Syncopation. Ted Reed wrote an entire book about it, Fred Astair made a fortune dancing it, and William Shatner developed his style speaking it. But just what is syncopation? In its most basic form, syncopation is when a normally unstressed portion of a measure is stressed.
Let’s think about playing a single measure of common time (four-four). The stressed beats in any measure are the number counts. So, one measure of common time would have four stressed beats. If you play a note on all four number counts, you’re not syncopated. Now, instead of playing a stroke on each number, play a stroke on each “and” syllable. Again, there will be four attacks, but each attack is on a weak portion of the bar. The end result would be a syncopated rhythm.
All popular music, including rock, jazz, reggae, heavy metal, and even country and western is syncopated. Up until the age of ragtime music, a measure of four-four time commonly had its strongest pulses on beats one and three. Today’s popular music has strong points on beats two and four. Again, the normally unstressed portion of the measure is being stressed.
Since popular music has become so widespread, we don’t tend to hear stresses on beats two and four as syncopated any longer. These counts are now the ones that are normally stressed. If you want to be syncopated in popular music, you’ve got to stress the “and” syllables of the bar.
There are several different ways of making a note sound stressed. The first and most common method is by accenting a note by making it is louder than the notes around it. This is called a dynamic accent. Try playing a rhythm of constant eighth notes, and accent the “and” syllable of one of the counts. Since that note is louder than the others, it will seem stressed. Since you’ve stressed one of the normally weaker portions of the bar, you’ve just played a syncopated rhythm.
Another technique of stressing certain parts of a bar is to play longer rhythmic values. This is called an agogic accent. We do this all the time when talking. By saying certain words slower than others (forcing them to take up more time) we stress the importance of that particular word within the sentence. Try saying these sentences and slow down on the italic words. I hope that you understand syncopation. I hope that you understand syncopation. I hope that you understand syncopation. The third sentence sounds more “syncopated” because the stress is on a normally unstressed portion of the sentence.
Take a look at Example 1. The first measure shows a rhythmic figure that is the basis of all syncopation. Let’s rip this thing apart and see why it’s syncopated. The first eighth note must be played on count one because it is the first note in the measure. Since it has the value of an eighth, it lasts until the “and” syllable of the first count. The following quarter note must be attacked on the “and” of count one because the previous eighth note’s value is completed at that time. We know that quarter notes have the value of one full count in common time. But usually, we’ve seen quarter notes entering on one of the number counts and lasting until the next number count. In syncopated figures, quarter notes begin on the “and” of a count and last until the next “and”.
In order to get a better understanding of this, imagine a clock. If the minute hand is on the twelve (the number count), a full hour lasts until the hand is back at the twelve (the next number count). But, if the minute hand begins at the six (the “and” count), a full hour lasts until the hand is back at the six (the next “and”).
The last eighth in the figure begins on the “and” syllable of the second count, because the quarter’s value is finished at that point. The figure of eighth-quarter-eighth places the longest note on the “and” syllable of the first count. Notice how the quarter note is longer than the notes around it (that’s the agogic accent). When playing music that is syncopated, you’ll recognize this particular figure often. In fact, you might find this figure (along with a few variations) in almost every measure.
The other figures in example 1 are variations of the first. Any note in the eighth-quarter-eighth figure can be replaced with its complementary rest. The second figure in the example uses an eighth rest in place of the first eighth note, the third figure uses an eighth rest in place of the last eighth note, etc. Example 2 shows a few additional variations on the same basic figure, created by dividing one or more of the eighth notes into two sixteenth notes.
But wait, in the first measure of this WebRhythm exercise, you won’t see the familiar figure of eighth-quarter-eighth. Instead, there is the figure of eighth-two quarters-eighth. Does this have any relation to the original syncopated figure? Take a look at example 3 and you’ll see where this measure comes from.
In the first bar, two eighth notes have been tied together. In the second measure, the two tied eighths have been replaced by a quarter. Both bars will sound exactly the same, but they look a little different. Example 4 shows another variation on the eighth-quarter-eighth figure. In this example, the two tied eighth notes are again replaced by a single quarter note. While the second measure may not look like the eighth-quarter-eighth figure, you can now see the relationship between them.
When practicing this WebRhythm’s exercise on syncopation, look for the eight-quarter-eighth figures and try to recognize them as a single visual element instead of three individual notes. Also look for variations on the figure, and strive to recognize them as well. You’ll find that slow, careful practice will yield the fastest results. After you’ve made a good deal of progress on the exercise, increase the tempo. Remember to play everything relaxed and controlled, and above all, have fun.