What is "Lift?" Part I: Understanding the Downbeat and Backbeat in Simple Time

The word "lift" has been appearing on pipe band score sheets for decades. It is a mysterious and confusing word! What is lift? How can a drum corps achieve it? In the next several weeks I'll be discussing the issue of lift and answering these questions. To understand lift, one must first understand the three different parts of the beat.

Downbeat: The downbeat is where you tap your foot and is the first note of every note grouping. If you are counting "one and two and" along with a march or reel, the downbeat occurs when you say the numbers "one" and "two". In a parade, to help keep everyone marching in step, military bass drummers will play predominantly on the downbeat.

Backbeat: In simple time (marches and reels), the back beat is the second half of the beat. If you are counting "one and two and" along with a march or reel, the backbeat occurs when you say "and". In a basic rock beat played on the drum kit the bass drum will play on the downbeat and the snare drum will play on the backbeat.

Offbeat: Offbeats are the subdivisions of the beat that lie between the downbeat and backbeat. If you are counting "one-e-and-ah 2-e-and-ah", the offbeats occur on "e" or "ah".

Marches and reels are both written in simple time. Simple time (sometimes referred to as "duple" time) divides the beat evenly into groups of two, four or eight. For now, as we get used to these concepts, we will only be discussing downbeat and backbeat and how they are used in simple time. Here are some examples of downbeats and backbeats in the march style. Use the beat numbers underneath each example as a reference point.

 

Example #1: Accented downbeats using eighth notes

Example #2: Accented backbeats using eighth notes

Example #3: Accented downbeats using dot/cut notes

Example #4: Accented backbeats using dot/cut notes

Example #5: Accented downbeats using sixteenth note triplets

Example #6: Accented backbeats using sixteenth note triplets

Example #7: Accented downbeats using thirty-second notes

Example #8: Accented backbeats using thirty-second notes

 

Downbeats and backbeats in a reel (either pointed or round) work the same way as they do in a march. Here are some examples:

 

Example #1: Accented downbeats using quarter notes

Example #2: Accented backbeats using quarter notes

Example #3: Accented downbeats using dot/cut notes

Example #4: Accented backbeats using dot/cut notes

Example #5: Accented downbeats using eighth notes (round)

Example #6: Accented backbeats using eighth notes (round)

Example #7: Accented downbeats using eighth note triplets

Example #8: Accented backbeats using eighth note triplets

Example #9: Accented downbeats using sixteenth notes

Example #10: Accented backbeats using sixteenth notes

 

Now that you know the difference between downbeats and backbeats in both marches and reels, it is necessary to discuss what exactly we do with this information! The mission, of course, is to create lift in our drum scores and the way we create that lift is by inserting accents into places other than the downbeat. The backbeat is the first place you can start!

To understand where to place a backbeat accent, let's consider the example of a rocket. We have all heard the countdown "3... 2... 1... lift off!" We only say "lift off" when the rocket is leaving the ground. Once it is in the air we simply say that it is flying. When talking about downbeat and backbeat, think of the downbeat as "the ground" and think of the backbeat as "the rocket". Thanks to gravity, rockets always return to earth where they can be repaired and sent skyward again. Your "backbeat rocket" should always return to the "downbeat ground" before it is fired off again.

Lift can only be created in a drum score when the downbeat has already been established. Constant accenting of the backbeat without a return to the downbeat sounds directionless and unmusical at best. When composing a drum score, establish a strong downbeat first, accent some backbeats and then return to the down beat once more. Repeat this process throughout the score. The constant shifting of accents from downbeat to backbeat provides the score with some musical tension and interest. Try to find some scores written by reputable players: Jim Kilpatrick, Steven McWhirter, Reid Maxwell or Gordon Brown (among many others). See if you can find accents on the downbeat and backbeat. Is there a pattern? Do the accents move back and forth between downbeat and backbeat? Do some research on your own to help answer these questions.

Next week we'll be discussing downbeats and backbeats in compound time.

Until then,

Happy Drumming!

 

2 comments

  • David Dabrowski

    David Dabrowski

    Thank you Zach. I look forward to the articles that follow, as well.

    Thank you Zach. I look forward to the articles that follow, as well.

  • Pipe Band Drummer

    Pipe Band Drummer

    Thanks for the suggestion!

    Thanks for the suggestion!

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