Music is all about tension and release no matter if this is done rhythmically or melodically. The listener will have an expectation of what happens next within a piece of music or rhythm, when you break that expectation it creates tension which makes the music more interesting and unique. The listener will eagerly await for the music, or rhythm, to get back to what’s expected, the release the resolution.  In rhythm this tension and release is achieved with Syncopation.

This is a video/audio demonstration using syncopation techniques from this article

What is Syncopation?

The word Syncopation is used to describe a rhythm that accents on weaker beats, or divisions of beats, to cause a disruption in rhythmical flow. It creates variation, character, or expression in music which is closely associated with groove.

Syncopation in some form is used in nearly all music styles, without it music would be predictable to the point of being uninteresting, unemotional, and robotic. The levels of syncopation change from one track to another, but musical genres heavily reliant on multiple forms include Jazz, Funk, Hip Hop, Rock, Progressive music, and electronic dance music. Within these genres, you will typically find syncopation on multiple levels.

Although we are discussing rhythms, this doesn’t mean syncopation only applies to drums. You’ll find it in melody lines, guitar solos, Vocals, funky bass lines, and 303 acid lines to name a few.

levels of syncopation

No matter which level is being used, the underlying theory, concept, and objective remain consistent:, To disturb the regular rhythmic pattern. I will now explain two variations of syncopation known as Beat syncopation and Division syncopation.

Beat Syncopation

The pulse or the downbeat, backbeat, and offbeat are the foundation of most rhythms. On a sequencer grid, the pulse, downbeat, and backbeat is found on the quarter notes, with the offbeat played on the 8th notes. Beat Syncopation is an unexpected variation of the main pulse, downbeat, backbeat, or offbeat.

A great way to describe beat syncopation is by counting beats, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. The pulse number (1,2,3,4) would normally be referred to as a downbeat, the ”and” would be referred to as an upbeat. If this is a steady rhythm the listener would expect this continuous flow, any variation of the pulse and upbeat would be described as beat syncopation. 

Please note, that the image below has no syncopation but highlights the names of each beat.

Division Syncopation

Division Syncopation describes syncopation that can be heard outside of the 8th note beat, for example, accenting a percussive hit on a 16th note which isn’t shared with the pulse or upbeat would disrupt the main groove.  

Forms of syncopation can be used at the beat level and at subdivision level depending on the style of music being created. Beat level refers to syncopation happening with the 8th note grid where you find the main pulse of the rhythm, division syncopation can be heard outside of 8th note beats, eg on 16th, 32nd notes

How to use Syncopation

As we’ve discussed, anything that disrupts the rhythmical flow would be considered a syncopated rhythm, so applying an accent to anything outside of the 8th quantize grid would be a simple approach to applying division syncopation. However, syncopation can be more varied, it can be as minimal or as dense as you like. I have highlighted some examples on how to apply different types of syncopation to your tracks;

Beat Syncopation Examples

Examples of Syncopation within the main beats of the bar are the downbeat, backbeat, and upbeat. 

Missed Beat Syncopation

A minimal approach to disrupting the groove is by adding variation in a repeating rhythm, a simple way to achieve this is by missing a beat, for example playing 1, 2, 3, 4 repeatedly but with a seldom variation of X, 2, 3, 4 or 1, 2, X, 4 would be an example of a missed beat syncopation. The listener is expecting a strong accent on every beat but the syncopated variation disrupts the expectation or rhythmical flow.

Suspended Syncopation

Suspension Syncopation is achieved by masking the stronger beats with a suspended weaker beat. An example of this would be 1, 2 sustained, 4.  Holding a weaker beat to bridge over an expected stronger beat adds expression to the phrase and disrupts the expected rhythm.

Backbeat Syncopation

Commonly heard in rock music where the backbeat occurs on the 2 and 4, (1, 2, 3, 4) with the accents being beats 1 and 3. Playing just on the backbeat doesn’t make the rhythm syncopated, but swapping the accents from 2 and 4 to 1 and 3 will disrupt the rhythmical flow.

The following example shows missed beat and suspended backbeat.

Division Syncopation Examples

Oscar from Underdog does a great job of describing syncopation by demonstrating how syncopation makes your head bop in a different way compared with a non-syncopated rhythm. The focus here is on EDM, House, and Techno music, and as we've already covered beat syncopation, then you'll recognize that most of this demonstration focuses on division syncopation.

Check out Oscar’s video here

For More Information on tension and release check out our functional harmony and cadences tutorials

For more on rhythm check out our polyrhythm tutorial