In music, syncopation is the stressing of a normally unstressed beat in a bar or the failure to sound a tone on an accented beat. For example, in 4/4 time, the first and third beats are normally stressed. If, instead, the second and fourth beats are stressed and the first and third unstressed, the rhythm is syncopated. Also, if the musician suddenly does not play anything on beat 1, that would also be syncopation.

The stress can also 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 a quaver (or eighth-note):

Image:Syncopation example.png

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

Syncopation is used on occasion in many music styles, including classical music, but it is a fundamental constant presence in such styles as ragtime and jazz. In the form of a back beat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music. Another type of syncopation is the missed beat, in which a rest is substituted for an expected note's beginning (van der Merwe 1989, p.321).

Richard Middleton (1990, p.212-13) suggests adding the concept of transformation to Narmour's (1980, p.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:

Missing image
Latin transformation

  • Backbeat transformation of simple 4/4:

Missing image
Backbeat transformation

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

Missing image
"Satisfaction" backbeat and before-the-beat transformations

Syncopation in dance

The term syncopation in dancing is 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 dispartate threads contained within the music, hands, torso, and head can independentaly 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.

A common incorrect usage of syncopation is to refer to a double-time rhythm as syncopation. Incorrect statement: "In music, splitting the beat into two parts is syncopation."

Many dance teachers are now abandoning the use of the term syncopation in the second, loose, sense. They are now using the term "double-time" steps when that is what they mean. They've decided that they don't change the meaning of other musical terms, so they should honor the musical definition of syncopation. In this way, they can enjoy subtle musical syncopations and dance to them as well.

Dance syncopation often matches musical syncopation, such as when (in West Coast Swing) the leader touches slightly before beat 3 or stomps on beat 6. Two Time US Open WCS Champion Kelly Buckwalter ( teaches these syncopations.

Another example of dance syncopation is that of anticipated bass in the son montuno dance music of Cuba. Anticipated bass is a bass tone that comes syncopated shortly before the downbeat. Timing can vary, but it usually comes less than an eighth note before the one and three beats in 4/4. Compared to Mexican mariachi music, the anticipated bass in son montuno is quicker (though in mariachi the bass is usually on the one beat exactly, while the upbeat is a guitar chord).

External link


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0193161214.

nl:syncope (muziek) ja:シンコペーション pl:Synkopa (muzyka)


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