Accent is defined as stress or emphasis placed on certain notes or beats to draw attention specifically towards them.
Often applied through the use of increased dynamics, and/or the shortening or prolonging of a beat or pattern of beats.
Accents serve as a useful tool to provide variation, and make it easy to highlight specific beats or patterns that one might wish to bring to the foreground.
Lerdhal and Jackendoff (1983) specify three kinds of accents:
- Phenomenal accent: event at the musical surface that give emphasis or stress to a moment in the musical flow, i.e., “points of local intensification caused by physical properties of the stimulus such as changes in intensity, simultaneous note density, register, timbre, or duration.” For Lerdahl and Jackendoff, phenomenal accents are the perceptual input for metrical accent.
- Structural accent: accent caused by melodic and harmonic point of gravity in a phrase or section, i.e., “points of arrival or departure in the music that are the consequence of structural properties such as tonality” with cadence serving as a fine example.
- Metrical accent: any beat that is relatively strong in its metrical context; i.e., “time points in music that are perceived as accented by virtue of their position within a metrical scheme.”
Clarke summarizes: “In general terms, perceiving meter is characterized… as a process of detecting and filtering phenomenal and structural accents so as to discover underlying periodicities” (Clarke 482).
Povel and Essens (1985) provide three rules that govern metrical accent detection:
- Isolated events are perceived as having an accent.
- In a regular repeating sequence of three or more events, the first and last events seem accented.
- In an isolated pair of events, the second seems accented relative to the first (Clarke 1999, p. 484).
(Prepared by Colin Dueck 1/19/10; modified by Paul M. Cohen, 1/30/10, modified by Jonathan Liang, 2/1/10; edited by Ève Poudrier, 2/17/10.)
The standard principle applied to metrical accentuation is that the first beat (or part of beat) is metrically accented, while the second and third are not. The best example of duple metric accentuation is the march rhythm (ONE-two) and the best example of the triple metric accentuation is the waltz (ONE-two-three); in both of these types of pieces, the downbeat usually receives a relatively strong phenomenal accent that confirms the (implied) metric accent.
Because of the possibility of more than one layer of divisions (i.e., the measure and beat levels), some meters exhibit both duple and triple accentuation patterns simultaneously. For example, the 3/2 time signature refers to a simple meter where the measure is subdivided into three beats, each of which are subdivided into two parts. On the other hand, the 6/4 time signature is a compound meter, where the measure is comprised of two dotted half note beats, each of which exhibits triple subdivision. Such construction is often referred to as a “nested hierarchy.”
This does not preclude the possibility of other types of accentuation on the second or third beat in a measure, although these tend to be genre-specific (based on a particular type of piece). For example, in a Sarabande (a Baroque dance of Spanish origin) most of the measures will have an agogic accent on the second beat (one-TWO-three), in addition to the implied metric accent on the first beat of the measure.