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Updated 06/20/2013


The Beat

The beat is the basic unit of time in music.  Beat can refer to a variety of related concepts including: timing, tempo, meter, rhythm and groove.  Bagpipe and other music is characterized by a repeating sequence of stressed and unstressed beats (often called "strong" and "weak") and divided into measures organized by time signature and tempo indications (beats per measure).


Without getting into too much music theory, the downbeat is the impulse that occurs at the beginning of a bar in measured music.  Its name is derived from the downward stroke of the director or conductor's baton on the first beat of each measure. It frequently carries the strongest accent of the rhythmic cycle. However, in some cases, the downbeat may not be emphasized. Such departure from the normal stress pattern of a measure is a form of syncopation.

On- and Off-(or up) Beat

In 4/4 time, counted as "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4...", the first beat of the bar (down-beat) is usually the strongest accent in the melody.  This is usually played louder on the bass drum than the other beats.   The third is the next strongest: these are "on-beats.”  The second and fourth are weaker - the "off-beats". Subdivisions (like eighth notes) that fall between the pulse beats are even weaker and these, if used frequently in a rhythm, can also make it "off-beat".  Yes…the down-beat is also an on-beat. 

In the 2/4 example below, all the down- and up-beats are marked with arrows; strong beats are highlighted, off- beats are not.

If you take a piece of pipe music and mark all the on-beats with a pencil (which you should do with all your music) you will notice that most of the major pieces of execution fall on an on-beat.  If you go one step further and mark all the off-beats, you will find that most of the remaining pieces of execution fall on these.  Embellishments nearly always align themselves with an on-beat or off-beat.  Let’s use the first part of The Gardens of Skye as an example: