Get Rhythm

So, you are listening to a hot jazz trio or your favorite metal band when you notice that the beat seems to be jumping all over the place. While the band seems to know where they are going, you are wondering, “Where’s the beat?”

The chances are that the band has left the comfortable land of boring 4/4 repetition and is journeying into the exciting musical world of syncopation. And if you want to keep your own music from being a rhythmic snoozefest, then read on to learn how to develop your ear for syncopation.

What is Syncopation?


A deviation from a regular expected pattern,
often placing stress on weaker beats or omitting stronger beats.

When you count, there is a natural “stress” or strong inflection on the downbeats (think “1&2&3&4&”). A syncopated rhythm will often omit the strong downbeat or stress an unexpected part of the rhythm, often using 8th notes and 16th notes patterns (e.g. 1&2&3&4&).

You can often find syncopation in musical styles like Latin music, Jazz music, and Funk.

Syncopation Explained: 

As you can see, the concept of syncopation is actual quite simple, and can be applied to every musical style, whether you are mixing a new dance beat, singing jazz, and or jamming out with your indie rock band. Adding syncopation while keeping the beat steady can be difficult to master. By working on your listening skills, you can teach yourself basic syncopation by listening and then imitating the rhythms.

Syncopation is important because without it your music can easily become repetitive and uninteresting. While that might be what some artists strive for, most musicians like to both entertain and challenge the listener with new exciting musical ideas!

Ear Training Examples of Syncopation

Use your ears to hear how syncopation is applied in these musical examples.

  1. Listen to the ear training example
  2. Follow with the musical notation
  3. Try to tap or clap the different rhythmic lines
  4. Listen to the full track and try to tap the rhythm with the all of the instruments playing

In this example, you will be listening to a Latin music clip. In Latin music like merengue and salsa, the percussion instruments, piano, and bass line all work together to make an incredible intricate rhythmic web. In the clips below you will hear all of the different Latin percussion instruments solo. Then you will hear the full track (repeated once for a total of eight measures).

After you have mastered all of the rhythms above, listen to the full track below. Follow the notation. Then take turns playing along with each of the instrument parts in turn. Once you are comfortable with these complex rhythms, pick up your instrument and create a melody that follows the different rhythmic patterns. If you are a vocalist, improvise a simple melodic line over the complex rhythms, occasionally incorporating syncopation into your melodic line.

More Syncopation Practice

Feel comfortable with these complex Latin rhythms? Then call a friend over. Each of you will take a different rhythm and take turns playing the rhythm and improvising over the syncopation.

While syncopation is found in many musical styles, Latin music has some of the most complex syncopated rhythms in popular music. While you might find some syncopation in rock and jazz, mainstream pop tunes, dance music, and indie rock rarely deviate too much from basic rhythms. In hip-hop music, the syncopation is often found in the actual lyrics, and the truly talented hip-hop artist can create complicated rhymes as intricate as the most complex drum beats.

Listen to a few of the musical examples below to further explore syncopation in music. As you listen to the music, use your ear training skills to:

  1. Find the pulse of the song
  2. Tap a basic four note rhythm
  3. Identify the downbeats
  4. Hear how the instruments and/or vocals deviate from the stronger beats
  5. Listen for rhythms on the weaker beats

If you are comfortable with syncopation, take out a pair of sticks and try to tap out the more difficult rhythmic beats. If you are vocalist, try to make up your own rhythms and vocal lines using nonsense syllables, like jazz scat singing.


Tom Sawyer by Rush

In this music example, the entire band goes crazy with the beat, throwing in so much syncopation that it can be difficult to determine the pulse of the piece. This includes a change of time signature to 7/8 (or seven 8th notes per measure instead of the typical eight 8th notes per measure to make standard 4/4 time).

Brick House by The Commodores

Almost by definition, funk music is syncopated. Whether it’s the bass player messing with the beats or the drummer skipping quarter notes left and right to play syncopated 16th note rhythms, if you want to find syncopation, funk is where it is at.

So Much To Say by Dave Matthews Band (Live Version)

The Dave Matthews Band is one mainstream band today that is not afraid of experimenting with rhythms, time signatures, and syncopation. With a myriad of musical influences, The Dave Matthews Band is a great example of mainstream music that can also challenge the listener.


Now that you know common rhythms, use your ear training skills to hear these beats on the radio. There are literally hundreds of common rhythms used in all musical genres, from classic rock to jazz to samba. As you become comfortable with basic rhythmic patterns, start experimenting with your instrument or voice. Learn how to really master the rhythm with good rhythm listening skills!

Thank you for checking out our Get Rhythm series here at! If you have rhythm questions or a great tip you’d like to share just comment below or come ask in the forums. We’d love to hear from you!

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