All About Accent

by Orlando A. Mansfield, Mus. Doc.

The late Sir James Scarlet, a celebrated English barrister, was once counsel for the prosecution in a case involving an alleged infringement of copyright. When the most important witnesses for the defense was Tom Cooke, the noted English Oboeist. Cooke’s argument was that, owing to certain differences in the placing of the accents, the compositions in dispute were materially different. Hoping to quash the musicians evidence, which threatened to be as damaging as it was technical, Sir James said: “Mr. Cooke, will you be good enough to explain to the Court what you mean by the word accent?” “Certainly, Sir James,” replied the imperturbable witness. “Accent is emphasis or stress laid upon certain words or sounds to heighten their affect or intensify their meaning.” “Very good, indeed,” said Sir James, thinking he would be able to make mincemeat of a mere musician; “but would you favor the Court with a specific example?” “With pleasure,” replied cook with ominous urbanity. “If I were to say, ‘you are an ass,’ the accident would be on the word ass; but if I were to say, ‘you are an ass,’ the accent would be on you, Sir James!” Need to say, the jury brought in a verdict for the defendants.

Means for Notation of Accent

Bearing in mind Cook’s excellent definition of an accent, we must next consider what means are at our disposal for the expression or notation of this musical effect. Here there are before us several methods, the most important and prominent being the bar line, a short upright line drawn across his staff with a twofold object: first, to divide the music into equal portions in accordance with the time signature; and second, to mark the position of the principal accent, it being understood that the accented note is the one immediately following the bar line, in other words, the first note in the measure. This understanding, or arrangement, obviates the necessity for continually implying the accent sign which is reserved for some special, irregular, or intermittent accent, that denoted by the buyer line being ordinary, regular and permanent.

But as bar lines can only show primary accents, and as long measures contain other and weaker accents in the primary – called secondary accents – we need some method for noting the latter affects. This is provided for us by the time signature and the grouping of the notes in according there with. Briefly stated, the most important of the rules for this grouping are:

  1. That notes of small value must be grouped so as to terminate before (and not overlap) and accented beat
  2. That the first note in every group of notes usually receives the accent, or more stress than the other notes in that group
  3. That the smaller the value of the notes the greater must be the number of the secondary accents.

Thus, in a measure of 6/8 time with only two dotted quarters in the measure, there would be but one accent – on the first dotted quarter. But if a measure in the same time were subdivided into eight notes, there would be a primary accent on the first eighth note and a secondary accent on the fourth eighth note. 2a here we have denoted the primary accent by the 2b and the secondary by the sign 2c. Conversely, in 3/4 time, with the three-quarter notes in a measure, there would be built one accent, – on the first quarter note; whereas, in ¾ time containing 68 notes in the measure, there would be three accents, viz: – a primary accent on the first eighth note, and secondary accents on the third and fifth eight notes. 2d this, it will be observed, is denoted by the grouping; or in other words, the grouping is in accordance with the accentuation. Similar cases the conscientious student should work out for himself. From the foregoing it will at once be evident that such a grouping as


is correct for 6/8 time but not for ¾, in which case the rhythm should read


rests, even, should be arranged so as not overlap accents.

Importance of Special Accents

Accent is a very life of music. Any interference with, or non—observance of it at once destroys the musical effect, or reduces a performance to a caricature of the composer’s intentions. The majority of students observe the primary accents with more or less care; but the observance of the secondary act dense, especially in purely instrumental music, where there are no words to be considered, is too often seriously neglected. Hence one important reason among many others why the performance of music of a martial character is often so lacking in fire and energy.

But to all rules there are exceptions. Indeed, to the rules already given concerning primary and secondary accents there are at least four important exceptions or causes of exception. Of these the first is the sforzando, or special emphasis, denoted by the abbreviation sf or by the sign.


 This may, of course, be placed upon any note; but if placed on a note otherwise unaccented, it at once destroys or detracts from the prominence and importance of the ordinary accent.


Here a special stress is laid upon the fourth and second beats of the measure, the effect of the ordinary accents being practically suspended until the fortissimo is reached.

A more frequent device for the transference of accent to a portion of the measure (or to a beat or a note) not otherwise accented his syncopation, which may be best described as a breaking in upon or cutting off of the regular flow of accent. This may be accomplished in three different ways:

  1. By trying a note on unaccented beat to one upon and accented beat
  2. By placing a long note upon unaccented beat and sustaining it over and accented beat
  3. By the placing of rests upon the accented beats


In each of the above cases no percussion can occur on the accented beat, consequently there can be no accent there, the accent being transferred to the note following the otherwise accented beat, this note being more or less strongly emphasized.

A third cause of disturbed accent is phrasing, as the noted by the slur and the legato. The slur is a curved line connecting to notes of different pitch. When these notes are of moderate or short duration, or when the first notice greater than the second, the first note is accented in the second and shortened, whatever position in the measure the first note may occupy.


But when this slur connects to notes of considerable length, becomes a legato mark; and the ordinary action of the measure obtains, the last of the two notes receiving its full value. The same rule applies to the storing of two notes, of which the second is greater than the first, only in this case the last note is very slightly shortened.


When, however, a curved line connects more than two notes of different pitches, the line is termed a legato. As such it merely denotes that the notes it connects should be performed smoothly. Here the first note is not necessarily accented nor is the last note shortened, unless such note happens to fall upon accented beat or upon a division of the measure immediately following an accent.


Amongst artistic performers there is an unwritten rule to the effect that an especially strong accent should be given to the first accented note after the commencement of the legato line; and that the last note, even if falling upon an accented beat, should be shaded off rather than made unduly prominent.

A knowledge and observance of these simple rules simplifies the whole question of phrasing, and renders intelligible the slurs and legato signs of all the great classical and modern masters.

Accent Affected by Harmony

The fourth and last disturbing element of regular accentuation which we can stay to mention here is that of harmony. For instance, notes of small value falling upon secondary accents or unaccented portions of a measure are not as a rule, emphasized When there is no change of harmony, although such notes may be either unessential or east central to the court expressed or implied.

When, however, a change of harmony does take place, the first note of the group over such harmony should be accented. This is shown by the accent signs in the following example:

Here there was no change in harmony on the second beat of the first measure; consequently the small note, G, in the trouble is not accented. The accentuation of small notes occurring on the other accented beats has been already explained.