Syncopation describes a kind of “mismatch” between rhythm and beat. Beats are evenly spaced pulses that are grouped together to form a meter. When you tap your foot to a song, you usually tap to the underlying beat. The beat creates a stable and repetitive temporal “grid.” Rhythm, on the other hand, describes the durations of sounds and silences which occur against this background layer of beats.
A rhythm is said to be syncopated when it works contrary to the expectations created by the beat and meter. Most typically, this occurs when rhythms fall between the beats, rather than on them. The example below illustrates a simple case. In these two measures of the opening riff of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” , the regularly-recurring beat is expressed by the lower part (in the bass clef, or the “left hand” part of the score).* The upper part plays a syncopated rhythm that falls “between the cracks” of the steady beat beneath it.
Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” (for the reader’s delectation we have also provided a brief clip of the Bee Gee’s recording of this song – audio only, to prevent any unintentional trauma by exposure to Barry Gibb’s breathtaking garb and coif).
If we were to “smooth out” the syncopated rhythm of the opening riff of “Stayin’ Alive” we might obtain the result in the example below. The beat (that is, the bass, or “left hand” part) is identical to the original version (see above) but the syncopation of the upper part has been removed, and the melody has been aligned more closely to the steady underlying beat. Notice how the syncopated version sounds faster, or more urgent, than the non-syncopated re-writing, despite the fact that both versions are, in fact, rendered at about the same speed.
Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive”, Syncopation Excised
At a broader level, syncopation can also be said to occur when a rhythm is aligned with the beat but accentuates notes in a manner contrary to the pattern implied by the meter. A relatively simple case is the inversion of accents that one finds in many Jazz and popular styles. Typically, the hierarchy of a 4/4 measure is such that one “feels” accents on the first and third beats (the so-called “strong” beats). We might consider, once again, “Yankee Doodle”. Normally, we think of the rhythmic emphases of the notes of this tune mapping to the natural emphases of its words: “YAN-kee DOO-dle WENT to TOWN a-RID-ing ON a PO-ny.” If, instead, we sang the tune emphasizing the weak syllables, or “off beats” (“yan-KEE doo-DLE went TO town A-rid-ING on A po-NY”) we would be syncopating the melody thereby creating a jazzy or funky effect.
Syncopation is an essential component of rhythmic variety, and is especially prevalent in several popular musical styles. Because melody and harmony move in rhythm, it is common to hear musicians speak of a “syncopated melody,” or of “syncopated chord changes.”
* In the 1980’s the Bee Gees (aka the Gibb Brothers) were defendants in a major copyright infringement dispute involving their hit “How Deep is Your Love” (Selle v. Gibb). But that tune does not exemplify syncopation to the same extent as their “Stayin’ Alive”.