Three Parts of a Beat and Today’s Tempo

Two of the most important musical lessons I ever learned came from my college orchestra professor Marshall Haddock.  He is a fiery conductor whom all of his former students have fantastic stories to share.  This musical lesson can be applied to whatever instrument you play be it bass, mandolin or sackbut. 

Professor Haddock was the first to really point out to me that you can play on the beat three different ways and each has a musical and emotional affect on the music and listener.

Three Parts of A Beat

  1. On the Beat-Here one is playing in the dead center of the note.  Perfect example being the typical sound of a marching band.
  2. On Top of The Beat-Here one is playing on the front of the note.  This give the since of the music being propelled forward in     time.  This a very common to here in both Bluegrass and straight head jazz where the melody’s our propelling quickly through time.     
  3. Back Of the Beat-This gives music a churning quality like you are pulling taffy with each musical note.  Here especially subdivision is paramount to keeping the groove/feel locked in with the other musicians.

Now an Important caveat is that any given song you might apply all three “feels”.  Two common examples would be the verse of song being on the beat while the chorus is on top of the beat or if the songs is on the back of the beat the solo section will often change to one of the other feels to provide contrast to the listener.

So what does this mean for the student?  When you are practicing with a metronome play a song in all three manors be it you playing the melody, chords, walking bass line , etc.  Hear how the song feels different when you apply this concept.   When our playing with other musicians or out listen to show concentrate on what part of the beat the emphasizing on a given song.

This lesson should be of particular importance to all you bass players be it electric or double.  One of our main job’s in an ensemble is to provide the proper feel for the piece  and time.  By applying this concept of where we are placing the emphasis of the beat you will take the first step in truly owning the feel of a song.

Today’s Tempo

The other concept Professor Haddock was keen on teaching in rehearsal was the idea of “Today’s Tempo”.  Haddock would purposefully change the tempo of given section or entire movement of symphony.  His goal was to show that we must always be using our ears, eye’s and mind to sense what the actual tempo of today is. Not to fall into the habit of reverting to what  we think the tempo should be.  The more music you play you will learn that often times a song will be counted in either to fast or two slow but you must be able to adapt to play in today’s correct tempo.  Even though the song should be the “correct” tempo it your job as the musician to make the song happen no matter what.


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