Playing Around the Beat: Syncopation

A lot of music is written in 4/4 time, with a steady, on-beat rhythm that supports the song throughout.

A lot of music isn’t. It shuffles, has unexpected rhythmic moments, and seems like the musicians are playing around the beat.

This is called syncopation – a deviation from a regular expected rhythmic pattern. Understanding it and applying it results in intricate, offbeat grooves that add interest to a piece of music.

Before we get to how you can train your ears to recognize syncopation and the ways you can incorporate it into your music, let’s start with the basics…

What is Syncopation?

A Definition of Syncopation: “A deviation from a regular expected rhythmic pattern, often placing stress (through dynamic accents) on weaker beats or omitting stronger beats.”

Dynamic accents are where the stress falls naturally in a rhythm. Take the simple 4/4 count; the typical stress pattern is “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”, with the accented beats being the “downbeats”.

Syncopation simply involves shifting these accents to the “weaker” beats, which surprises the ear and readjusts the listener’s sense of on-beat and off-beat. There are multiple ways in which musicians do this, which we will explore shortly. But first…

A Brief History of Syncopation

Though syncopation has been around for eons, it first prominently appeared in the Western world with the arrival of Ars Nova, which saw composers producing rhythmic innovations and quite complex forms of syncopation.

Composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms saw the value in adding this kind of rhythmic interest, and continued to write music with unexpected, “offbeat” rhythms.

Syncopation found a home in countless genres of American music when West African rhythms met the “traditional” European rhythms, resulting in these two rhythmic styles being layered in genres such as ragtime, jazz, blues, and rock.

Why Learn Syncopation?

Beautiful things happen in music when you play off and around the beat. Syncopation is a tool to add interest and groove to your music through rhythm, the same way dissonance adds interest to melody.

In fact, you likely already use syncopation in music: lyrics are nearly always naturally syncopated because of how language and speech work. We don’t naturally speak in an even, robotic manner; words have stressed syllables in different places, and when strung together, interesting stress patterns are created. Understanding syncopation will help you craft music that nicely fits your (likely already syncopated!) lyrics.

You’ll find that a lot of music you love and may want to cover already has syncopation in it! Learning syncopation will enable you to understand the inner workings of your favourite music.

Syncopation is well-worth exploring for anyone hoping to master the concept of rhythm in general. It goes hand-in-hand with polyrhythms, which are very often syncopated, with beats scattered all over the place. If you understand syncopation, you’ll have an easier time wrapping your head around the multiple simultaneous meters of polyrhythms!

Triplets played over duplets for a simple polyrhythm

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.

Types of Syncopation

There are a myriad of ways musicians can emphasize weaker beats or omit stronger beats. Here are some to get you started:

Even Note Syncopation

Typically, beats 1 and 3 are stressed in 4-count time signatures. A pronounced change occurs when beats 2 and 4 are emphasized instead; it results in a more “dance-y” beat, also called a backbeat.

Suspension Syncopation

One way to omit stronger beats is to “mask” them. In suspension syncopation, this is done by hiding the strong beats using a tie, forcing the emphasis to fall on weak beats.

Suspension syncopation example

Missed Beat Syncopation

Here, the strong beat is removed entirely, either by inserting a longer note, or replacing the strong beat note with a rest.

Example of missed beat syncopation

Offbeat Syncopation

This can be described as a “shift” in the beat, where the stressed note falls between the normally-stressed beats. This can be created on the level of the beat or the beat division.

Here’s an example of division-level syncopation:

Division-level syncopation example

How to Spot and Count a Syncopated Rhythm

You can get an idea of whether a rhythm is syncopated by analyzing the accompanying score, or by simply listening. As mentioned above, syncopation is simply the emphasis of weak beats or the omission of strong beats. Understanding which beats are “strong” and “weak” will enable you to determine whether a beat is syncopated or not, just at a glance.

If a score is not available, your ears are an equally good tool for elucidating syncopated rhythms. Try tapping your foot along to the music you’re listening to, in a way that the taps are evenly spaced (think of a standard 4/4 beat). Now, take note: when are the accented beats/notes falling? Are they in tandem with your foot hitting the floor? Or do they occur when your foot is up in the air?

If the accented beats/notes happen at any point besides the moment your foot hits the floor, it’s very likely you’re listening to a syncopated rhythm.

To further determine exactly which “offbeats” are being emphasized, try counting along with the music. The “1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a” counting system is a simple way to count along with a rhythm, taking note of which syllable the accented beat falls on.

Division level syncopation example

Syncopation with Different Instruments

As mentioned above, vocalists have nothing to worry about – they naturally engage in syncopation purely by singing.

As for other instrumentalists, it will take a bit of understanding and training to incorporate syncopation into practice.

The rhythm section is a great place to start with syncopating a song. There are countless syncopated variations on the simple 4/4 kick-snare-kick-snare rhythm that you can create by playing around; try hitting the snare drum off the beat, or omitting a snare entirely here and there. Here is a tutorial that shows how you can play around with kicks and snares to create rhythms with different feels:

Syncopating melodies on the piano or keyboard is a great exercise. Take some cues from jazz pianists on how to displace or “swing” notes in a melody to create an offbeat groove.

For a fun exercise, try arpeggiating simple chords and staggering the notes to fall on offbeats – you’ve just created a syncopated Latin rhythm!

How Do I Learn Syncopation?

Because syncopation is an intermediate rhythmic concept, an understanding of basic rhythmic concepts will be your best friend; familiarize yourself with note values, time signatures, and where strong and weak beats fall in simple time signatures such as 2/2, 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8.

This foundation will enable you to pick out exactly which beats are being emphasized in a rhythm. Start off with counting rhythms in simpler time signatures, and work your way up to the more complex ones.

Once you can comfortably spot and count out syncopated rhythms, try creating your own, and putting them to use in your own songwriting!

Counting Your Way to New Rhythms

By shifting, adding, and omitting beats, you can open up a gateway to a whole new way of using rhythm. Start small: try counting out some basic syncopated rhythms, then slowly progress to creating your own.

Ear training is your friend here, and the more syncopation you listen to and count along with, the better you’ll get at picking it out and applying it to your music. With some practice, you’ll be playing and writing music with intricate syncopated grooves before you know it!