  • Handclaps and tambourine hits in sanctified gospel music
  • Staccato guitar and mandolin accompaniment in country music
  • Slap bass in both country and jazz

The backbeat initially arose as an emphatic embellishment, and gradually expanded over the first half of the twentieth century to underpin entire songs in a variety of styles.

American popular music grew steadily more syncopated over the course of the twentieth century. Huron and Ommen (2006) randomly selected measures of recordings made before 1940 and analyzed their degree of syncopation, defined in this instance as an onset failing to occur at a higher metrical level than that of the previous onset. In other words, we hear syncopation as the absence of an expected rhythmic event in a strong metrical position. By Huron and Ommen’s definition, syncopation can occur at any metrical level, from sub-beats to hypermeasures. They found a steady increase in the quantity of syncopation over time, with the number of syncopated events increased from an average of 1.2 syncopations per measure in the 1890s to nearly 1.8 syncopations per measure in the 1930s. The authors also cite research showing that we learn to anticipate events through statistical learning during exposure to our culture’s music. Rhythmic events on the weakest beats (the smallest subdivisions) are the least common in European-descended music, and therefore are the most surprising when they occur.

The backbeat is a significant component of the Africanization of American music. Baraka (1963) makes the bold claim that “the only so-called popular music in this country of any real value is of African derivation.” He traces the spread of African musical values into America via the slave trade. The percussion-heavy, improvisationally oriented and shouted/chanted music we hear on every pop radio station is informed powerfully by those vestiges of West African music that survived slavery. Generally speaking, African music is rhythmically complex and harmonically static, a neat inverse of Europe’s harmonically rich but rhythmically unsophisticated art music tradition. American musical history is largely informed by the collision between these two musical cultures.

The standard drum kit combines percussion instruments from several different world cultures: “cymbals from Turkey, tom-toms from Africa, and the snare drum from Europe.” (Greenwald 2002) In both African and African-American music, the varying timbres of the percussion ensemble or drum kit fuse into a single perceptual mass. That said, the sophisticated listener can learn to take cues from specific drum instruments.

The “Funky Drummer” template is a cornerstone of hip-hop and many other American dance styles: a phrase beginning with an eighth-note/eighth-note/quarter-note figure (“boom-boom-cha”) followed by greater variety and syncopation (ibid). While traditionally the bass drum has stated the pulse in dance music, in hip-hop, it does so rarely. Instead, after sounding the first downbeat in each hypermeasure, the bass drum often falls into a sparse syncopated pattern. The snare drum is most often placed on the backbeats, and occasionally on additional weak beats. Stewart (2000) traces this rhythmic style to three major sources: African and Caribbean culture as filtered through New Orleans; a style of gospel singing and clapping known as “rocking and reeling;” and bluegrass and string band music.

Why is understanding of the backbeat so unevenly distributed? America have resisted the backbeat for moralistic reasons that conceal racist and classist attitudes. The backbeat and its associated music styles have been considered throughout their history to be disreputable, low-class, primitive and barbaric, even perceived as threatening the moral fabric of society entirely. This is unsurprising, given the backbeat’s origins in the music of marginalized groups: African-Americans, rural whites and immigrants. Stewart attributes the moral dimension of resistance to the backbeat to funk’s associations with bodily functions and sexual odours—terms of praise among funk musicians include “dirty,” “filthy,” “raw,” “stanky” and “nasty.” These bodily associations are intrinsic to funk’s appeal, particularly its ability to inspire audience participation and dancing. While the funk/hip-hop rhythmic template is extraordinarily compelling to people across the world, many Americans find its Afrocentrism threatening. The jazz drummer Max Roach is quoted by Greenwald as saying that “[t]he thing that frightened people about hip-hop was that they heard rhythm—rhythm for rhythm’s sake.”

