Flow of rhythm: Have you ever listened to a jazz trio and at some point felt like the beat is jumping all over the place?
While the band seems to know where they are going, you are wondering, “Where’s the beat?” Most likely the band has deviated from the comfortable confines of traditional rhythmic structure and is journeying into syncopation.
Syncopation is a general term used to describe a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm. It occurs when a normally unstressed beat is stressed. Or when a normally stronger beat is omitted.
Musicians from nearly every genre of music have flirted with syncopation, recognizing that exciting things happen when you play around with the beat of a song.
As you know from the exercise in the previous module, when you count, there is a natural “stress” (or dynamic accent in musical terms) on the downbeats (think “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”). A syncopated rhythm will often omit the strong downbeat or stress an unexpected part of the rhythm.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Doesn’t that mean backbeat and offbeat are forms of syncopation?” you are right. They are. But that’s just the beginning.
Try tapping out these two different patterns, stressing the bolded “AND” beats:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…
You see, wherever there is rhythm, there is the potential for syncopation.
What are some musical genres that use syncopation?
Classical syncopation While syncopation existed in classical music since the late middle ages, 20th century composers, notably Igor Stravinsky, picked up on syncopation and ran with it, experimenting with accenting offbeats for incredible dramatic effect. At the end of this lesson you will watch a video that demonstrates classical composer Igor Stravinsky’s mind-blowing use of syncopated rhythmic layering in his famous piece, “The Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky is famous for turning the idea of rhythm on its head, incorporating highly irregular patterns and breaking away from the strict rhythmic structure so common in orchestral work.
Ragtime syncopation In the early 20th century, syncopation really took off when West African music met European music in the Americas. Traditionally, West African musicians focused much more musical attention on the various dimensions of rhythm, creating complex, dynamic, and fluid rhythmic expressions undreamed of by their European counterparts.
When African-American musicians layered these rhythms within the “squarer” European-derived rhythms, syncopation became the norm for ragtime, jazz, blues and rock.
A fantastic example of this layering of complex rhythm on top of a traditional rhythm is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” In this short audio clip I have isolated the songs parts into left hand and right hand:
First, you will hear that the left hand (bass notes) plays a straight, steady, 2/4 European-style march. Then, you will hear the more fluid rhythms of the right hand (melody). Finally, combine them together and you have ragtime syncopation!
Jazz syncopation Perhaps Wynton Marsalis explains jazz syncopation best in the following two short videos…
SYNCOPATION (Analysis & Assignment): Syncopation, cross-rhythm and polyrhythm have been used by musicians from all cultures, from Brahms to rappers, from the founders of Cuban son to Philip Glass, from Stevie Wonder to Fats Waller. From the moment our hearts start beating, rhythm is integral to us all. From walking to dancing, from clicking our fingers to tapping our toes, we are all programmed to respond to rhythm.
But why do some rhythms make us want to dance, while others make us feel tranquil? How does rhythm ‘work’ when there is no obvious pulse, as in much classical music? What connects African drumming to Johann Sebastian Bach? Why do virtually all popular singers sing ahead of the beat?
The following reading and video clip will shed light on these questions.
First, please READ this journal article: Syncopation, Body Movement, and Pleasure in Groove Music.PDF
. This article employs survey, analysis, and scientific inquiry to investigate the relationship between syncopation in groove rhythms and feelings of wanting to move. Note, it may at first seem silly to use rational scientific methodology to try to explain feelings produced by aesthetic works (sort of like trying to mathematically quantify love), but there are actually some valuable insights to be gained in the attempt. Also, stay focused on the descriptive aspects of this article (what are the key research questions, processes and conclusions?), not the mathematical.
Next, please VIEW the video below, which is a continuation of the clip provided in the previous lesson. In this segment, the moderator, Howard Goodall, demonstrates key cultural and theoretical connections with regard to rhythmic syncopation while also highlighting certain milestones in the evolution of rhythm from early times through to the modern day. The video should be set to begin at 10:00. Watch it from there to the conclusion and then proceed to your assignment, which is outlined below.
How Music Works – Rhythm
Write a minimum 3 page summary of what you have learned about rhythmic syncopation through the readings and viewings in this Unit. At some point in your summary you must directly address the following question: how did a tiny Caribbean island produce a rhythm that dominates popular music the world over?
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