Not enough credit goes to really well-placed pickup notes or pickup phrases in music. When a pickup is done correctly, it can serve as the perfect intro that sets the tone for the structure of a song. But what exactly is a pickup?
Also known as an Anacrusis, a pickup in music and poetry that serves as a mini introduction, preceding the first downbeat or strong line in the beginning phrase.
Anacrusis comes from the Greek term anákrousis, which literally means to push up. In songs, it comes before the first bar or the first measure of a song or melodic phrase in a song.
Many songs just feature one note that can be called a pickup note, but some songs have many phrases in the pickup, which brings in the need to create an entire pickup measure.
Pickup measures, which are sometimes referred to as incomplete measures, can have two or more notes that lead to a stronger note to start with on a following downbeat.
The most common example of a song with a pickup measure is the Happy Birthday Song. This song is written with three beats per measure, and the word happy is in the pickup measure, where the downbeat for the first regular measure starts at the word birthday.
This example is always a strange one to be so popular since the melodic phrasing for birthday really doesn't make the word birthday seem like it's on a strong downbeat. This is because the phrase starts on the 6th note in the scale, which is really weak in comparison to most downbeat melody choices.
As you may notice from this example, the pickup occurs a total of three times throughout this popular melodic phrase, which is common for pickup phrases. This type of reoccurrence is also known as a musical motif, which is a thematic phrase within a piece of music that appears more than once, giving the listener a sense of familiarity.
Pickups have a few different perks to them. As I've mentioned, they make for great intros that can really set the tone for a song. And as I mentioned, they are a popular and smart choice for creating a musical motif that can occur many times within a song or series of works.
A pickup note can also allow a performer to get emotionally stirred up in preparation for performing the rest of the track since it sets the tone.
A pickup bar doesn't need to have the same strict rules that a regular bar has, and can be looser with following the rhythmic rules given to the rest of the song. Many pickup phrases on instruments and in vocal performances may include a lot of ornaments to set an emotional tone.
Pickup notes and measures also give composers much more creative freedom with how they rhythmically structure a song. If all the songs in the world were limited to starting on the downbeat only, we would miss out on a ton of magic.
Another extremely popular song that comes to mind with a pickup is Amazing Grace. here is an example of where the emotion can really get stirred up without a sense of strict rhythm in a pickup measure. Many singers give their own interpretations of the pickups in the verses.
While many examples of pickups can serve as an intro for the whole song, they can often just serve as an intro for the lead melody line and not the entire piece. Amazing Grace is often played with ain instrumental intro that leads up to the actual pickup.
In an example popular to those in the US, a song where singers tend to take their time on the pickup measure is The Star-Spangled Banner, where the short phrase "oh" is included as a pickup and the word "say" is on the following downbeat.
Since many singers sing this anthem without backing instrumentation, this is an example of how a pickup can serve as the perfect intro if you are singing acappela.
Oh, My Darling Clementine is another classic song that has a bit of a tricky pickup since it includes the words "oh" and "my" in the pickup. The word Darling is on the downbeat, but all three of those words are on the same note, which is an interesting composition choice.
As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!
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