As long as Americans devalue the bodily intelligence represented by the backbeat, they will naturally continue to misunderstand it. This is unfortunate. McClary (1989) argues that it requires greater skill and musicality to produce the groove in a dance-oriented Earth, Wind & Fire song than to generate “the self-denying, ‘difficult’ rhythms derived by externally generated means. One need only observe professional classical performers attempting to capture anything approaching ‘swing’ (forget about funk!) to appreciate how truly difficult this apparently immediate music is.” We may hope that backbeat-based dance music will continue to find the acceptance and understanding that has thus far failed to match its popularity.


Baraka, A. (1963). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Quill.

Baur, S. (2012). Backbeat. The Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition.

Bispham, J. (2006). Rhythm in Music: What is it? Who has it? And Why? Music Perception, 24(2), 125–134.

Butterfield, M. (2011). Why Do Jazz Musicians Swing Their Eighth Notes? Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 33, No. 1, 3-26.

Butterfield, M. (2010). The Power of Anacrusis: Engendered Feeling in Groove-Based Musics.” Music Theory Online 12 (4).

Fitch, W. T., & Rosenfeld, A. J. (2007). Perception and Production of Syncopated Rhythms. Music Perception, 25(1), 43–58.

Grahn, J. A., & Brett, M. (2007). Rhythm and Beat Perception in Motor Areas of the Brain. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(5), 893–906.

Greenwald, J. (2002) Hip-Hop Drumming: The Rhyme May Define, but the Groove Makes You Move. Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, 259-271.

Huron, D. and Ommen, A. (2006). An Empirical Study of Syncopation in American Popular Music, 1890–1939. Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 28, No. 2, 211-231.

Ladinig, O., Honing, H., Háaden, G. and Winkler, I. (2009). Probing Attentive and Preattentive Emergent Meter in Adult Listeners Without Extensive Music Training. Music Perception 26. 4 (Apr): 377-386.

Martens, P. (2011). The Ambiguous Tactus: Tempo, Subdivision Benefit, and Three Listener Strategiex. Music Perception 28. 5 (Jun 2011): 433-448.

McClary, S. (1989). Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition. Cultural Critique, No. 12, pp. 57-81.

McKinney, M. F., & Moelants, D. (2006). Ambiguity in Tempo Perception: What Draws Listeners to Different Metrical Levels? Music Perception, 24(2), 155–166.

Phillips-Silver, J., Aktipis, C. A., & A Bryant, G. (2010). The Ecology of Entrainment: Foundations of Coordinated Rhythmic Movement. Music Perception, 28(1), 3–14.

Stewart, A. (2000). ‘Funky Drummer’: New Orleans, James Brown and the Rhythmic Transformation of American Popular Music. Popular Music, Vol. 19, No. 3, 293-318.

Tamlyn, G. (1998). The Big Beat: Origins and Development of Snare Backbeat and other Accompanimental Rhythms in Rock ’n’ Roll. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

Temperley, D. (2010). Modeling Common-Practice Rhythm. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 27, No. 5, pp. 355-376.

Temperley, D. (1999). Syncopation in Rock: a Perceptual Perspective. Popular Music, Volume 18/1.

Toiviainen, P.; Luck, G., & Thompson, M. (2010). Embodied Meter: Hierarchical Eigenmodes in Music-Induced Movement. Music Perception 28. 1: 59-70.

5 thoughts on “The backbeat: a literature review

  1. Historically work songs were an important part of the life experience. To me the back beat is the tool slap of a coordinated work crew. Listen to the Texas prison work songs recorded by Alan Lomax. A lead sings a pick-up the crew sing on the first beat and the tool slaps on the 2nd and 4th. With some tools, the coordinated work effort is just on the 4th.

    My guess (I’m not a scholar) is this traditional work pattern got carried over in to religious and pleasure songs.

    Google the lomax texas prison songs and listen. jbooth

  2. Pingback: Czarno klaszczę | Ziemia Niczyja | Mariusz Herma

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