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Title: Syncopation  
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Subject: Drum and bass, Beat (music), Swing (jazz performance style), Music of Cuba, Groove (music)
Collection: Jazz Techniques, Jazz Terminology, Musical Techniques, Musical Terminology, Rhythm and Meter
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Syncopation (sfz) in Beethoven's String Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5, 3rd movement, variation I, m. 7–8. About this sound   

In music, syncopation involves a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected which make part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is a general term for "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm": a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur."[1]

Syncopation is used in many musical styles, and is fundamental in styles such as ragtime, jazz, jump blues, funk, gospel, reggae, dub, hip hop, breakbeat, UK garage, dubstep, drum'n'bass, progressive house, progressive rock / metal, djent, groove metal, nu metal, samba, baião, and ska. "All dance music makes use of syncopation and it's often a vital element that helps tie the whole track together".[2] In the form of a back beat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music.

Syncopation has been an important element of European musical composition since at least the Middle Ages. Handel used syncopated rhythms as an inherent part of their compositions; Haydn used it to create variety. Syncopation was used by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, especially in their symphonies, for both purposes. This can be heard in Mozart's 38th and Beethoven's 7th. Syncopation is an essential part of the character of some musical styles, such as jazz and ragtime. Hungarian Csárdás song-dances are always syncopated. The "Scotch snap" of Scotland also feature syncopation.[3] [1]

Vertical hemiola. About this sound   

Syncopation can also occur when a strong harmony is placed on a weak beat, for instance when a 7th-chord is placed on the second beat of 3/4 measure or a dominant is placed at the fourth beat of a 4/4 measure. The latter frequently occurs in tonal cadences in 18th and early 19th century music and is the usual conclusion of any section.

A hemiola can also be seen as one straight measure in 3 with one long chord and one short chord and a syncope in the measure thereafter, with one short chord and one long chord. Usually, the last chord in a hemiola is a (bi-)dominant, and as such a strong harmony on a weak beat, hence a syncope.


  • Types of syncopation 1
    • Missed-beat syncopation 1.1
    • Physical Effects 1.2
    • Suspension 1.3
    • "Even-note" syncopation 1.4
    • Off-beat syncopation 1.5
      • Anticipated bass 1.5.1
  • Transformation 2
    • Latin equivalent of simple 4/4 2.1
    • Backbeat transformation of simple 4/4 2.2
    • "Satisfaction" example 2.3
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Types of syncopation

Technically, "syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent."[4] "Syncopation is," however, "very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two- or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat."[5]

Cognitively, Temperley[6] argues that most accurately syncopation can be described as involving "displacement; in a syncopation, an accent that belongs on a particular strong beat is shifted or displaced to a weak one."

Missed-beat syncopation

Syncopation itself may look as simple as follows, involving the addition of a rest:[5]

This is an example of the missed beat type of syncopation, in which a rest (silence) is substituted for an expected note.[7] This can occur on any beat in a measure. "The natural stress of the meter has been disrupted – ONE-two-(three)-FOUR, which is strange, because we want to keep hearing that nonexistent quarter note that would carry the downbeat in the middle of the measure."[5] This type of syncopation creates tension in a musical piece.

Physical Effects

Missed beat syncopation causes a physical effect in the body of the listener as their body moves to supply the missing beat. Also, complex syncopation has been used to overload the brain to induce abreaction and as a prelude to brain washing.[8][9][10]


This may be thought of as a suspension, as in the following example, with two points of syncopation where the third beats are carried over (sustained) from the second beats rather than missed. In the same way, the first beat of the second bar is carried over from the fourth beat of the first bar. About this sound   

Though syncopation may be highly complex, dense or complex looking rhythms often contain no syncopation. The following rhythm, though dense, stresses the regular downbeats, 1 & 4 (in 6/8):[5] About this sound   

However, whether it's a placed rest or an accented note, any point in a piece of music that moves your perspective of the downbeat is a point of syncopation because it's shifting where the strong and weak accents are built."[5]

"Even-note" syncopation

For example, in meters with even numbers of beats (2/4, 4/4, etc.), the stress normally falls on the odd-numbered beats. If the even-numbered beats are stressed instead, the rhythm is syncopated. Accordingly, the former implies duple meter (1212) while the latter implies quadruple meter (1234).

Off-beat syncopation

The stress can shift by less than a whole beat so it falls on an off-beat, as in the following example where the stress in the first bar is shifted back by an eighth note (or quaver) About this sound   :

\relative c' { d8 a'4 c e gis,8 a1 }

Whereas the notes are expected to fall on the beat About this sound   :

\relative c' { d a' c e gis, a2. }

Playing a note ever so slightly before, or after, a beat is another form of syncopation because this produces an unexpected accent About this sound   :

\relative c' { \partial 8 d8 a'4 c e gis,8 a(a1) }

It can be helpful to think of a 4/4 rhythm in eighth notes and count it as "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and". In general emphasizing the "and" would be considered the off-beat.

Anticipated bass

Anticipated bass[11] is a bass tone that comes syncopated shortly before the downbeat, which is used in Son montuno Cuban dance music. Timing can vary, but it usually falls on the 2+ as well as the 4 of the 4/4 time, thus anticipating the third and first beats. This pattern is commonly known as the Afro-Cuban bass tumbao.


Richard Middleton[12] suggests adding the concept of transformation to Narmour's[13] prosodic rules which create rhythmic successions in order to explain or generate syncopations. "The syncopated pattern is heard 'with reference to', 'in light of', as a remapping of, its partner." He gives examples of various types of syncopation: Latin, backbeat, and before-the-beat. First however, one may listen to the audio example of stress on the "strong" beats, where expected: About this sound   

Latin equivalent of simple 4/4

This unsyncopated rhythm is shown in the first measure directly below:

Latin transformation

The third measure depicts the syncopated rhythm in the following audio example in which the first and fourth beat are provided as expected, but the accent unexpectedly lands in between the second and third beats, creating a familiar "Latin rhythm" known as tresillo:    

Backbeat transformation of simple 4/4

The accent may be shifted from the first to the second beat in duple meter (and the third to fourth in quadruple), creating the backbeat rhythm familiar in rock drumming beatbox stereotypes:

Backbeat transformation

Different crowds will "clap along" at concerts on either 1 & 3 or 2 & 4, as above.

"Satisfaction" example

The phrasing of "Satisfaction", a good example of syncopation,[5] is derived here from its theoretic unsyncopated form, a repeated trochee (¯ ˘ ¯ ˘). A backbeat transformation is applied to "I" and "can't", and then a before-the-beat transformation is applied to "can't" and "no".[12]

                  1  &  2  &  3  &  4  &  1  &  2  &  3  &  4  &  
Repeated trochee: ¯           ˘           ¯           ˘           
                  I           can't       get         no -  o
Backbeat trans.:        ¯           ˘     ¯           ˘           
                        I           can't get         no -  o
Before-the-beat:        ¯        ˘        ¯        ˘              
                        I        can't    get      no -  o

About this sound   

This demonstrates how each syncopated pattern may be heard as a remapping, "'with reference to'," or, "'in light of'," an unsyncopated pattern.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Hoffman, Miles (1997). "Syncopation". National Symphony Orchestra. NPR. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  2. ^ Snoman, Rick (2004). Dance Music Manual: Toys, Tools, and Techniques, p.44. ISBN 0-240-51915-9.
  3. ^ Jazz in print (1856-1929): an anthology of selected early readings in jazz ... By Karl Koenig. reprint from Nov 1901. Musician. Pendragon Press. page 67
  4. ^ Reed, Ted (1997). Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer, p.33. ISBN 0-88284-795-3.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Day, Holly and Pilhofer, Michael (2007). Music Theory For Dummies, p.58-60. ISBN 0-7645-7838-3.
  6. ^ Temperley, David (1999). "Syncopation in Rock: A Perceptual Perspective". Source: Popular Music, Vol. 18, No. 1, (Jan., 1999), pp. 19-40. Published by: Cambridge University Press. Stable URL: Accessed: 26 May 2008 17:33
  7. ^  
  8. ^ William Sargent, Battle for the Mind, p. 100, Doubleday 1957, reprinted by Malor Books, 1997
  9. ^ P.Verger, Dieux d'Afrique, Paul Hartmann (open publisher), Paris, 1954
  10. ^ Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen The Living Gods of Haiti, Thames and Hudson, London, 1953
  11. ^ Peter Manuel (1985). "The anticipated bass in Cuban popular music," Latin American Music Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Autumn-Winter, pp. 249-261.
  12. ^ a b c Middleton (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music, p.212-13. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  13. ^ Narmour (1980). p.147-53. Cited in Middleton (1990/2002), p.212-13.


  • Seyer, Philip, Allan B. Novick and Paul Harmon (1997). What Makes Music Work. Forest Hill Music. ISBN 0-9651344-0-7.

External links

  • Syncopation in Dance and Music
  • On syncopation (in Dutch)
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