April 10, 2024

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

What is Syncopation?

In music, syncopation involves a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, thereby making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat.

More simply, syncopation is described as “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm”: it is the “placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur.” – Wikipedia

One of the most common forms of playing off the beat in piano music is a rhythmic concept called syncopation. To understand syncopation, you have to know about downbeats and upbeats.

Start tapping your foot to a moderate 4/4 beat, and count eighth notes “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and.” Your foot goes down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats. That will mean that your foot goes down on the number you are calling out and then comes up on the “and”.

Music sheet with syncopation written on it

Emphasising the Weak of “Off-beats”

Syncopation piano playing means the weak beats or “off-beats” of a piece of music are emphasised. You could be emphasising either the “and” of each beat or if you are counting 4 quarter note beats in a bar without the “and”, the emphasising will come on the weak beats of the bar, which will be beat number 2 and beat number 4.

The first beat of a measure is usually the strong beat, and the others are the weak beats. In 4/4 music the third beat in a measure could also be the strong beat. The beats in a 4/4 time signature are normally treated as follows in for example classical or pop music. The 1st beat is the strongest and the 3rd beat the second strongest. The last beat in the bar is the weakest beat. Beat 2 and 4 will be the “off-beats”.

Emphasising of Upbeats in Syncopation

Normally the downbeats are emphasised in a pop song, but when you are playing syncopation you emphasise some or all of the upbeats instead! It is also the RIGHT hand that usually plays the syncopated rhythm.

Where the left hand and the right hand have different rhythms to play, you should practise each hand separately and slowly amalgamate the two, until you can play the whole piece (with differing rhythms in the left and right hands) at the required pace.

Extreme Syncopation

A good example of extreme thymes and syncopation is found in the piece Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi. You would need about at least two or three years piano experience to be able to tackle Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi. This piece is specifically taxing as it is polyrhythmic and the right and left hands have different time signatures!

Syncopation Examples in Classical Music

Syncopation can be found in many different styles, songs and pieces, as it adds great interest to a piece of music. Here is an example of syncopation in a piece of classical music.

It is an extract from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 2 No. 3:

Syncopated rhythm notes

Why Do We Use Syncopation in Music?

Without syncopation, music becomes dull, boring, and robotic. Syncopation allows us to add dramatic effect, create/release tension, and foreshadow powerful chord changes, effects, or shifts in a song’s tone or even key.

Think of syncopation as another story-telling tool in your musical toolkit.

There are four main types of syncopation:

  • 1. Suspension
  • 2. Missed-Beat
  • 3. Even-Note
  • 4. Off-Beat

Each type creates a different feeling and effect.

Suspension Syncopation

Put simply, suspension syncopation sustains a weak beat over a strong beat, therefore “suspending” the strong beat that would normally follow.

Instead of playing on the ensuring strong beat, you let the weak beat wash over. This can be into the next strong beat or even into the next bar.

Missed Beat Syncopation

Missed beat syncopation replaces a strong musical beat with a rest (silence). When used in a drum beat, the ensuing accent on the weak beat will sound extremely powerful. This is often used in reggae and dub music and called “drop-one”, because the strong beat “1” is not voiced or accented by the drummer.

Even-Note Syncopation

In even-note syncopation, the even-numbered weak beats (2 & 4) are stressed instead of the odd-numbered strong beats (1 & 3). Hence the name “even-note”. This only works in even time signatures (duple metre) such as 4/4 and 2/4.

This technique is often used in electronic and dance music to give the music unparalleled pulse and energy. This effect can also be achieved using side chaining.

● Backbeat Syncopation

One sub-type of even-note syncopation would be backbeat syncopation.

In 4/4 time, beats 2 and 4 are known as the “backbeat”. This type of syncopation is practically synonymous with pop, rock, and RnB music, where people clap on weak beats 2 and 4, along with the snare drum.

Before blues influenced music and took over America in the 1950s, syncopation was a total novelty!

Offbeat Syncopation

Offbeat syncopation takes things a step further by shifting the pulse away from ¼ notes.

This is when things can get most exciting (and complex). This part might require some more advanced musical counting skills.

If you need to sharpen yours, play a few rounds of Rhythmania to make sure you’re in the groove!

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