A Guide to Syncopation


When it comes to syncopation, expect the unexpected—syncopated rhythms disturb the flow by placing the emphasis on a typically weak beat, or even on the middle of the beat. This attention-grabbing and groove-inducing musical tactic has been used since at least the Middle Ages and up through current popular music. It is found in just about every genre.

In any time signature, there are strong beats and weak beats. For example, in 4/4 time, beats one (the downbeat) and three are traditionally more heavily emphasized, while two and four are weaker. In 6/8, on the other hand, beats one and four are strongest. Syncopation is created when the strong beats are obscured and either the weak beats or smaller beat divisions are stressed.


Missed Beat

This is perhaps the simplest form of syncopation and involves replacing a strong beat in a measure with a rest. Below, the third beats of the 4/4 measures are missing. The pattern would need to be repeated over several measures in order to maximize the effectiveness of the syncopation.



In this type of syncopation, notes tied over strong beats obscure the typical beat pattern. The example below shows a note tied over the bar line to displace the downbeat.



Offbeat syncopation occurs when notes change in the middle of the beat rather than on the beat. In the example below, if you count using the syllables “1-and-2-and-3-and-four-and,” you’ll notice that the “and” of the beats feel emphasized throughout most of the phrase, displacing the expected rhythmic pattern.



Syncopation can also be achieved simply by using accents. For example, the rhythm below, with unevenly accented eighth-notes, is common in Latin music.



In backbeat syncopation, beats two and four are emphasized, rather than beats one and two. This is the most familiar type of syncopation, found in the drum patterns of rock, pop, and more. If you turn on any song on the radio, chances are you’ll clap along with the backbeats. Backbeat rhythms were a novel concept heard in blues and early rock music—but these days, this type of syncopation is so common that it doesn’t sound unexpected to our ears anymore.


Syncopation is artificially presenting a beat early. The note or chord you expect on beat one, for example is played on beat four of the Previous Measure or on the second half of beat four before beat one. Proof of this is that syncopation also anticipates the chord change, so the the chord you expect on beat one also occurs a beat early (on beat four) or a half a beat early (on the ‘and’ of four).

The so-called backbeat is a function of style of the meter being played and has nothing to do with syncopation.

There is no such thing as syncopation in which a note or beat is played late–only anticipation fills the bill.

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