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Syncopation (sfz) in Beethoven's String Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5, 3rd movement, mm. 24–25
Vertical hemiola (the ratio 3:2)

Syncopation is a musical term meaning a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm": a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur". [1] It is the correlation of at least two sets of time intervals. [2]


Syncopation is used in many musical styles, especially dance music: "All dance music makes use of syncopation, and it's often a vital element that helps tie the whole track together". [3] In the form of a back beat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music.[ citation needed ]

Syncopation can also occur when a strong harmony is simultaneous with a weak beat, for instance, when a 7th-chord is played on the second beat of 3
measure or a dominant chord is played at the fourth beat of a 4
measure. The latter occurs frequently in tonal cadences for 18th- and early-19th-century music and is the usual conclusion of any section.

A hemiola (the equivalent Latin term is sesquialtera) can also be considered as one straight measure in three with one long chord and one short chord and a syncope in the measure thereafter, with one short chord and one long chord. Usually, the last chord in a hemiola is a (bi-)dominant, and as such a strong harmony on a weak beat, hence a syncope.

Types of syncopation

Technically, "syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent". [4] "Syncopation is", however, "very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two- or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat." [5]


For the following example, there are two points of syncopation where the third beats are sustained from the second beats. In the same way, the first beat of the second bar is sustained from the fourth beat of the first bar.


Though syncopation may be very complex, dense or complex-looking rhythms often don't include any syncopation. The following rhythm, though dense, stresses the regular downbeats, 1 and 4 (in 6
): [5]


However, whether it's a placed rest or an accented note, any point in a piece of music that changes the listener's sense of the downbeat is a point of syncopation because it's shifting where the strong and weak accents are built. [5]

Off-beat syncopation

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


Whereas the notes are expected to occur on the beat:


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


It can be helpful to think of a 4
rhythm in eighth notes and count it as "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and". In general, emphasizing the "and" would be considered the off-beat.

Anticipated bass

Anticipated bass [6] 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 occurs on the 2+ and the 4 of the 4
time, thus anticipating the third and first beats. This pattern is known commonly as the Afro-Cuban bass tumbao.


Richard Middleton [7] suggests adding the concept of transformation to Narmour's [8] 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 various types of syncopation: Latin, backbeat, and before-the-beat. First however, one may listen to the audio example of stress on the "strong" beats, where expected: Loudspeaker.svg Play  

Latin equivalent of simple 4

In the example below, for the first two measures an unsyncopated rhythm is shown in the first measure. The third measure has a syncopated rhythm in which the first and fourth beat are provided as expected, but the accent occurs unexpectedly in between the second and third beats, creating a familiar "Latin rhythm" known as tresillo.


Backbeat transformation of simple 4

The accent may be shifted from the first to the second beat in duple meter (and the third to fourth in quadruple), creating the backbeat rhythm:


Different crowds will "clap along" at concerts either on 1 and 3 or on 2 and 4, as above.

"Satisfaction" example

The phrasing of "Satisfaction" is a good example of syncopation. [5] It is derived here from its theoretic unsyncopated form, a repeated trochee ˘ ¯ ˘). A backbeat transformation is applied to "I" and "can't", and then a before-the-beat transformation is applied to "can't" and "no". [7]

                  1  &  2  &  3  &  4  &  1  &  2  &  3  &  4  & Repeated trochee: ¯           ˘           ¯           ˘                   I           can't       get         no –  o Backbeat trans.:        ¯           ˘     ¯           ˘                         Ican't get         no –  o Before-the-beat:        ¯        ˘        ¯        ˘                         I        can't    get      no –  o

Loudspeaker.svg Play  

This demonstrates how each syncopated pattern may be heard as a remapping, "with reference to" or "in light of", an unsyncopated pattern. [7]


Syncopation has been an important element of European musical composition since at least the Middle Ages. Many Italian and French compositions of the music of the 14th-century Trecento use syncopation, as in of the following madrigal by Giovanni da Firenze. (See also hocket.)

