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Syncopation: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Syncopation: Definition
  • 0:38 Meters in Music
  • 2:04 Accenting Offbeats
  • 2:30 Accenting Subdivisions
  • 3:15 Using Ties
  • 3:44 Using Hemiola
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

The element of surprise makes life interesting. In the rhythm of music, the element of surprise is called syncopation. Learn about the various ways to use syncopation for greater effect.

Syncopation: Definition

Imagine planting a huge fake spider on a friend's bathroom mirror for a fun Halloween scare! The element of surprise is what makes life, movies, books, and even music more interesting. Anything out of the ordinary, like a giant spider on a mirror, usually grabs our attention. In the music world, when composers add the unexpected to a predictable rhythmic pattern, it is called syncopation. Let's look at the rules of rhythm in music so we can see what makes syncopation.

Meters in Music

Every note in music tells the performer not only what pitch to play, but also how long to play it. These notes are divided into spaces called measures that group a certain number of notes together. Music occurs in time that is calculated in beats and measured in meters, which are patterns of strong and weak beats. These meters are represented by time signatures which tell the performer how many beats are in each measure, and what kind of note is counted as one beat. The top number of the time signature tells the number of beats in a measure, and the bottom number tells what kind of note equals one beat.

Let's look at some common time signatures and what they mean:

time signatures

The first beat in every measure of music is typically the strongest and is called the downbeat. In this chart, these downbeats are marked with an accent mark which resembles a 'greater than' sign in math. Sometimes there are also secondary accents in a measure, which are also strong beats, but they are not as strong as the downbeat. These are marked below with a slightly smaller accent mark.

accents in time signatures

Anything that happens in the rhythm of the music to change this pattern of strong and weak beats in a meter is called syncopation. Just as there are many ways to try and scare someone on Halloween, there are also many ways to use syncopation to vary the rhythm and add the element of surprise. Let's look at a few.

Accenting Offbeats

Any beat that is not a strong beat is called an offbeat, and one way to create syncopation is to accent an offbeat. If you've ever been to a sporting event where the fans started stomping a rhythm on the bleachers and clapping to a song like We Will Rock You, then you've experienced an offbeat. Notice that instead of accenting beats 1 and 3, this rhythmic pattern accents beats 2 and 4:

offbeats

Accenting Subdivisions

Every beat can be broken down into smaller units called subdivisions. A quarter note can be divided into 2 eighth notes; an eighth note can be divided into 2 sixteenth notes, and so on. When counting these subdivisions of beats, we use the word, 'and,' or the plus symbol, '+.' We could count subdivisions in 4/4 like this: '1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.' When a subdivision of a beat is accented instead of the beat itself, it is considered a syncopation.

Sometimes a genre of music, such as a dance, can become identified by the syncopation in its rhythm. Such is the case with this rhythm, which is better known as The Polka, which accents the 'and' of the downbeat instead of the downbeat itself:

subdivisions

Using Ties

When one beat or subdivision is held over into another beat or subdivision, it is called a tie, and this is also a very common way to create syncopation. Look at this folk tune, and notice that in the second measure, the 'and' of beat 3 is accented by tying it to beat 4; beat 4 is never actually played.

ties 1

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