What is Musical Syncopation & How Does It Work?


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Before starting to explain what musical syncopation is, it is necessary to cover a couple of other basic music terms so that the description of syncopation makes more sense.
1. Beat of the rhythm – think about a song on the radio, and the way the drummer accents the music. He’s picking up on the beat of the piece. This is usually where the emphasis is placed in the music. If you watch a conductor in an orchestra, he will ensure that the musicians keep on the same beat by marking the down beat – the emphasis – with his baton. As you listen to music and clap along in time, you will probably be picking up on the beat.

2. Measure – depending on the time signature of the piece of music it will be broken up into groups of 2, 3 or 4 crochet notes or the equivalent value (as dictated by the time signature) made up of other notes – such as 4 groups of 2 semi-quavers.
When you see a piece of music you can immediately identify the time signature that it’s in, and see where the emphasis should be placed when playing the music. If the piece is in 4/4 time for example you would expect the beat, or emphasis, to be on the 1st and 3rd notes in the measure, or in 3/4 time on the 1st note in each measure. That is unless the piece of music has been composed using syncopation!
Syncopation is where the emphasis is on a note other than the one expected. It could be that there is an irregular pattern in the group perhaps as the result of a brief quaver length pause that should be where the emphasis falls. It could be that the music has been composed in a way that has dotted crotchets paired with quavers. There are many different reasons for creating the imbalance on the beat but usually it is done purposefully and to create a certain effect.
There are 4 usual types of syncopation that composers commonly use:
• Suspension
• Missed Beat
• Even Note
• Off Beat
With suspension the note where the beat should go is usually being held from the previous note.
In missed beat syncopation there is a rest where the emphasized beat ought to go.
Even note syncopation is where the composer has the emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats rather than the 1st and 3rd.
Off beat occurs where the musical notation has split notes up, for example starting a measure with a quaver and ending it with a quaver, or even the use of dotted notes that extend their length.
A 5th type of syncopation is known as anticipated bass and this is usually found in Cuban style music.

One of the most common music forms of syncopation is in ragtime music where the melody is often syncopated and the bass line isn’t. Think of the music of Scot Joplin, and the memorable strains of “The Entertainer” and you’ve got a great example of syncopated music. The Big Band sound, created by such musicians as Glen Miller, is another great example of syncopation in music. However, syncopation isn’t a 20th century creation, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were among the earlier composers who used this kind of musical “edge” in their work.

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