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Accents in Music: Definition & Types

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Music is a language, and like any language, performers need to know how to make it sound natural. In this lesson, we'll talk about accents in music, and see how they can change a composition.

Musical Accents

Have you ever listened to someone from another country speak English? A lot of times, people speaking a second language will pronounce things a little differently than native speakers, or they will talk at a different rhythm. Languages have their own pace, places where you expect people to pause or speed up or articulate more clearly. We call this part of language an accent. People speaking a secondary language may have a foreign accent, while those speaking a native tongue have a local accent. Music is a lot like this. Musical rhythms tend to have natural accents, emphases on certain notes within a meter. Just like fitting in with a new culture requires learning their accent, accents are essential to understand musical conversation.

Metric Accents

Accents in music can appear in a few basic forms. Let's start with the simplest. In many languages, parts of speech contain natural accents. In Spanish, for example, the next-to-last syllable is naturally emphasized in most words ending ending in a vowel. Music is the same in that there are natural accents within every score.

Every musical composition is divided into measures, units of a set number of beats, and certain beats naturally carry more emphasis than others. The most important is the downbeat, the first beat of a measure. The downbeat is always naturally accented, so there is no need to provide an accent mark over it. We call an accent that occurs naturally in a measure a metric accent. In most Western music, the first and third beats have metric accents.

Agogic Accent

Metric accents occur naturally. They are created by the natural meter and rhythm of the music. This means that some beats naturally do not have accents and are weaker. However, there are ways to make these beats stronger and more emphasized. One common way is to apply an agogic accent.

An agogic accent refers to the emphasizing of a beat by changing its duration. Imagine that you're playing a measure in 4/4 time with four quarter notes. The first and third notes are naturally accented, but you want to create a little excitement by accenting the fourth beat. It's a quarter note in 4/4 time, so each note gets 1 beat. To give this an agogic accent, make that note just barely shorter or longer than a full beat. The change in duration makes it stand out.

Dynamic Accent

The agogic accent emphasizes a note through duration, but you can also emphasis a note through volume. This is called a dynamic accent. A note played with a dynamic accent is either louder or softer than the surrounding notes. Again, this makes it stand out.

Accents in Music

Say this sentence aloud: ''Hey buddy, how are you doing today?'' Pay attention to the parts of the sentence that you naturally accent or emphasize. If this were a measure of music, those would be the metric accents. Now, say that same sentence, but elongate the word ''are'': ''Hey buddy, how aaarrrre you doing?'' Now you sound like a pirate. You changed the sound of the sentence by elongating a word. In music, that would be an agogic accent. Finally, shout the word 'buddy' and whisper the word 'doing': ''Hey BUDDY, how are you doing?'' Sounds different, right? In music, that would be our dynamic accent.

By accenting various notes in different ways, musicians take a musical sentence, and give it inflection, emotion, and personality. Accents make the melody conversational. The addition of accents in a musical piece can come from both the performer and the composer. Often composers will use accent marks to indicate the exact way they want performers to accent a note.

There are five kinds of accent notes that appear most frequently. A dot over a note is called a staccato, and indicates that the note should be played short and crisp, creating audible space between it and the next note.

A narrow, vertical triangle indicates that the note should be played staccatissimo, or even shorter than staccato.

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