There is something in a song that makes you want to tap your feet, bob your head, and/or swing your body.
Bass players might call this ‘groove.’ But, there is something else in all music with an equally strong affective component – syncopation!
Where there is rhythm, there is syncopation.
When musicians need to spice up the feel or groove, they shift the notes. This creates off-beat events that, in turn, lead to syncopation. Syncopation occurs when you shift notes from strong to weak metrical positions.
An unsyncopated rhythm with accents only on the strong beats turns into a snoozefest in a hot minute.
Clever syncopation can take a 4/4 time into jazz fusion territory with odd-length phrases, accentuated weak notes, and unusual eight or sixteenth note syncopations.
You can witness this at an extreme in the works of artists like Anomalie or bands like Animals as Leaders.
Before we start, let’s manifest the syncopation vibe to get into the mood. Then, we will examine what syncopation is, how you can learn it, and ways to use it in your music.
What Is Syncopation?
Syncopation in music refers to an ‘interruption’ in the rhythmic flow. It goes against the grain of the audience’s expectation – the way their brain perceives rhythm.
Syncopation can be applied to anything – vocals, guitars, drums, synths, brass, etc. It is a key element in genres such as EDM, metal, rock, and jazz, amongst others.
Syncopation: To stray from a predictable or normal rhythm by either omitting the strong beat or accenting/stressing the weak beat.
In other words, syncopation is a contradiction within a rhythmic structure, it does not refer to capsizing the beat or overturning it completely.
First off, do not confuse syncopation with polyrhythms or superimposing beats (a 2 over 3).
To understand and improve your sense of syncopation, you must learn to hear a music piece and identify two things:
The underlying rhythmic structure – the dominant meter
The syncopation itself – the changes or rhythmic stresses applied
Upbeats, Downbeats, and Time Signature
‘Beat’ doesn’t refer to the drum groove as one would say colloquially. In music, ‘beat’ refers to the pulse of a song or piece of music.
That’s what the click track or metronome is set to. It acts as a reference for all the musicians.
Every piece of music has a meter that is a combination of the strong/weak and stressed/unstressed beats. Generally, when we hear or play a piece of music, we keep time by clapping, tapping our feet, or snapping our fingers.
A downbeat is the 1 – the literal first beat of the bar. An upbeat refers to the last beat of the measure that precedes the downbeat. If you are counting 1 & 2 & 3 & 4, the numbers are the downbeat and each ‘&’ is an upbeat.
In simpler terms, when you tap your foot to the song, the beat when you tap your foot is the downbeat, and the beat when your foot is in the air is the upbeat.
Accented or Stressed Beats
There are two types of beats: stressed or unstressed. They can also be called accented or unaccented.
Stressed beats refer to beats that are ’emphasized.’ You play them louder than the rest, which makes them sound more important than the ones played softly.
In a non-syncopated 4/4 rhythm, you will stress the first and third beat, with a softer (unstressed second and fourth beat).
Why Is Syncopation Important?
All music has some degree of syncopation. It’s a form of musical “variation” that is closely associated with groove.
Syncopation lends character to a basic rhythm and makes the music interesting for both the audience and the artist. Keeping rhythms confined to a straight pulse is a surefire way to make your music sound stale and robotic.
Syncopation can dramatically change the emotion of a melody and drive or drag the rhythm.
As a lyricist, composer or instrumentalist, you must know how syncopation and rhythm relate to a piece of music. Plus, it opens doors to advanced rhythmic concepts such as polyrhythms.
Lastly, syncopation is imperative for creative expression.
A jazz pianist can play the same jazz standard for decades thanks to syncopation. A songwriter can change up the rhythm or melody to give the audience an unusual rendition of a known classic.
6 Types of Syncopation (With Audio Examples)
1. Missed Beat
A missed beat means replacing a strong beat with a rest. There is no shifting of accents at all. It is not the same as a rest in music.
A rest can be on a strong beat. You can turn a 1 2 3 4 into a X 2 3 4 or 1 2 X 4. This is a simple but highly effective way to mix things up.
However, ensure that you play the regular pattern long enough for the missed beat to sound effective.
You can check out the rhythm guitar of Ramblin Man by The Allman Brothers Band to hear ‘missed beat syncopation’ in action.
Practice Tip: Play a drum beat, bassline, vocal melody, or any phrase on your instrument, and start dropping the notes/beat on the one and three of the bar. Use it in any combination that you can come up with over a longer phrase.
Suspension or suspended syncopation refers to holding a weak beat and allowing it to carry over to the next beat.
For instance, you can sustain the fourth beat of a measure to play over the first beat of the ensuing bar. Using it creatively can add more dynamics to the rhythm.
In an un-syncopated rhythm, you will only play the strong beats. In suspended syncopation, you play the weak beats and hold them through the strong beats i.e. sustain them for a longer duration.
There are many ways in which this can be applied, here is a simple example:
Practice Tip: Pick a phrase and identify the strong accented beat in the rhythm. Let’s assume it is beat one. You can play the same phrase by playing the 4 of the previous bar and sustaining it through beat 1 of the next measure, which is the strong accented beat in the original rhythm.
3. Even Beats and Backbeat
A syncopated off-beat is called the backbeat. In a 4/4 time signature, a backbeat occurs when you emphasize the second and fourth beat – 1 2 3 4.
It doesn’t change the rhythm, instead, it dynamically accents the 2 & 4, which in turn will change the feel.
Backbeats are a staple in RnB, blues, funk rock, and many other genres.
