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Music Theory

Syncopation: How to Feel and Play the Off Beat

Syncopation: How to Feel and Play the Off Beat
Preview of youtube video
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Syncopation is used all the time in music.

It’s a key ingredient in writing rhythms that make a track move along and stay fresh.

But understanding how syncopation works and how to use it best can be difficult.

In this article, we’ll unpack everything there is to know about syncopation and get you started with using it in your tracks.

What is syncopation?

Syncopation in music is when a rhythm or set of rhythms are played off the common pulse of a piece to make a part or entire section off-beat.

Syncopation is an advanced form of music theory.

But while the concept can be difficult to describe, syncopation is musically intuitive when heard in context.

While the concept can be difficult to describe, syncopation is musically intuitive when heard in context.

To best understand it, you’ll need some basic rhythm theory knowledge.

Most importantly you need to understand how rhythmic pulse works in music.

Rhythm theory basics

We’ve written about music theory and rhythm theory basics before.

But here’s a very quick recap of some concepts you need to understand.

@landrmusicGet syncopatin’. ##drummersoftiktok ##drummer ##musictheory ##learnontiktok ##songfacts ##whatdoesitmean ##studytok ##tylerthecreator♬ original sound – LANDR

In all music, there’s a pulse that’s defined by the time signature.

For example, in 4/4 the pulse is felt on each of the four quarter notes in each measure.

Here’s what this looks like in sheet music.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Syncopation_Strong-and-Weak-Beats-in-4_4.jpg

A syncopated rhythm in 4/4 emphasizes notes that aren’t on each quarter note to create a pulse that’s felt on the off beat.

Syncopated rhythms use rests and subdivided notes to create their offbeat emphasis.

So, it’s important to understand how music notation works to learn syncopated rhythms.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/How-to-read-music_diagrams_Note-Value.png

In 4/4, eighth notes and sixteenth notes are used to write syncopated rhythms.

Once you understand how rhythm, time signatures, and music notation work you’re ready to dive into the concept of syncopation.

A syncopated rhythm in 4/4 emphasizes notes that aren’t on each quarter note

How to use syncopation in your tracks

Let’s take a look at how you can use syncopation in your tracks.

To keep things simple we’ll look at syncopation in 4/4 since it’s the most common time signature.

But keep in mind that all of these principles apply to any time signature, you just have to make sure you know where the strong and weak pulses are.

Identifying the strong and weak pulses

In 4/4 time, the strong pulse falls on the one and three counts and the weak pulses fall on the two and four counts.

Strong and weak beats are the pulses that drive the beat along according to the 4/4 time signature.

So, any rhythm that aligns with or emphasizes these pulses–the pulses on beat one, two, three, or four–is considered an on-beat rhythm.

That’s why the measure below is not syncopated even if there are notes on the off beats.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Syncopation_Simple-Duple-Time.jpg

Syncopation takes the emphasis outside of the strong and weak pulse.

Syncopation takes the emphasis outside of the strong and weak pulse

To begin understanding syncopation you need to first understand note subdivision.

Without subdivided notes, you can’t place notes “off the grid” of four quarter notes that define the pulses in 4/4.

Syncopated rhythms are built on the subdivisions of a quarter note instead of on the ones.

Syncopated rhythms usually consist of eighth and sixteenth notes.

In the case of eighth notes, a syncopated rhythm will emphasize the “and” of a rhythm. In 4/4 it’ll look like this: one-AND, two-AND, three-AND, four-AND.

Here’s a visual of this in sheet music.

eighth note syncopation

Sixteenth notes only increase the number of spaces in which to write syncopated rhythms. Here’s the offbeat parts of a sixteenth-note rhythm: one-E-AND-A, two-E-AND-A, three-E-AND-A, four-E-AND-A.

You need at least one shorter eighth-note or eighth-note rest to move the rhythm into syncopation.

This is what it looks like in musical notation.

sixteenth note syncopation

Playing with syncopated rhythms

Of course, you probably don’t want to use syncopation throughout all of your track.

Sure, some experimental music does this to create a disorienting effect.

But in general, it’s most musical to use syncopation in tandem with non-syncopation to accentuate rhythms and highlight certain parts of a track.

It’s most musical to use syncopation in tandem with non-syncopation to accentuate rhythms and highlight certain parts of a track.

Here’s an example of how you can use different note values to drop in and out of syncopated rhythms in your track.

syncopation example

In this rhythm, you can see a quarter note at the beginning of a beat that’s followed by an eighth-note rest and then an eighth note.

The eighth-note at the beginning of the bar throws the rhythm offbeat and starts the syncopated rhythm.

Each quarter note that comes after the eighth-note falls on the ‘and’ of each note in the measure.

The eighth-note at the end of the second bar puts the rhythmic line back on the strong beats to make a non-syncopated rhythm.

This is a very simple example of syncopation. When you add sixteenth notes or triplets into the mix, things get much more complicated.

Syncopation examples

Your best bet when trying to understand how syncopation works and how to fit it into a track is to learn from other music.

There’s so many examples of music across all genres that use the technique, it’s hard to name just a few resources to look at.

As a drummer, I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about syncopation.

learning how to feel it, play it, and understand how it is most appropriately used in whatever music I’m playing with has been important for me as a musician.

Given that syncopation leans so heavily on the rhythmic aspect of making music, it makes sense that the drums are an instrument to turn to when learning about this subject.

Here’s a few of my favorite examples and resources for learning about syncopation.

Tony Allen and afrobeat drumming

Tony Allen is an absolute legend.

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That’s because he’s the pioneer of an entire drumming style known as afrobeat.

In general, African rhythms use a ton of syncopation.

Tony Allen took syncopated African drum rhythms to the next level by taking them to the drumset with Fela Kuti’s band in the 70s.

The rhythms, while complex, are graspable and incredibly interesting to listen to.

This masterclass with Tony Allen gives a great insight into learning syncopated rhythm.

Preview of youtube video

Progressive Steps to Syncopation by Ted Reed

syncopation book

Ted Reed’s Syncopation book is basically the bible for anyone who’s serious about learning syncopation.

Ted Reed’s Syncopation book is basically the bible for anyone who’s serious about learning syncopation.

In Syncopation, Ted Reed essentially lays out every possible combination of syncopated rhythm you can imagine.

It’s the best resource for learning about syncopated rhythms and practicing the ones you need to learn most.

And while it’s meant for drummers, any musician can pick this up and learn how the rhythms are felt just by clapping or playing them on an instrument.

A lot of drummers take the rhythms written in this book and add their own parts.

For example, a steady ride hit on the strong beats to practice feeling both syncopated and on-beat rhythms on the drumset.

The video below is a great example of this.

Preview of youtube video

Give Me Everything (Tonight) by Pitbull

I won’t judge you if you like this song. Personally, it’s not my favorite, but it’s a great example of syncopation in pop music.

Take note of the bass and synth part, hear how it circles around the pulse? That’s a syncopated rhythm.

In fact, this same syncopated rhythm is used in so many pop tunes because it’s dancey and interesting.

After I noticed it in this song, I started hearing it everywhere.

The next time you hear a pop song on the radio I’m sure you’ll notice this same concept applied too.

The next time you hear a pop song on the radio I’m sure you’ll notice this same concept applied too.

Preview of youtube video

Practice sync-o-patience

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Syncopation is difficult. It’s easily one of the most advanced parts of rhythm theory.

Start by learning its core principles and then practice, practice, practice.

It takes time to learn how to play outside of the beat.

Even the most advanced drummers on earth still take time to sit down and practice their syncopation exercises.

So now that you’re up to date on syncopation, it’s time to sit down and practice using it in your music and on your instrument.

Good luck!