Syncopation Makes It Move

Introduction

Syncopation is the wonderful effect which is created when notes which are supposed to fall in a certain place surprise the ear and fall somewhere else. In other words, it is a displacement of rhythmic accents. You see, once a beat is established, the ear expects to hear accents on that beat. When the accent falls off the beat, or if there is silence on the beat, then syncopation occurs.

Syncopation: Accent Off the Beat

One type of syncopation is that which is caused by an accent which occurs off the beat (i.e. before or after the beat). Look at Example 1, which is in 4/4 time, where I use q to represent a quarter note, and I notate a rhythmic idea (q = quarter note):
Ex. 1

4/4  q q q q

This musical idea is easy to play and when you hear it, it is predictable. In Example 2, we'll place the "counting numbers" under the notes, showing the placement of beats in relation to the four notes.

Ex. 2

4/4  q q q q
     1 2 3 4

As you can see, each of the four quarter notes occurs on the beat, so there is no syncopation.

Now, if we have a rhythmic idea such as the one in Example 3, we have a different matter (q = quarter note and e = eighth note):

Ex. 3

4/4 q e q  e q
    

This time, the music is not so predictable. Again, we'll place the counting numbers under the notes, to see the placement of beats in relation to the notes.
Ex. 4

4/4 q e q  e q
    1 2   3  4

As you can see, the notes do not occur on the beat. We now have syncopation, since the third note, which is a strong note, does not occur on the beat, it occurs between beats 2 and 3.

Syncopation: Silence Instead of Accent

Another type of syncopation is that which is caused when there is silence instead of accent on the beat. Look at Example 5, to see another rhythmic idea (q = quarter note and qr = quarter rest):
Ex. 5

4/4 q q qr q

Again (see Example 6), we'll place the counting numbers under the notes.

Ex. 6

4/4 q q qr q
    1 2 3  4

Notice that beat three (a strong beat) has silence (the quarter rest). The silence caused by the quarter rest on the third strong beat creates syncopation.

Let's listen to (if possible) the Scott Joplin "Easy Winners" Rag which is included in the textbook.

In Example 7, I've notated the melody of "The Easy Winners" (e = eighth note and s = sixteenth note and h = half note):

Ex. 7

2/4 e q  e | se s se s | se s ssss | h

Again, I'll place the counting numbers under the notes:

Ex. 8

2/4 e q   e | se s se s | se s ssss | h
    1 & 2 &   1 &  2 &    1 &  2 &    1 & 2 &

In this case, I used not just the counting numbers, but divided the beat. If you notice by looking at the score, the notes which are played in the left hand and which occur in the bass clef, are even eighth notes, which occur on the beat and division. This heightens the syncopation.


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