4. Offbeat Rhythms
Offbeat syncopation is a staple in Reggae and Ska music. Bob Marley’s Natural Mystic is a good example of this.
Nevertheless, it’s used in pop, blues, and rock music as well.
Another classic example of this is Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. In the intro, the first guitar plays muted 16th with accents of the first of each 16th note but the second guitar, bass, and drums accent off beats.
A displaced note or beat will move an ‘expected’ note/beat to an unexpected place.
For example, think of a scenario where a note from the melody was played on beat 1 in the first phrase, and then it is ‘displaced’ and played on beat 2 in the next phrase.
In simple words, you can ‘displace’ the starting point of any melody, phrase, or rhythmic groove to create syncopation.
There are numerous pop, metal, and rock song that do just this. The most obvious example that comes to my mind is Zac Brown Band’s Chicken Fried (when they shift from the verse to the chorus).
6. Fake Triplets or Sextuplets
Triplets are not merely three notes grouped together, they also need to be equally spaced. Pop and rock musicians often split a half-note into two dotted eighth notes to syncopate.
So, a fake or false triplet would be 3 + 3 + 2 and a fake sextuplet would be the same thing doubled. Without going too deep into that, you can hear it in the intro of U2’s Electric Co.
The Syncopation Expectation Relation
Audiences have expectations. These expectations are deeply embedded in cognition and human psychology.
When you play a piece of music, the human brain immediately starts building meaning and structure around the musical piece.
It forms a metrical template, so to speak. This template has strong and weak beats by default because of the expectation of the human brain.
If you articulate a note or chord on the weak beat, it violates the audience’s expectation and creates tension.
This is an example of rhythmic or metrical tension as opposed to harmonic tension. Therefore, syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to chord harmony. Just as you can throw in a V-aug chord before resolving with the tonic (I), you can change up the rhythm to jolt/enthrall the audience.
Harmonic dissonance can be as esoteric as a C+13sus2sus4(b9) or as palatable as a C7. Similarly, there is an extensive range of syncopation, both in complexity and density.
Beat-level and Division Level Syncopation
Syncopation can be created at any metrical level. Syncopating at the foundational level is called beat-level syncopation. Beat-level syncopation is present in the 8th note upbeats in a quarter note pulse.
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
To understand this at a musical level, listen to Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles. Notice how they use off-beat syncopation to create a pull with the vocal melody (i.e. “picks up the rice in the church where her wed – ding has been”).
The other type of off-beat syncopation is called division-level syncopation. This syncopation occurs when notes shift to subdivisions of the beat rather than a whole beat.
The first level is the pulse (which would be on the quarter notes). However, there is a second level of off-beat syncopation happening within the subdivisions of that pulse.
In simple words, you aren’t syncopating the pulse – you are syncopating the sub-divisions of the pulse.
Accents and syncopation are the heart and soul of gripping sixteenth-note rhythmic patterns. You can hear it in all the funk music from James Brown to Tom Misch. This type of syncopation is in the subdivisions of the quarter note (1 e & a).
This is common to funk, jazz, metal, and other music that benefits from complex syncopation.
The concept applies to any time signature as well. You can practice counting syncopation by reciting the beat out loud in the quarter, eighth, and sixteenth note variations.
How to Learn and Practice Syncopation?
1. Listen Intently
Listening is a key aspect of learning and it should be gradual. It’s important to consciously notice and recognize syncopated rhythms.
You can start small by listening to your favorite songs. Keep it familiar and stick to 4/4 time signatures.
Once you develop the ability to identify syncopation, increase the complexity of the must to challenge yourself. Over time, your ear will be trained to identify weak beats, off-beats, and other elements of the rhythmic form.
2. Counting Exercises
Count quarter, eighth-note beats, and sixteenth note beats. Using the examples we discussed, place the stress on different beats.
You will come up with various counting exercises which will help you internalize syncopated rhythms.
Here are some examples (the stressed parts are underlined):
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
1 & 2 X 3 & 4 X
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
3. Learning Resources
If you don’t want to do all the counting and clapping, pick up a copy of Ted Reed’s ‘Syncopation’ – a ‘go-to’ text on the subject. It is primarily for drummers but can do good for any kind of musician.
4. Get in Under the Fingers (Or Feet)
Counting is great, but don’t forget the bigger picture. Use it in your playing.
For that, you need to be able to execute it on your instrument. Start with the basics of syncopation and keep at it till you learn to play outside the beat like a pro.
5. Less is More
As always, everything in music has an optimal point. A composition benefits when you use syncopation and non-syncopated parts in the right proportion to create contrast.
Moderate syncopation sounds palatable. So, don’t overdo it unless you have a solid reason to justify it.
Conclusion & Further Resources
Syncopation comes in degrees and can be simple or complicated, depending on where you are in the continuum.
You can stop at ‘anything on the offbeat’ or drag it into glitch-hop, hocket, or even spasmodic call-response territory.
Syncopation is used heavy-handedly in non-Western music such as Hindustani classical (India), Latin, Afro-Cuban, and in many other places.
You can look up the tala system in Indian classical (tabla) or the study hemiola in Afro Cuban music to dive deep into the subject.
Either way, syncopation is a gateway to interesting rhythmic concepts like cross-beat, polyrhythm, clave, and hemiola.
At the end of the day, you know you’ve ‘made it’ when you join the never-ending internet debate over the difference between syncopation and swing.
Finally, if you want to learn more about music theory, you can check out these articles: