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Natural & Unnatural Accents

Natural & Unnatural Accents

Ed Dumas

I have found over the years that teaching beginning band to young students starting in grade 6 has been incredibly rewarding to me as their teacher. The progress demonstrated by eager young students is a pleasure to see and experience. At the same time, young students have taught me many things about how they learn music best. This has caused me to try to find ways to reach a natural state of learning in them that requires less effort and, well, fewer words from me which can save a significant chunk of time in short classes with young students.

One of the many remarkable things that these students have taught me is that their understanding of natural accents is critical to their learning to play and count in various meters of music. For example, I have often wondered why playing 3/4 time was always such a challenge for young students. One of the things that I realized was that they had such little experience with 3/4 time because so much more music now is written only in 4/4 time.

In contrast to today’s students, when I was young and growing up in Northern Alberta, it seemed that wedding events were constantly happening around us. And of course, those weddings were very traditional due to the European immigrant family nature of everyone around me. As a result, I had a huge exposure to 3/4 time music due to the many waltzes that were commonly played at wedding receptions.

Students today have less exposure to weddings since they have fewer cousins, they have less exposure to traditional waltzes and very little exposure to music not in 4/4 time. This got me thinking about what it is that makes 3/4 unique from 4/4 music, and that is what I thought I needed to concentrate on to help them understand the basics of the meter. The answer was in the natural accents of 3/4 time. As soon as I showed them that difference, playing and counting in 3/4 was easy for them.

Unnatural Accents

So, the natural accents are the beats that have a heavier feel about them, even though they are not marked with the sideways V or upside-down V accents that are common in our band repertoire. These are the places where the music just naturally wants to fall a little bit heavier. When you point out these places to students, their counting ability usually increases quite rapidly, as does their playing abilities in that meter.

Now, if you are wondering what an unnatural accent is in music, that is a band teacher joke that you are welcome to have for free! Since all music has natural accents, then there must also be some unnatural accents, right? I think that was a question that some far too bright student asked me one time, and that has led to too many years of making a joke about the “unnatural accents” in music, as if making music was something that could ever be seen as “unnatural.” Feel free to use it at your peril!

But, going back to natural accents, when you explain this to students, as usual, begin with what they know, and that would be 4/4 time. As you conduct nothing but air (without students playing), say to the students:

Strong – weak – Medium – weak

Say that a few times to them to give the students a moment to absorb it. Point out to them that the Strong beat always lands on the downbeat of the conducting pattern. Have your students say this with you as you “air” conduct it. Then you can count to them:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 - 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 - 1 – 2 – 3 – 4

You can point out again that count one always lands with the downbeat of the conducting stick. Then, have your students count along with you conducting it.

By the time in the school year when the beginning band students are expected to learn 3/4 time, they will have mastered playing 4/4 time. So, point out to them again that the reason for doing this with them is to now contrast the 3/4 time. Here, 3/4 time looks like this:

Strong – weak – weak – Strong – weak – weak 

Again, point out that the Strong beat always lands on count one with the downbeat of the conducting stick. Ask the students to say it with you. Then ask your students to count along with you:

1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3

You can even have your students stand up and learn how to conduct both meters with you. The students truly love this activity, and it also gives them a bit of a “physical break” from always just sitting still in music class. Make sure they use their right hand and then start with:

Down – left – Right – up – Down – left – Right – up

Here they will feel that the strong beat is always down, and the last weak pulse of the measure is always up. Left goes before right, and the medium beat is the outside conducting pulse. For those students still struggling with left and right, I have often used:

Down – inside – Outside – up – Down – inside – Outside – up

In 3/4 time they can then conduct:

Strong – weak – weak – Strong – weak – weak


1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3

Have them see that One is always down, and the last weak pulse in each measure is always up just before the next downbeat. Make sure that they are now conducting:

Down – outside – up – Down – outside – up

And NOT conducting:

Down – inside – up – Down – inside – up 

Now after doing the above exercises with my beginning band students for several years, I found it to be successful with most of the students in the class. Yet, there were always a few that still struggled to play music 3/4 time, and this still confounded me. So, looking for something that was even more basic and able to reach the inner parts of the musical brain to help them make sense of 3/4 time, I had my students use their bodies to create some foot taps and hand claps.

That is, I had them do the following:

Tap – clap – clap – Tap – clap – clap 

You can even have them say what they said above to your conducting at the same time as they tap and clap. Now the physical actions that they are doing are extremely close to them, and this reaches their musical brain better. While the students do the taps and claps, I would conduct and have them watch me conduct so that they can feel the 3/4 time better.

Just about every time, there would be some student who decides that it would be great to overdo the exercise and get goofy with the taps and claps to draw attention to themselves. Usually, this is just because they are a little nervous about being asked to do something they have not done before.

So, just remind the students that the objective of this exercise is to “program their brain,” but not in a bad way. I would suggest to the students, “This is just a simple exercise to create the programming that is needed to be able to comfortably play in 3/4 time, so please don’t get goofy about it. Just quietly do it, and let the programming do its magic with you!” Once the students settle in and just go with the exercise, there will be no one left in the class who cannot play in 3/4 time!

