Good strong simple time (2_4, 3_4 or 4_4) March rhythm does not only depend on proper emphasis of the metrical accents (the ones on the beats), but also on correct timing of the “up-beats” i.e. the pulses halfway between the beats. I have heard many performances where a band’s rhythm becomes “muddy” or unclear, because different players are playing the up-beat note at slightly different times. Equally, a solo performance can be made stronger by the same correct timing.
Andrew Pouska, who offers some online bass lessons (not pipe band bass), makes a very pertinent comment:
“Where the Groove Is
One day you may realize all of the good-feeling rhythm stuff falls between the beats not on them. The beat serves as a reference point around which other rhythms dance.”
His full article is at http://www.studybass.com/lessons/rhythm/subdividing-the-beat/
OK – what’s an up-beat?
In a simple time march, an up-beat is the pulse that occurs halfway through a beat – the time at which your foot would be highest in the air between beats while marching. There are some other usages and meanings for the up-beat, but we’ll use this meaning here.
Let’s take an example. Here is a segment of music from a 2_4 March. It includes all the notes for one full beat. The up-beat would be halfway through this group of notes – on the ‘C’. Note the ‘C’ has a ‘G’ grace note on it. To me, a ‘G’ grace note makes sense on accented notes, because the ‘G’ grace note has a strong effect.
What if we wrote the same set of notes slightly differently?!
This time, the halfway mark falls on the low ‘A’. A ‘G’ grace note has been placed onto that low ‘A’ to give it some strength. The timing difference between this and the previous example is not very great; but it is enough to reduce rhythmic clarity when the two variations are played by different pipers at the same time. At the time of the up-beat, some pipers will be playing ‘C’ and some low ‘A’.
I often hear tunes played with groups of notes intended as in the first example, but played as in the second. For soloists, there is a loss of strong rhythm in doing so; in bands, I usually hear some very “muddy” playing at this point. Furthermore, it’s a place where tempo can run away and sections can be rushed.
So, how would you decide if your upbeats are falling exactly in the right place? Here’s the very simple method I use. A 2_4 march has 2 beats per bar. Beat double time, producing 4 “beats”/pulses per bar and listen to which notes occur on these pulses. You may need to play slower than usual to hear accurately which ones fall where.
People sometimes ask me why I think it’s important to understand music theory. I hope the above discussion shows how understanding music theory can improve the rhythmic strength and clarity of your solo and band performances. It is not just an interesting academic topic; it has real application to improving performance.