We can define an accent broadly as an event that commands our attention—something that “sticks out.” In some of the exercises you’ve been asked to do so far, you have no doubt used accents to express meter. Perceiving meter means that accents have occurred at regular intervals consistently enough to define a metric structure. Giving accent or emphasis to every other pulse creates a “strong-weak” duple pattern; emphasis on every third pulse yields a “strong-weak-weak” triple pattern. Once one of these patterns is established, it may be reinforced in the music that follows, or weakened, disrupted or even changed by new patterns of emphasis.
Stressing a sound event, which usually means playing or singing it louder than surrounding events, is the most common and probably the most obvious kind of accent. Our notation system has several symbols to show that a note should receive this kind of stress or dynamic accent (see Example 6).
There are other more subtle kinds of accent. A note receives an agogic or durational accent when it is surrounded by (especially preceded by) shorter notes. In each of the following series, the last tone is agogically accented. (See Example 7).
Perform each line; be sure to give full value to the final note. Are the end accents equally strong, or does one of the last notes sound more accented? Why or why not?
The term “agogic” also refers to the lengthening of a note by a performer. For instance, in Ex. 8a, there may be some expressive purpose behind stretching the first note in each eighth-note pair at the expense of the second. In Ex. 8b the slurs encourage giving extra time to the first note of each pair. Exs 8c and 8d show additional ways the composer can communicate subtle agogic accentuation to give shape to the line. In Ex. 8d stress accents are added to bring out the embedded rising line b-flat, c, d-flat.
String players using different bowings and wind players using different tonguings can demonstrate easily the combinations of agogic accents enhanced by slurring in the above examples.
A note that appears at the top or bottom of a melodic shape, or is sufficiently removed from surrounding notes, will have a contour accent (see Example 9).
Another significant kind of accent is the metric accent. Earlier we established that a metric structure is created in the listener’s mind when enough accents and patterns are distributed periodically to generate two or more pulse streams. Once established, this set of pulse streams will be maintained by the listener, whether or not patterns and accents continue to be distributed regularly. This can result in accent on certain notes that the composer has not otherwise marked for emphasis. In Ex. 10, each first note in measures 1-5 has several accents: two stress accents, an agogic, and a contour accent. The triple pattern, clearly defined, will be carried through measures 6-8 by the listener, even though no stress accents are indicated, and no agogic or contour accent occurs in these measures.
The accent that is heard on the first notes in measures 6, 7, and 8 is a metric accent. A metric accent may be considered a “free” (undeserved?) accent bestowed on a note, usually after the bar line. Metric accent is the only kind of accent on the ‘e’s in mm. 6-8. It is very important to understand that there is no imperative to provide a stress accent on the note following a bar line. The best that can be said about bar lines is that they clarify for the performer a level of metric structure (in the above example, the level of the dotted half note) that has been established, or will be established, by heard accents and patterns. A bar line, by itself, does not represent a sound.
Remembering the set of pulse streams (expressed either in dots or notes) we used earlier, metric accents will be heard where at least two pulses from different levels occur at the same time (, below). Approaching the metric structure in Ex. 11 from the bottom up, every other pulse at level C receives a metric accent coming from level B and every other pulse at level B receives a metric accent coming from level A.
Where would the weakest pulses in the entire structure occur? Why are the first three arrows in both level A and B in parentheses? How can you perform this metric structure to show that level B both imparts metric accent to level C and is itself given metric accent by level A?
As a practicing musician, interpreting notation—converting the visual into meaningful sound—is surely one of your chief activities. Questions of emphasis and grouping are among the most challenging you will encounter as you work toward a successful performance. Should the “free” accent a note receives from being in a metrically strong position be performed with a stress accent as well? Style, the musical shape, and the composer’s intentions will help to answer this question. In playing music for dancing, the answer would more likely be “yes.” In the broad category of “classical” music, it would be considered “square” to give equal emphasis to the first note in every measure. Similarly, in most jazz styles, accent on count 1 of the measure is often avoided. In fact, one of the chief characteristics of jazz is the frequency of accents on metrically weak beats. To say there are “accents on metrically weak beats” means that a clear and strong metric structure has to have been established; hence, most jazz ensembles have a bass player, drummer or both to maintain the meter. Off-the-beat accent in the presence of a regular metric structure is called syncopation. There can be no syncopation if a metric structure has not been established.
Again, a performed accent on every “count 1” which follows the bar line is not automatic. There are times little or no emphasis should be placed on the first note of the measure; the bar line is primarily a visual organizer. Neither is it the case that the first note in a group of beamed notes always receives emphasis:
...unless style or the composer indicates otherwise. It is helpful to keep in mind that beams and bar lines are unambiguous, practical symbols, that organize the VISUAL representation of music on the page. In the final interpretation, taste and experience will dictate to what extent a metric accent will be reinforced in some way.