Audio: syncopation (0:12)

Figure: syncopation

syncopation plays syncopated rhythms on a standard drum kit. The syncopation figure shows that the score consists of three rhythms:

  1. In the first rhythm the bass drum plays the first and third beats, the snare drum the second and fourth beats, and the hihat keeps the tempo. The rhythm can be interpreted as unsyncopated, with the accent on the bass drum, or as syncopated, with the accent on the snare drum.
  2. The second rhythm is syncopated with the bass drum doing the fancy stuff. The snare drum and hihat are the same as in the first rhythm.
  3. The third rhythm is exactly the same as the second except that the instruments are different. A ride bell replaces the bass drum, a shaker replaces the hihat, and the side of the snare drum is hit instead of the skin.

Syncopation accents a beat that is normally unaccented.

Accent is the subtlest feature of rhythm and syncopation demonstrates why. Many listeners will interpret the first rhythm in syncopation as unsyncopated and will tap their feet or clap their hands to a ONE-two-three-four rhythm with the accent on the bass drum. Just as many listeners will perceive a syncopated one-TWO-three-four rhythm with the accent on the snare drum. A further subtle feature of accent is that some accents are perceived as more equal than others. Some will interpret 4/4 meter as ONE-and-two-and-THREE-and-four-and, with a heavy accent on the first beat and a less heavy accent on the third. Others will perceive it as one-and-TWO-and-three-and-FOUR-and, with a heavy accent on the second beat and a less heavy accent on the fourth. Try it out for yourself.

One solution to the subtleties of accenting is to write the initial rhythm on a single drum. The only way to accent a beat on a single drum is to play it louder. This way you can easily spot the accented beat. Then you can orchestrate the instruments and construct the drum kit.

An accented off-beat in 4/4 meter is often called a backbeat. Writing a rhythm with a backbeat is the simplest way to syncopate quadruple meter.

More complex forms of syncopation accent any beat that is normally unaccented. This is a huge change in rhythm. Now any rhythm can be syncopated by placing an accent anywhere other than where it is expected. A vista opens up with hundreds of syncopated rhythms, all of them different. And that is indeed the case. Syncopation is the easiest and most efficient way to add variety to a rhythm.