Giovanni da Firenze, Appress' un fiume.Listen Giovanni da Firenze, Appress' un fiume.png
Giovanni da Firenze, Appress' un fiume.Listen

The refrain "Deo Gratias" from the 15th-century anonymous English Agincourt Carol is also characterised by lively syncopation:

Agincourt carol – Deo gratias
Agincourt carol - Deo gratias Agincourt carol - Deo gracias.png
Agincourt carol – Deo gratias

“The 15th-century carol repertory is one of the most substantial monuments of English medieval music... The early carols are rhythmically straightforward, in modern 6/8 time; later the basic rhythm is in 3/4, with many cross-rhythms... as in the famous Agincourt carol 'Deo gratias Anglia'. As in other music of the period, the emphasis is not on harmony, but on melody and rhythm.” [9]

Composers of the musical High Renaissance Venetian School, such as Giovanni Gabrieli (1557–1612), exploited syncopation for both their secular madrigals and instrumental pieces and also in their choral sacred works, such as the motet Domine, Dominus noster:

Gabrieli Domine Dominus noster
Giovanni Gabrieli Gabrieli Domine Dominus noster.png
Giovanni Gabrieli

Denis Arnold (1979, p. 93) says: "the syncopations of this passage are of a kind which is almost a Gabrieli fingerprint, and they are typical of a general liveliness of rhythm common to Venetian music". [10] The composer Igor Stravinsky (1959, p. 91), no stranger to syncopation himself, spoke of "those marvellous rhythmic inventions" that feature in Gabrieli's music. [11]

J. S. Bach and George Handel used syncopated rhythms as an inherent part of their compositions. One of the best-known examples of syncopation in music from the Baroque era was the "Hornpipe" from Handel’s Water Music (1733).

Handel Hornpipe from Water Music
Handel Hornpipe from Water Music Handel Hornpipe from Water Music.png
Handel Hornpipe from Water Music

Christopher Hogwood (2005, p. 37) describes the Hornpipe as “possibly the most memorable movement in the collection, combining instrumental brilliance and rhythmic vitality… Woven amongst the running quavers are the insistent off-beat syncopations that symbolise confidence for Handel.” [12] Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 features striking deviations from the established rhythmic norm in its first and third movements. According to Malcolm Boyd (1993, p. 53), each ritornello section of the first movement, "is clinched with an Epilog of syncopated antiphony": [13]

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 ending bars of first movement
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 ending bars of the first movement Bach Brandenburg 4 closing bars of first movement.png
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 ending bars of the first movement

Boyd (1993, p. 85) also hears the coda to the third movement as "remarkable… for the way the rhythm of the initial phrase of the fugue subject is expressed… with the accent thrown on to the second of the two minims (now staccato)": [13]

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 coda to the 3rd movement
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 coda to the 3rd movement Bach Brandenburg 4 coda to the 3rd movement.png
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 coda to the 3rd movement

Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert used syncopation to create variety especially in their symphonies. The beginning movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony No. 3 exemplifies powerfully the uses of syncopation in a piece in triple time. After producing a pattern of three beats to a bar at the outset, Beethoven disrupts it through syncopation in a number of ways:

(1) By displacing the rhythmic emphasis to a weak part of the beat, as in the first violin part in bars 7–9:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, beginning of first movement
Beethoven Symphony No. 3, beginning of first movement Eroica 1-9.png
Beethoven Symphony No. 3, beginning of first movement

Taruskin (2010, p. 658) describes here how "the first violins, entering immediately after the C sharp, are made palpably to totter for two bars". [14]

(2) By placing accents on normally weak beats, as in bars 25–26 and 28–35:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement, bars 23–37
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement, bars 23-37, first violin part Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, ist movement, bars 23-37, first violin part.png
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement, bars 23–37, first violin part

This "long sequence of syncopated sforzandi" [14] recurs later during the development section of this movement, in a passage that Antony Hopkins (1981, p. 75) describes as "a rhythmic pattern that rides roughshod over the properties of a normal three-in-a bar". [15]

(3) By inserting silences (rests) at points where a listener might expect strong beats, in the words of George Grove (1896, p. 61), "nine bars of discords given fortissimo on the weak beats of the bar": [16]

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement, bars 123–131
Beethoven, Symphony No.3, first movement, bars 123-131, first violin part Beethoven, Symphony No.3, first movement, bars 123-131, first violin part.png
Beethoven, Symphony No.3, first movement, bars 123–131, first violin part

See also

Related Research Articles

Rhythm Aspect of music

Rhythm generally means a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions". This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time can apply to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to several seconds ; to several minutes or hours, or, at the most extreme, even over many years.

Metre (music) Aspect of music

In music, metre refers to the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats. Unlike rhythm, metric onsets are not necessarily sounded, but are nevertheless implied by the performer and expected by the listener.

Polyrhythm simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms

Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more rhythms that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another, or as simple manifestations of the same meter. The rhythmic layers may be the basis of an entire piece of music (cross-rhythm), or a momentary section. Polyrhythms can be distinguished from irrational rhythms, which can occur within the context of a single part; polyrhythms require at least two rhythms to be played concurrently, one of which is typically an irrational rhythm. Concurrently in this context means within the same rhythmic cycle. The underlying pulse, whether explicit or implicit can be considered one of the concurrent rhythms. For example, the son clave is poly-rhythmic because its 3 section suggests a different meter from the pulse of the entire pattern.

