Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em

What are “pickup notes”? They are notes that lead us into a beat note. They are easy to notice at the beginning of tunes, where there might be one or two notes before the first beat or bar line, but as we’ll see, they really can be found everywhere, and our awareness of them determines how musical our playing is.

The colored boxes marking phrases in the interactive sheet music on www.fiddle-online.com serve several purpose — first, they allow us to learn manageable building blocks of a tune and understand how the tune is put together, and second, they include pickup notes as part of the phrases. Written music shows us where the beats are, but not where the phrases are.

We can quickly understand pickup notes if we remember that the language of music matches up with spoken (or sung) language. The two beats in the proclamation, “Let’s go to the store” are “go” and “store”. These tell us the main idea, while the other words add nuance. The syllables before those two beats are pickup notes leading to the beats — “Let’s” belongs to “go”, and “to the” belongs to “store”. In music this sentence might be written in jig time:

If we split up the words by beat (which is what the written music shows us), we’d say “Lets. Go to the. Store.” It doesn’t make immediate sense in words or music that way. In order to play naturally, the way we talk, we need to be aware of the pickup notes, so we can say/play “Let’s go” followed by “to the store”, or “Let’s GO to the STORE.”

Pickups at the beginning of a tune lead us into the tune. They prepare us for the tempo and beat of the tune. But they’re not essential to knowing the basic tune, and pickups at the beginning of a tune are expendable — when placing the tune into a medley after another tune, the pickup notes could be easily eliminated or changed to suit the flow of the music. It’s same with “and”, “but”, “if”, and “when” — they’re helpful to the flow of meaning but not essential and are changeable. In the example about going to the store, the essence of the idea is “Go to the store,” which could stand on its own. The pickup before the word “go” could be “let’s” or “I’ll” or “you” or nothing at all.

Bottom line: it’s unreliable to memorize a tune starting with the pickup notes at the beginning. The first real note of a tune is the first note of the first full measure. We could recreate, change or eliminate the pickup notes and we’d still be playing the right tune.

To emphasize the beat rather than the pickup note, it’s a good policy to play the pickup note(s) upbow, so we can come to a downbow nice and strong on the beat note.

Let’s look at the A part of the reel “Miss Rattray”—

Here’s the first musical idea:

The pickups (see below) lead into that. Our sound should grow into the first note, and take us there! And it won’t help us to imagine that this tune starts on an A. That’s just the pickup. The tune really begins on that D at the beginning of the first full measure.

Some people might think of the notes by beat, as they are beamed together in the written music, and would think of the last four notes of the measure together, but they don’t belong together. Playing it while being aware of the pickup notes propels the tune forward. It gives our play “lift”.

The second phrase (below) is really difficult and nonsensical if we try to learn the four notes of the second beat together, with that huge leap across two strings in the middle:

But if we think of the last note of the first measure as simply a pickup belonging to the last measure, it’s much easier to play, and much easier for the listener or dance to hear what we’re doing.

Pickups can be found everywhere. A jig measure with a quarter note followed by eighth sounds better if the eighth is played leading to the following beat note. Often a reel will have a quarter note followed by two eighth notes. There is a 97.2% chance that those two eighth notes are pickups leading to the next beat and will sound best played upbow into that beat. The mind shift that switches those eighth notes’ allegiance from the quarter note before them to the beat note after them may seem subtle but it makes all the difference in the feel of the tune, the logic of the bowing, the lift of the playing.

Finally, those who puzzle over strathspeys would do really well to notice how in the typical strathspey rhythm, the sixteenths are really pickups leading to the next beat, except where there’s a “snap” (sixteenth note played on the beat, as when saying the word FID-dle). Here are some examples of special strathspey bowings (…maybe not for beginners!). The first is the most common strathspey rhythm, and can be bowed DOWN, down-UP, up-DOWN. The second is a special effect called the “up-driven bow.” I’ve seen it often described as one downbow and three ups, but as you can see, it’s really DOWN-up, UP, up-DOWN.

How we sound depends a great deal on whether we are thinking ahead and moving the music forward, or thinking in a static way about the note or the beat we happen to be playing at the moment. Great music is always moving forward, telling a story — our pickup notes will take us there.

3 thoughts on “Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em”

  1. This is so nicely explained, Ed. Thinking of the beat we’re headed for and not the note really helps. Thanks!

  2. A brilliant article, especially for the clarity of distinction in the pick up notes and where the tune really starts. I’m copying the quote from your Bottom Line to share with my students.

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