Friday, December 16, 2011


This is a rhythmic technique that is widely used. The definition, "If a part of the measure that is usually unstressed is accented, the rhythm is considered to be syncopated" may seem a bit obscure, like the definition of ontology in philosophy: "the study of being qua being." Here is the fairly good Wikipedia article on syncopation. The problem with terms like syncopation or harmony or ontology is that they are so fundamental that they are very difficult to define in terms of anything else.

Let's go right to some examples. Rock and roll is partly based on a very simple kind of syncopation. In a measure of four beats the normal ones to stress are one and three: ONE two THREE four. In rock and roll, instead the two and four beats are stressed. This is known as the "back-beat". Here is an example:

It would be a creative thing to try and do a rock song that didn't do this and in fact Cream did. Here is "Sunshine of Your Love":

What gives it its primal effect, apart from the 'lick', is the strong beats on one and three, possibly inspired by Ginger Baker's interest in African drumming. Neophyte rock drummers are sometimes very puzzled to play this one because they are so thoroughly programmed into putting the stress on the backbeat.

This is syncopation on the basic level of style or genre. Another example would be the Baroque sarabande, a slow dance in 3/4 time. Normally in triple time the first beat is stressed, the second beat is neutral and the third beat lifts--the 'upbeat' (meaning that in a dance, the dancer would typically lift their foot on this beat so as to put it down on the first beat). But in the sarabande, it is the second beat that is stressed: one TWO three. An example:

The common metric technique based on syncopation is called 'hemiola' and involves turning two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2 by using syncopation: ONE two THREE one TWO three. This was often used at final cadences in Baroque music.

But syncopation is found on all rhythmic levels, even within beats. So it is not only a metric technique, but also a rhythmic one on the level of melody and a harmonic one as well, as intense harmonies are often placed on weak beats. In the following example, the third movement of a Beethoven quartet, the first variation uses some intense accents on the weak parts of the beat at the end of the first section. The effect is around 1:53 in this clip:

The only kind of context in which you cannot use syncopation is one where there is no context of strong and weak beats and hence no expectation to play with. This is the problem with the jagged rhythmic textures of high modernism because they are so fragmented that the listener has no sense of a regular beat. Ironically, these pieces that look extremely 'rhythmic' on paper, really have little rhythmic effect because they sound random.


Anonymous said...

Is the part at 0:27 based on a Sarabande rhythm?

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, sort of, perhaps. Just where the downbeat is, is a bit ambiguous, at least in this opening section.

Anonymous said...

Do you know what genre is that from? There seems to be a lot of melodic 5ths and other large skips.


Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not quite sure how to answer... If you mean, is the song based on some historic genre, not very closely.

In order for something to feel truly like a sarabande, for example, it needs to have a number of qualities.

Adam Benson said...

What about the FLUTE part of this?

Does it sound like a sarabande stretched into 4/4?