In music, hemiola is the ratio 3:2. The equivalent Latin term is sesquialtera. In pitch, hemiola refers to the interval of a perfect fifth. In rhythm, hemiola refers to three beats of equal value in the time normally occupied by two beats.

In music, an ostinato[ostiˈnaːto] is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions, such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997).

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Clave (rhythm) rhythmic pattern in Afro-Cuban music

The clave is a rhythmic pattern used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music. It is present in a variety of genres such as Abakuá music, rumba, conga, son, mambo, salsa, songo, timba and Afro-Cuban jazz. The five-stroke clave pattern represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms.


A bassline is the term used in many styles of music, such as jazz, blues, funk, dub and electronic, traditional music, or classical music for the low-pitched instrumental part or line played by a rhythm section instrument such as the electric bass, double bass, cello, tuba or keyboard. In unaccompanied solo performance, basslines may simply be played in the lower register of any instrument such as guitar or piano while melody and/or further accompaniment is provided in the middle or upper register. In solo music for piano and pipe organ, these instruments have an excellent lower register that can be used to play a deep bassline. On organs, the bass line is typically played using the pedal keyboard and massive 16' and 32' bass pipes.

Beat (music) Basic unit of time in music and music theory

In music and music theory, the beat is the basic unit of time, the pulse, of the mensural level. The beat is often defined as the rhythm listeners would tap their toes to when listening to a piece of music, or the numbers a musician counts while performing, though in practice this may be technically incorrect. In popular use, beat can refer to a variety of related concepts, including pulse, tempo, meter, specific rhythms, and groove.

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In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these.

In music, an accent is an emphasis, stress, or stronger attack placed on a particular note or set of notes, or chord, either as a result of its context or specifically indicated by an accent mark. Accents contribute to the articulation and prosody of a performance of a musical phrase. Accents may be written into a score or part by a composer us 5 Reference", p.284. Edition 5.2.</ref>

Period (music) division in music

In music, a period is certain types of recurrence in small-scale formal structure. In twentieth-century music scholarship, the term is usually used as defined by the Oxford Companion to Music: "a period consists of two phrases, antecedent and consequent, each of which begins with the same basic motif." Earlier usage varied somewhat, but usually referred to similar notions of symmetry, recurrence, and closure. The concept of a musical period originates in comparisons between music structure and rhetoric at least as early as the 16th century.

In music theory, harmonic rhythm, also known as harmonic tempo, is the rate at which the chords change in a musical composition, in relation to the rate of notes. Thus a passage in common time with a stream of sixteenth notes and chord changes every measure has a slow harmonic rhythm and a fast surface or "musical" rhythm, while a piece with a trickle of half notes and chord changes twice a measure has a fast harmonic rhythm and a slow surface rhythm. Harmonic rhythm may be described as strong or weak.

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, is a work for solo piano written by Johannes Brahms in 1861. It consists of a set of twenty-five variations and a concluding fugue, all based on a theme from George Frideric Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B major, HWV 434. They are known as his Handel Variations.

Cinquillo Cuban/Caribbean rhythmic cell

A cinquillo is a typical Cuban/Caribbean rhythmic cell, used in the Cuban contradanza and the danzón. The figure is also a common bell pattern found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It consists of an eighth, a sixteenth, an eighth, a sixteenth, and an eighth note. Play  Placing this rhythm in a 2/4 measure produces a strongly syncopated character from the sustained note which replaces an articulated one on the first quarter of the second beat. Cinquillo is an embellishment of the more basic pattern known as tresillo. Cinquillo is shown twice below. The first one merely displays the note values. The second one is a so-called orthographic notation, which gives an impression of the syncopated character.

Excursions, Op. 20, is the first published solo piano piece by Samuel Barber. Barber himself explains:

These are ‘Excursions’ in small classical forms into regional American idioms. Their rhythmic characteristics, as well as their source in folk material and their scoring, reminiscent of local instruments are easily recognized.

In music, a cross-beat or cross-rhythm is a specific form of polyrhythm. The term cross rhythm was introduced in 1934 by the musicologist Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980). It refers to when the rhythmic conflict found in polyrhythms is the basis of an entire musical piece.

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Tresillo is a rhythmic pattern used in Latin American music. It is a more basic form of the rhythmic figure known as the habanera.


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  9., accessed 14 March 2019.
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