What is a pickup measure in music (and how it works)

Introduction

If you’ve ever read sheet music, you’ve undoubtedly come across a pickup measure (aka anacrusis/upbeat/incomplete measure). And while you may have a general idea of what these are all about, perhaps you still have some unanswered questions about them (I know I did when I began playing the piano!).

In this article, you will learn all there is to know about pickup measures, so that you can face them confidently in your future musical endeavors. Let’s get started!

What is a pickup measure?

easy anacrusis example
A simple anacrusis example from a piece called “Song of the Dark Woods” by Elie Siegmeister. The first measure is a pickup measure or anacrusis, and the note “d” is a pickup note here.

A pickup measure (formal name: anacrusis) is a partial measure of notes that precedes the downbeat (strong beat) of the first, full measure. It is sometimes also called an “incomplete measure” or an “upbeat”. The notes of the pickup measure are referred to as “pickup notes”. Because a pickup measure is “incomplete”, it must always be completed at the end of a music piece/section by another partial measure, so that the result is one complete measure.

What is a pickup measure used for?

Composers use pickup measures when they do not want to start a piece of music on a strong (down) beat. Think of the song “Happy Birthday”. The first strong beat in this song actually falls on the “birth” part of the word “birthday”, not on the word “happy”. Because of this, “Happy Birthday” has to start with a pickup measure. Here is what this looks like written down: anacrusis example in happy birthday song

Does a pickup measure count as a measure?

No. Because it’s not a complete measure, we do not count a pickup measure as the first measure of a piece of music when we are numbering measures. The only exception to this would be if the pickup notes in a measure are preceded by rests, so that the total number of beats add up to a full measure. In that case, we would count this as a full measure and number it measure 1.

How is a pickup measure completed?

Having an “incomplete measure” on our hands kind of gives us the urge to complete it, doesn’t it? Well, this is actually something we have to do in music. In fact, every pickup measure must be completed at the end of a piece/section of music so that the total equals to one full measure. Let’s look at a few examples of this from real musical pieces.

Example #1

Pickup measure

Image #1

Pickup measure completed

Image #2

Image #1: We can see that we are in common time (4/4 time). Our pickup measure has two beats, which means we need two more beats to have a complete measure.


Image #2: We complete the pickup measure with the two remaining beats.


Source piece: “Gavotte in A Major” by Daniel Gottlob Turk

 

Example #2

Pickup measure

Image #3

Pickup measure completed

Image #4

Image #1: The piece is in 6/8 time, which means six pulses (think beats) per measure. So far, we only have 1 out of the 6.


Image #2: We complete the pickup measure with the 5 remaining pulses (beats).


Source piece: “Siciliano” by Robert Schumann

 

Pickup Measure / Anacrusis Examples

Lastly, let’s take a look at several examples of anacruses in pieces of different levels of complexity and different time signatures.

Anacrusis in 2/4 time

Source piece: “The Little Trumpeter” by Robert Fuchs

Anacrusis in 3/4 time

Source piece: “A Slow Waltz” by Dmitri Kabalevsky

Anacrusis in cut time

Source piece: “Bouree in G Minor” by Gottfried Heinrich Stolzel

Conclusion

Pickup measures are quite common and we hope that you now have a better understanding of what they are all about. Remember, always begin by looking at your time signature, which tells you how many beats (or pulses, if you are in compound time) a full measure will have. That way, you will immediately be able to tell which measure is not complete.

For more useful articles on music theory, see the suggested topics below: