From New World Encyclopedia

In music, syncopation is a stress on a normally unstressed beat, or a missing beat where a stressed one would normally be expected. Syncopation is used in many musical styles, including classical music, but it is fundamental in such styles as reggae, ragtime, rap, jump blues, jazz and often in dubstep. In the form of a back beat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music. This rhythmic surprise has a dual purpose. There is a purpose related just to the art of the development of syncopation, and there is a greater purpose that syncopation serves to the entire piece. The rhythmic surprise of syncopation not only serves the interests of the changes of accent when a weak beat is stressed but also the larger purpose of the composition for its rhythmic complexities and contributes towards the totality of the piece.

Types of syncopation

Even-note syncopation

In meters with even numbers of beats (2/4, 4/4, etc.), the stress normally falls on the odd-numbered beats. If the even-numbered beats are stressed instead, the rhythm is syncopated.

Off-beat syncopation

The stress can shift by less than a whole beat so it falls on an off-beat, as in the following example where the stress in the first bar is shifted by an eighth note (or quaver):

Syncopation example.svg

Playing a note ever-so-slightly before or after a beat is another form of syncopation because this produces an unexpected accent.

Anticipated bass

Anticipated bass is a bass tone that comes syncopated shortly before the downbeat, which is used in Son montuno Cuban dance music. Timing can vary, but it usually comes less than an eighth note before the one and three beats in 4/4.

Missed-beat syncopation

Another type of syncopation is the missed beat, in which a rest is substituted for an expected note's beginning. For example, if the musician suddenly does not play anything on beat one, that would also be syncopation.


Richard Middleton (1990, 212-13) suggests adding the concept of transformation to Narmour's (1980, 147-53) prosodic rules which create rhythmic successions in order to explain or generate syncopations. "The syncopated pattern is heard 'with reference to', 'in light of', as a remapping of, its partner." He gives examples of:

  • Latin equivalent of simple 4/4:

Latin transformation

  • Backbeat transformation of simple 4/4:

Backbeat transformation

  • Before-the-beat phrasing, combined with backbeat transformation of a simple repeated trochee, which gives the phraseology of "Satisfaction":

The terms syncopation and syncopated step in dancing are used in two senses:

  1. The first one matches the musical one: stepping on (or otherwise emphasizing) an unstressed beat. For example, ballroom Cha cha is a syncopated dance in this sense, because the basic step "breaks on two." When dancing to the disparate threads contained within the music, hands, torso, and head can independently move in relation to a thread, creating a fluidly syncopated performance of the music.
  2. The word "syncopation" is often used by dance teachers to mean improvised or rehearsed execution of step patterns that have more rhythmical nuances than "standard" step patterns. It takes advanced dancing skill to dance syncopations in this sense. Advanced dancing of West Coast Swing makes heavy use of "syncopation" in this sense (although swing music and swing dances feature the "usual" syncopation, i.e., emphasizing the even beats).

Many dance teachers criticize the use of the term "syncopation" and abandon it in favor of the term "double-time." This is most likely due to a convenience in similarity, and/or a misunderstanding of the rhythmic concept.

Dance syncopation often matches musical syncopation, such as when (in West Coast Swing) the leader touches slightly before beat three or stomps on beat six. Two Time U.S. Open WCS Champion Kelly Buckwalter teaches these syncopations.

The impact of syncopation

When a beat that is usually weak is accentuated, syncopation occurs which creates a rhythmic surprise to the natural rhythmic structure. Thus there is syncopation when this off-beat note is accentuated, i.e. 1-'2'-3-4, or when the stress occurs between two beats, i.e., 1-2. Syncopation creates a harmony and cooperation beyond any boundaries by bringing together classical, reggae, ragtime, rap, blues and jazz genres just with the use of a unique off-beat rhythm. These contradictions in the rhythmic meter serve to surprise the listener and create an excitement in the piece. Thus with syncopation used in music of all types and periods, it builds a sudden and unexpected rhythmic event within a musical framework.

Folk music of indigenous cultures contains syncopation to varying degrees especially in music that accompanies dance. Syncopation can be found in French compositions as early as the fourteenth Century.

European composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries utilized syncopation to great effect and syncopated rhythms are commonly found in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak. The music of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak frequently accomplishes syncopated affectations through the use of "hemiola," (the practice of juxatospsing two note patterns with three note patterns.)

Composers in the twentieth century continued the use of syncopation, especially if source materials were rooted in folk music. The scores of Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky demonstrate this to great effect.

Syncopation in Jazz

One of the defining rhythmic aspects of Jazz is the use of syncopation.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) can be said to be the first ancestor of American art music and Jazz. Perhaps his greatest contribution to American music was incorporating the syncopated rhythmic elements of Caribbean and Latin folk music into his compositions. As Gottschalk's biographer, Frederick Starr, points out, these rhythmic elements "anticipate ragtime and jazz by a half century." It could be said that Jazz, especially in terms of its rhythmic characteristics, is a progeny of Gottschalk's Latin-influenced compositions.

James Reese Europe (1881-1991) was another important precursor to the formulation of Ragtime and Jazz. His Harlem Hellfighters Band and Clef Club Orchestra (an ensemble comprised entirely of Black musicians) played highly syncopated arrangements which presaged the Jazz era of the 1930s and 1940s. Other Ragtime composers who utilized syncopation to great extents were Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Reese Europe, Ferd "Jelly Roll" Morton, and James Scott.

The influence of syncopated Jazz rhythms found its way into European art music as composers incorporated "jazzy" rhythms into their works and several notable composers wrote Jazz-based compositions (Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Ernst Krenek.)

Pop music is also highly syncopated with its melodic rhythm often falling ahead of or behind the basic beat of its chosen meter.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Badger, F. Reed. A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-195-06044-X
  • Middleton, Richard. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990/2002. ISBN 0-335-15275-9
  • Seyer, Philip, Allan B. Novick and Paul Harmon. 1997. What Makes Music Work. Forest Hill Music. ISBN 0-9651344-0-7
  • Starr, S.Frederick. Bamboula!: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-195-07237-5
  • van der Merwe, Peter. 1989. Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-193-16121-4