Backbeats

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When you hear musicians talking about backbeats, they are referring to accenting beats that are normally considered weak. Most typically, that means accenting beats 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3 in 4/4 time.

Backbeats are a relatively new thing in music. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a backbeat in any music before the Twentieth Century. Their origin is probably in jazz though they are now widely used in many types of popular music.

Like pretty much any other modern musical idea, backbeats are often condemned on moral grounds by some. Other people don’t go that far but just don’t like the kinds of music that uses them. I understand all of that but my intention is not to argue the morality of backbeats. I just want to talk about them from a technical perspective and give you some insight into how or why you can use them.

My church is conservative from a music perspective but I still intentionally play backbeats probably 30% of the time when accompanying the congregation. There is a very simple reason why: backbeats add a forward motion and increase energy in a song.

I want you to understand the real reason because you will hear all kinds of strange ideas about why backbeats are used and what they mean. For example, someone once told me that backbeats are a simulation of sex. When you hear that kind of thing, you are safe in ignoring it. Backbeats are not about sex. They are about energy. Period.

So what kinds of songs might you use a backbeat on? Pretty much any of them. That includes gentle hymns. To demonstrate, play a song like “At the Cross” where you are just playing block chords on each beat. Play gently with the stresses on 1 and 3 and then change the stresses to 2 and 4. You will see a big difference in how the song will feel but probably neither version will feel wrong. I probably use backbeats more on gentle songs more than anything else (not usually a whole song but at least a verse or two).

Now let’s talk about the negative side of backbeats. Believe me, you will find many great musicians who despise them. Here is why: backbeats imply syncopation (in fact, you could argue that backbeats are themselves a syncopation). Syncopation in turn implies a very steady tempo (it will not even work without a steady tempo). And when I am talking about a very steady tempo, I am talking about steady as in metronome steady. Robotic even.

That may sound like a very good thing but it is highly debatable. Many musicians (including me) like to create musicality out of variances in tempo. In other words, we use rubato. We hear music that is recorded with a metronome (and almost all modern music is) and think that something is just a bit missing. Modern music tries to get around that metronome feel with syncopation and sometimes it does not work so well.

A primary difference between orchestra-driven church music and band-driven church music is whether the rhythmic contrast comes from syncopation or rubato. I know this is a bit overly simplistic but in general, bands use syncopation and orchestras use rubato. I am not here to debate which approach is better. I don’t mind either even though I will admit my preference is the orchestra/rubato approach.

But when the tempo is steady, I play backbeats a lot of the time. Try it–you will like it. Don’t worry about whether the congregation will be able to follow. Trust me, they will. They are used to hearing backbeats and the underlying pulse they need to hear will still be there.