What Is ‘Accent’ In Music? (Breaking It Down, With Examples)

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If you’ve spent any time looking at sheet music notation, then you’ve probably encountered accent markings. Did you know that there are also other types of accents in music that aren’t marked on the score?

If this sounds confusing, and you’re wondering what is an accent in music, don’t worry. In this article, we’ll break down what the different types of accents are and how to play them.

What Is An ‘Accent’ In Music?

Accent in music refers to placing extra emphasis on a certain note or chord. This can be accomplished through the use of dynamics, through placement within a bar of music, or through the use of higher pitches and longer note durations.

Sometimes, an accent may be created through multiple means, or even through using all of the above techniques.

There are several types of accents: dynamic, metrical, tonic, and agogic. Dynamic accents are notated in sheet music using different kinds of accent marks, while the other accent types are implied.

Some accents in music are stronger than others, and each kind of accent mark is performed in a unique way. Let’s explore more about the different types of musical accents…

Dynamic Accents

Dynamic accents are what many people equate with the term “accent.” Dynamic accents are when a particular note is emphasized by being played louder than those around it. This type of accent is sometimes also referred to as a stress accent.

Accent Notation in Sheet Music

There are several different types of musical articulations that fall into the category of dynamic accents in written music.

1. Accent Mark

 

The classic, most basic form of accent mark is simply called an accent. It is notated with a wedge over a notehead.

It indicates that the corresponding note should be played louder and/or more aggressively than the surrounding notes.

2. Tenuto

Another type of accent is called a tenuto, and it’s notated as a line above a notehead. It generally indicates that a note should be accented through holding it for the full duration, or perhaps slightly longer. It can be interpreted in different ways depending on the context and the era in which the piece was composed.

Sometimes, a tenuto implies the note should also be played slightly louder, although it’s never played as loudly as the basic wedge accent mark.

3. Staccato

Staccato indicates that a note’s duration should be cut in half so that the second half of the note duration is silence. Because a staccato doesn’t involve a change in volume, it may be considered a type of musical articulation rather than an accent.

We’ve included it on this list because it’s so common, and it may be combined with other accents, as we’ll discuss later.

4. Staccatissimo

Staccatissimo is played even shorter than a standard staccato. The notes should be played as detached from surrounding notes as possible. Some composers will instead write the word “staccatissimo” in a passage notated with standard staccatos.

5. Marcato

A marcato is a type of accent that is played as loudly as the standard accent mark, but also staccato. For example, if you see a marcato marking on a quarter note, it should only be held for an eighth note, and it should be played louder.

Marcato comes from the Italian word for “hammered.” It is notated with an inverted “V” above a notehead.

6. Sforzando

Sforzando looks similar to a dynamic marking and is placed under the entire staff like a dynamic, but it is really a type of accent. This is also the case for its brother, forzando. Both of these markings indicate playing the corresponding note or chord loudly or such that it stands out against the surrounding material.

Accent Mark Combinations

It’s common for composers to blend two different types of accents together, resulting in a new kind of musical articulation. Below are some of the more common combinations.

1. Staccato Accent

This indicates that a note should be played both more loudly and staccato. 

2. Tenuto Accent

This means the note should be accented, but you should also be sure you hold it for the full duration.

What is the difference between an accent and a marcato?

Marcato is a type of accent, but not all accents are marcato. As mentioned above, marcato indicates that a note should be both accented and played more shortly, like a staccato.

It is a combination of two types of accents: the standard accent mark and staccato. This is also the definition of the staccato accent mark mentioned above.

Although this may be the technical definition of marcato, many players will interpret marcato to be played even more aggressively than an accent mark with a staccato over it (staccato accent).

As always, the exact way a passage should be performed depends on the period in which the piece was written and the other passages surrounding it within the same piece.

Indeed, some composers reserve marcato for when they want notes to be very separated and very accented––in other words, a stronger and shorter accent than the staccato accent.

It can vary by composer and by player. If you ask different classical musicians what the staccato accent means versus the marcato, you may even get different answers!

What is the difference between accent and staccato?

Staccato does not indicate that the corresponding note or chord should be played any louder. On the contrary, other dynamic accent markings, such as the accent and the marcato, do.

A staccato can be considered an accent in that it indicates playing the note differently from notes without the marking on it. 

So, if you see an accent mark in written music, don’t assume it’s staccato. And if you see a staccato, don’t play it any louder, like you would for other accent marks.

Metrical Accents

There is another kind of accent in music that isn’t even notated explicitly on a score: the metrical accent. Metrical accent refers to the natural emphasis that music has when it falls on certain parts of a measure.

The downbeat (beat 1) of a measure is always understood to carry the most emphasis. In 4/4 time, with four beats per measure, the third beat carries the second most emphasis.

Beats two and four are considered weak beats because they carry less emphasis than the downbeat and third beat. Weak beats still receive more emphasis than notes played on an offbeat, such as the second eighth note of a beat.

Similarly, the downbeat in 3/4 has the most emphasis, while beats two and three are less prominent.

Syncopation

Accenting notes on weak beats or between beats is referred to as syncopation.

Syncopation occurs when a composer indicates for a weak beat (or between beats) to have an accent, and this makes the effect even more jarring than placing an accent mark over a strong beat.

Syncopation helps drive many genres of contemporary music because it helps create a groove.

Read More: What Is Syncopation in Music? (Types, Usage & Examples)

Tonic Accents

A tonic accent in music is when a note is accented due to being higher in pitch compared to other notes surrounding it. A tonic accent is not necessarily any louder or softer than other notes. It stands out because of its higher pitch.
 
A tonic accent may also be referred to as a pitch accent.

Agogic Accents

Agogic accents are when a note is accented simply by being longer in duration compared to other notes surrounding it.

Again, the agogic accent does not have anything to do with volume.

Combining Accent Types

Just as it’s possible to combine different types of dynamic accents, as in the case of the marcato accent, you can also combine dynamic accents with metrical, tonic, and/or agogic accents.

For example, a note could be accented with a sforzando and a pitch accent in which it is on a higher note than those surrounding it. Or, you might have a high note that is held for a long time –– a combination of a tonic and agogic accent.