I was reminded of this activity once again just a few days back when I encountered another class of young beginners who were struggling with 3/4 time. Being short on remaining class time, we bypassed all the conducting parts of the activity and went straight to the taps and claps. The students chose to do it quickly without getting goofy about it, and their success with learning 3/4 time was perfect, immediate and lasting! I would encourage you to use activities like this that draw attention to the natural accents in any meters that your classes will encounter to quickly help them get over their counting troubles.

Other Meters

Over the years, I have extended the student learning using this system to more advanced meters that the students were needing to play in band class. As the students got older and more experienced, though, I found it less necessary to have them physically tap and clap the natural accent feel of each meter. As they developed, it became only important to point out WHERE the natural accents fell, and less important to make students feel it with taps and claps. This kind of points to the idea that as the musical imagination develops, students get the same benefits in learning just by imagining the completion of the actions.

Now, the next meter to come along is usually cut time, or 2/2. As soon as we begin cut time, I would point out to students that the accents here are:


There is not a weak pulse in cut time, since so much of cut time is used in marching. 4/4 is generally not used to march to, since we have two feet and not four. We also do not want to be stepping out unequally to strong and weak beats in 4/4 time, as this would cause the marching group to curve what should be a straight line. Using cut time with only strong beats helps to keep the marchers stepping out equally and therefore travelling straight.

Following cut time is usually 2/4 time, which only differs on the second beat. 2/4 time is usually:

Strong – weak

This difference in the second beat is the biggest reason why 2/4 (and 4/4) should not be interchanged with cut time. Many folks in the past have responded to playing in cut time as “Just play it in a fast 4!” Doing so would confuse the students at a level that is below words. This confusion could create a situation where the students have trouble even putting into words what the problem is and therefore cannot ask the correct question to seek clarity.

This is a common situation that I have found with students that have been allowed to learn cut time as a “fast 4.” Students would find that playing in cut time becomes harder once this is done when the objective should be to make it easier for them.

Instead, point out that in cut time the natural accents are different than in either 2/4 or 4/4, and show them how they are different. Then show them that when you conduct in cut time, you are now conducting half notes and no longer conducting quarter notes. Then, allow them to figure out how the music should go if you are marking half notes. Usually, students will realize quite quickly that the music progresses twice as fast if you are now marking larger notes, but now they should also be able to feel that the natural accents are different.

Shortly after cut time comes 6/8 time. Here the students need to know that there is slow 6/8 and fast 6/8 time. In slow 6/8 it will be:

Strong – weak – weak – Strong – weak – weak

In fast 6/8, it will feel StrongStrong like cut time, but each pulse will have three divisions (eighth notes) instead of two (quarter notes).

Soon also comes 5/4 time, and here students need to know that there are two ways of dividing 5/4 time. It could be:

Strong – weak – weak – Strong – weak

Or, it could be:

Strong – weak – Strong – weak – weak

The really fun 5/4 meter is when the two different types of natural accents in 5/4 time are alternated, first one then the other. It is important when teachers see this to point this out so that students then understand how the natural accents must change each measure. Note that your conducting pattern should also change!

One of the most common pieces of music used to help students learn 5/4 time is the theme from Mission Impossible. This, of course, is the theme from the original 60’s and 70’s show, not the later movies which disappointingly changed it away from 5/4 time. In the original theme, the 5/4 time should be conducted using 4 pulses. These pulses should be along the lines of one 6/8 measure combined with one 2/4 measure. Here you would then have two long pulses (of three eighth notes each) followed by two short pulses (of two eighth notes each). This 5/4 meter is fairly advanced, and while I love the Mission Impossible theme for this, it is not where I would want to start 5/4 time.

Advanced Meters

By now you should be getting an idea that there is no end to how meters can be combined and made into all sorts of complexities. These include 9/8, 12/8, 7/8, 6/4, 3/2, and many others. The key for students to master these is in your ability to simplify it for them. At this stage, you will want to talk about the “primary pulse,” the “first subdivision” and the “second subdivision.”

For example, the 9/8 measure will have a dotted quarter note as the primary pulse with three eighth notes as the first subdivision of the primary pulse and each eighth note dividing into 2 sixteenth notes as the secondary subdivision. The primary pulses will usually have a natural accent pattern of:

Strong – weak – weak

By the time your students reach the senior grades, just pointing out these basic ground rules of the meter and natural accents will help students in their learning of this music. No longer will you need to do anything more if you have prepped them for these kinds of discussions along the way.

Keep in mind, though, that composers are famous for changing the ground rules of their work, and these can be the unique things that make their music so special. For example, a composer writing in 10/8 could be often thought of as having 5 pulses in a measure with each pulse consisting of two eighth notes per pulse. It will be up to you as the teacher to analyze the score to determine if the eighth notes are all grouped in twos, or have some been grouped in threes.

If some are grouped in threes, then the 10/8 measure could have 2 short pulses of two eighth notes each and 2 long pulses of three eighth notes each. Note that these long and short pulses can also be placed into each measure in different orders as well, and these long and short pulses could also be frequently interchanged for more mixed meter fun!

No matter how it is presented to you on the score, if you can present those basic meter ground rules for that composition to your students, they will surely be more likely to find success with the work. I have usually found that senior students do not have too much trouble learning how to play a piece of music once they understand how the meter and natural accents should fall. Keep it as simple as possible, and begin by pointing out the strong and weak pulses to your beginners right away, as soon as they first learn to play an instrument.



Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


You can find Ed’s other writings for the MusicED Blog at:


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