Finding the Beat and Everything Between: Ictus, Ouktus and Anacrusis

October 13, 2016, 5:35 AM · Talent is often not obvious. A young violinist vibrates with the correct path of the arm, but can’t keep his finger on the correct pitch. Another plays beautifully, with technique to burn, but withers in front of an audience. Someone else maneuvers through complex bow distributions and bow changes, but can’t figure out how to let the hair saturate into the string.

The best kind of musical talent is the kind that fills in the missing ingredient. In rhythm, you might be good at feeling the energy leading to the next beat, but unable to remember the relaxed pace between beats. If you’re full of "ictus," which is the obvious, strongest epicenter of the pulse, but missing the patience to navigate the broad spectrum that makes up the rest of the beat (What is the word for this? For now I'll refer to it as "ouktus"), then your rhythmic talent won’t be complete until both elements are equal.

The Fabric That Surrounds Rhythm

A point of clarification: "ictus" is more than a downbeat. It’s derived from the Gregorian chant practice of showing where the melodic and rhythmic phrases are flowing towards.

middle ages

An expressive note with a line over it might be known as the ictus. Whereas the term "ebb and flow" means a similar thing, we are fortunate that the creator of that poetic phrase was kind enough to finish the thought: he or she didn’t leave us hanging with just "ebb". However, whoever came up with the word "ictus" may have been frustrated with his lack of imagination and didn’t bother to think of another word to describe the other side of the rhythmic coin. We need a word other than "upbeat."

Darn, the monks did think of the opposite word, so my whole theory is useless. The word is "anacrusis," which, of course, means upbeat. Surprisingly, it didn’t show up in the rhythm section of the Harvard Dictionary of Music ("ictus "did) nor one of the free websites that give you antonyms. The word literally popped into my head after hours of thinking of nothing else. The last time I heard it was in a dry, 8 a.m. theory class in snowy Rochester, 45 years ago. And after all those years thinking that class was useless, boy was I surprised.

I still like "ouktus" better that "anacrusis." This is the part of the rhythmic fabric that deals with the upbeats and subdivisions, all on their way to the downbeat. Do your beats get longer, the more notes you have to play? Do you get too comfortable with your own feeling about the pulse, while all the musicians around you are coloring inside the rhythmic lines?

I have seen the extreme examples of those with plenty of ouktus, where the players have no trouble with the magnetic energy that connects the upbeat to the downbeat. However, they rush or slow down from beat to beat because the music’s energy jostles them into a state of rhythmic overabundance. Otherwise known as Runaway Truck Syndrome, it accounts for a student suddenly slowing down or speeding up for the quirkiest of reasons: bow distribution gone awry, running out of bow, sfortzandos affecting everything in its path, difficult shifting with lots of rhythmic side effects, etc.

Listening Makes Beats Feel Longer

I heard a seven-year-old boy take too long to play eighth note upbeats, or subdivide dotted half notes, while he had no trouble listening to very slow beats on a metronome and clapping exactly on the ictus (!!). Not surprisingly, there was little energy in the clap, because he hadn’t yet developed the magnetic and inevitable gravitational pull between notes.

Most of us start out in music just trying to get from beat to beat. Some with more vision feel the span of the long measure, and wait patiently for each beat to take in everyone’s parts. Talent is given to us in morsels, and when something is working, you can be sure that something else isn’t.

To help the boy feel the subdivisions and all the inner-workings, I asked him to get louder between beats, a natural ingredient many take for granted, but others need to learn.

Another technique I tried was to ask him to play as fast as possible. Surprisingly, when someone is playing too slowly, he can correct the problem and arrive at the exact tempo by thinking of playing as fast as possible. I’m not sure why this happens, but it’s as if the mind knows what the tempo is, but the body needed a little kick. When the student is suddenly playing much faster, he realizes that his body is capable of playing faster than he ever imagined. It’s the mind that has to stay calm and observe things as if he is thinking at a thoughtful pace. The mind and fingers work together, but at very different speeds.

Clarifying Rhythm

All this ictus, ouktus, anacrusis, etc. talk is confusing me. It’s easy to forget which is which, but I’ll never forget how confused I was when I first joined the Denver Symphony, now known as the Colorado Symphony. I remember noticing how differently everyone played, but how uniform the results. Rhythm is one of the deepest things in music to study. Sometimes what we’re inclined to do is the absolute wrong thing to do.

Robert Jordain, author of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, wrote "It’s often said that rhythm is music’s most 'natural' aspect, that it comes to music from pulsations we find in our bodies. This is one of those observations that, like the flatness of the earth, is blatantly obvious and blatantly wrong."

While it’s comforting to think that the metronome will solve everything, it really takes a deep knowledge of yourself and your past mistakes to begin the process of figuring out what you did wrong and why.

It is the most fascinating journey, and occasionally the Gregorians give us a little insight.


October 14, 2016 at 05:13 AM · As always, very helpful insights! I am wondering if you feel the ictus/ouktus balance becomes easier to sustain when a conductor or chamber music leader chooses to take a piece written in 3 in 1 (so 1 major beat per bar rather than 3), or a piece written in 4 in 2. Does that redefine the ictus? It seems like that might be a more helpful way to accomplish the "ebb" you were describing.

October 14, 2016 at 12:50 PM · That's a very interesting observation you made. Every extra beat and subdivision that a conductor makes tends to get in the way of the musical line. Of course, the extra beats help in their own way. However, it's the musicians' job to interpret the beats with the right amount of ebb and flow in his sound. The conductor's job is to reduce the extraordinary energy that the music is unleashing into its most essential and communicative elements.

It would be a good exercise for a student to play the same passage, first in 4 beats, then in 2, while making it sound the same. Also, the student should be encouraged to round out the downbeats so that they have a warm, sostenuto feeling. Think oboe.

October 15, 2016 at 04:59 AM · In jazz, folk, old-time, bluegrass, swing, etc, you're "behind the beat" or "pushing" the beat. The blues analogy is the "hobos on the train". the train is clickety-clacking at a constant speed. The hobo can move to the front of the boxcar, or the back.

October 15, 2016 at 04:47 PM · These are great visual descriptions of how how certain rhythm feel. I never heard the "hobos on the train." These words remind me of the importance of teaching children how to describe music in words, because their conductors will try to convey images to them.

October 16, 2016 at 10:17 PM · A related metaphor: Whatever the hobos do, If the clickety-clack of the train is speeding up, you're headed for a (musical) train wreck

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine