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 rhythmic structure and is journeying into the exciting musical world of syncopation.
Though these may be uncharted, intimidating waters, they’re well-worth exploring! The concept of syncopation is, at its core, a simple one. Besides, if you’re not careful, music without syncopation can become a rhythmic snoozefest.
Read on for your introduction to how syncopation affects the feel of music, how to develop your ear for it, and how to apply it to your instrument to create your own songs with syncopation. Then, try our syncopation exercises to practice what you’ve learned!
What is Syncopation?
Syncopation is your secret portal to the world of intricate, complex rhythms that immediately add a spark of interest to the music they’re underlying. Since its inception, musicians from nearly every genre have dipped their toes into the syncopation pool, recognizing that great things happen when you play around with the beat of a song.
When you count, there is a natural “stress” (aka a dynamic accent in musical terms) on the downbeats (think “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”). 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 and 2 and 3 and 4 and).
Where do you find syncopation?
As you can see, the concept of syncopation is actually 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.
You can often find syncopation in musical styles like Latin music, Jazz music, and Funk.
In fact, wherever there is rhythm, there is the potential for syncopation. Even in dance: the dancer can syncopate with a strong step on a weak beat.
Yet syncopating 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 exciting new musical ideas!
How to Identify Syncopation
So how exactly does syncopation sound?
When you’re listening to a piece of music, you often end up subconsciously tapping your foot to the beat. Now, take note: are the strongest accented notes coming down right as your foot taps the floor, or while your foot is up in the air?
If your foot is up in the air, there’s a high chance the song you’re listening to deviates from the regular pattern of accented downbeats! In fact, if your foot is doing anything besides hitting the floor at exactly the time the accented note is heard, chances are you’re hearing a syncopated rhythm.
Where Did Syncopation Come From?
While syncopation has been around for eons in many musical cultures, it gained prominence in Western music in the late middle ages. After the Black Death swept through Europe, the entire culture responded with a major shake-up: the Ars Nova (“New Art”) composers’ playful experimentation rebelled against the prevailing rhythmic norms:
It may sound pretty tame to our ears, but reading these rhythms challenges even experienced classical musicians.
These rhythmic innovations stuck around (albeit in a somewhat tamer forms), with prominent Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach using basic syncopated rhythms in their compositions. Classical and Romantic composers followed suit, with big names such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms also using syncopation to create variety in their music.
Try counting along with the beginning Mozart piece in “two” (duple meter), then in “three” (triple meter):
Which one fit better? Which one do you think Mozart wrote in?
It’s pretty tricky – Mozart obscures the meter with accents on normally weak beats.
Syncopation Skips On
It didn’t end there. 20th century composers, notably Igor Stravinsky, picked up on syncopation and ran with it, experimenting with accenting offbeats for incredible dramatic effect. Stravinsky’s composition “The Rite of Spring” spun the idea of rhythm on its head, incorporating highly irregular patterns and breaking away from the strict rhythmic structure so common in orchestral work:
Syncopation also found a comfortable home in jazz music. To the jazz musician, syncopation is as natural as breathing.
A Meeting of Two Cultures
Syncopation received a huge boost when West African music met European music in the Americas. Traditionally, West African musicians focused much more musical attention on the various dimensions of rhythm, creating complex, dynamic, and fluid rhythmic expressions undreamed of by their European counterparts.
When African-Americans layered these rhythms with the “squarer” European-derived rhythms, syncopation became the norm for ragtime, jazz, blues, rock, and now nearly every form of popular music worldwide.
For example, listen to the left hand part for Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”:
It’s a straight, steady, 2/4 European-style march. Now the more fluid rhythms in the right hand:
Combine them together, and you have syncopation:
Why Learn Syncopation?
If you’re sticking to straight, strict rhythms, you’re really missing out on a world of fun. Put it this way: syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to melody – it creates a desire for resolution and a reason for forward motion.
1. Play music you love with ease
Nowadays, most of the music you’ll hear and love will have a degree of syncopation. Learning the rhythmic structures underlying these songs will go a long way in helping you play them without getting your instrument in a tangle.
2. Add interest to your music
The unexpectedness of syncopation elevates your music from sounding “nice” to having real punch! The importance of syncopation in creating unexpected, “groovy” rhythms cannot be overstated. Rhythmically complex genres such as Latin music, funk, and jazz could not exist without the contribution of syncopation.
3. Make it easier to craft lyrics and sing along
Lyrics are, in fact, often syncopated! The very nature of language and speech means that it’s rare for phrases to fall perfectly in, say, 4/4 time with beats 1 and 3 being the strongest. Speech is more nuanced than that, with stressed syllables of lyrics often falling on sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, and generally between beats.
If you have lyrics in mind, try creating a syncopated instrumental accompaniment that matches with the syllable stress pattern of the words you’re using.
4. Two birds, one stone
Learning syncopation will also enable you to make sense of one of the hardest-to-tame beasts in music theory: polyrhythms!
Polyrhythms give a feeling of multiple simultaneous meters. Consider the example of triplets over duplets:
The second and third notes of the triplets can be said to be syncopated; they fall outside of the expected “1 and 2 and” beat that the duplets provide.
Polyrhythms literally consist of multiple conflicting rhythms simultaneously being played. Thus, these grooves provide an excellent listening exercise; if you can make sense of polyrhythms, you’ve already understood syncopation!
Types of Syncopation
There are various ways that you can move around, add, or omit beats to spice up the rhythm of your music. It’s not always a complicated mess of a rhythm; basic syncopation is easily teachable to young children!
Let’s look at a few of the most popular and straightforward ways you can syncopate:
Perhaps the most straightforward kind of syncopation, this is ubiquitous in Western music, and occurs in “simple” time signatures with an even number of beats (think 2/2, 2/4, and 4/4 time).
Normally, odd-numbered beats are stressed.
If you want to add a bit of interest to your 4/4-time composition, try emphasizing beats 2 and 4 instead, and seeing what happens! The beat does not technically change, but the dynamic accents do, creating a different feel.
This one involves a musical “sleight-of-hand” to make the syncopation work. The strong beats are “masked” by using a tie, so the emphasis falls on the weak beats. Take a look at the score below: while the note of the strong beat technically still exists, the beat itself – poof! – “disappears”. Here’s an example of such a syncopated rhythm:
While suspension involves masking the beat, missed beat syncopation means omitting it entirely.
In missed beat syncopation, the normally stressed beat isn’t shifted or split, but rather, replaced with a rest.
This can best be described as a seeming shift in the beat, occurring when the stressed note falls between beats. Often, this is achieved by shifting the whole measure over by half a beat, so that the first note is half a beat long, therefore “skewing” the remainder of the measure. This is particularly popular in pop and rock music.
This is also a rhythmic hallmark of ska and reggae music; the accented beats and the piano/guitar lines hit the offbeat “and”s, giving these genres their distinctive groove.
Generally speaking, there are two types of offbeat syncopation: beat-level and division-level. Think of this as macro and micro-offbeat.
Think of beat-level syncopation as a shift in the beat; the beat still remains the same, but the shift creates emphasis on the “and”s of the count:
This is also sometimes called off-beat syncopation.
This type of syncopation also signifies a shift in the beat; however, it occurs on a smaller metrical level, often making the syncopation more complex.
Division-level syncopation occurs when the “unit” being syncopated isn’t a beat, but a subdivision of a beat, and the subdivision (e.g. a sixteenth note within a beat containing four sixteenth notes) gets shifted.
A Syncopation Tickle Test
You can test yourself ability to produce and identify some of the syncopation types with this fun exercise: say “tickle” over and over again with a steady beat:
Now, try accenting the second and fourth “ticks”:
Which form of syncopation are you using?
Accent the “le” instead of the “tick”:
Now try taking out a “tick” here and there:
Now what type of syncopation are we using?
Syncopation for Different Instruments
Syncopation can occur in any instrument, and does not necessarily have to present in the percussion section.
Music with syncopation is everywhere! If you’re singing, you’re most likely to be syncopating. Most popular music is highly syncopated, as is our natural speech. But learning how to describe or even notate this syncopation can be invaluable for your sight-reading, and for communicating with other musicians.
Rhythmic syllables are a great way to get in touch with syncopation and develop more precision in your interpretation of syncopated rhythms. These are popular in many cultures, especially in India.
Listen to Zakir Hussain (from the north Indian Hindustani tradition) and Vikku Vinayakram (from the south Indian Karnatak tradition) “talking rhythm” in the first highly-syncopated 25 seconds of Shakti’s “La danse de bonheur”:
When you want to “talk rhythm” in Western music, the Kodály approach syllables work the best.
If you’re not sure about your syncopation, sing some syncopated lyrics over a steady beat and melody – or even clap your hands and sing “off” the beats.
The Rhythm Section
Perhaps the most obvious place where you start with syncopating music is syncopating the percussion section. Syncopation videos and tutorials for drummers can be found all over the internet, with many illustrating how you can shift around where the kicks and snares land to create a distinctive new groove.
For a basic exercise, play around with displacing the usual pattern of kick drum on 1 and 3 and snare drum on 2 and 4. This guide gives some great starter beats for drummers looking to mix it up.
Syncopated drumming can be combined with an “unsyncopated”, straight melody for an interesting effect, or vice-versa.
Piano & Keyboards
Historically, syncopation has been incredibly popular in piano music, especially with ragtime, jazz, and swing piano.
Take some cues from jazz piano on how to displace notes for anticipation and dramatic effect.
Another popular use of syncopation in piano is in Latin music. By learning just a few simple chords and arpeggiating them, you can play your own syncopated Latin groove that Gloria Estefan herself would be proud of!
How To Learn Syncopation
To understand syncopation inside-out, it helps to have some knowledge of music theory, particularly familiarity with other elements of rhythm. But having syncopation explained to you isn’t enough; to really get a good grasp of it, you need to try it out for yourself, too!
As with anything in music, a well-trained ear will be your best friend in learning syncopation. Understanding different time signatures and where the stressed beats normally lie will go a long way in helping you make sense of syncopated rhythms.
How to Count Syncopation
Remember the 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and count we mentioned in the beginning? You can expand this to 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a, which takes you up to sixteenth notes. Count out syncopated rhythms by stressing the spoken syllables that the beats fall on.
Start by Listening
Figure out what time signature the piece of music you’re listening to is in, then take note of where the stressed beats are. You might have to listen to the song several times over, but soon enough, you’ll be able to tap out the beat and determine which beats are accented, and where the accent is “off” the beat.
Practice makes perfect; the more syncopation you listen to, the better you’ll get at spotting these seemingly scattered beats, and the more you’ll see that similar syncopated rhythms exist in songs within the same genre.
When you’ve mastered counting and tapping out basic syncopation, try our exercises below for something a bit trickier…
Ear Training for Syncopation in Latin Music
Use your ears to hear how syncopation is applied in these examples.
- Listen to the ear training example
- Follow with the musical notation
- Try to tap or clap the different rhythmic lines
- 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. You might find some syncopation in rock and jazz, mainstream pop tunes, dance music, and indie rock typically don’t stray as far 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:
- Find the pulse of the song
- Tap a basic four note rhythm
- Identify the downbeats
- Hear how the instruments and/or vocals deviate from the stronger beats
- 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.
In A Rush to Syncopate?
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).
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 Syncopate
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.
Skipping Around the Beat
Now that you know some common syncopated rhythms, use your ear training skills to listen for these beats in music you already know. There are literally hundreds of characteristic rhythms used in all musical genres, from classic rock to jazz to samba.
Once you’ve really understood syncopation, try incorporating it into your music, whatever your instrument! If you are a vocalist, make up your own rhythms and vocal lines using nonsense syllables, like jazz scat singing. If you play the violin or another orchestral instrument, mess around with adding notes to these Latin rhythms or the other score examples in this post.
As you become comfortable with basic rhythmic patterns, start experimenting with your instrument or voice. Soon, you’ll be naturally reading and improvising your own syncopated rhythms and melodies with ease.
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