Syncopation Definition

Syncopation is the accenting of a note which would usually not be accented.
Syncopation is often described as being off beat.
The time signature of a piece of music gives an indication of a regular pattern of strong and weak beats.
A syncopated rhythm goes against this pattern by putting the accent on weak beats.

Let me explain through a worked example.
Have a look/listen to this tune – it is a simple guitar solo:
Example of unsyncopated rhythm sheet music

Non Syncopated Rhythm

The time signature is 4/4 and so the “strong” beats are 1 and 3.
The emphasis of the melody is on beats 1 and 3 and so this melody is not syncopated.

However, have a look/listen to what happens if we change the rhythm of the guitar solo so that the melody has accents on beats 2 and 4 (these are usually “weak” beats in 4/4):
Example of syncopated rhythm sheet music

Syncopation Example One

You can hear that the emphasis of the melody has changed – it is now “off beat” – it is now a simple example of a syncopated rhythm.

Let’s change the rhythm of our guitar melody further so that the emphasis is not on any of the beats of the bar.
Our melody will sound even more syncopated:
Example of very syncopated rhythm sheet music

Syncopation Example Two

You can see from these quick examples how syncopation is such a powerful composing tool for adding interest to melodies.

Syncopation Examples

Syncopation can be found in lots of different styles, songs and pieces as it adds great interest to a piece of music.

Here is an example of syncopation in a piece of classical music.
It is an extract from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 2 No. 3:

Beethoven syncopated rhythm example

Beethoven syncopation

You can hear how to syncopation in the middle 2 bars of the extract give added excitement to the piece.

Here is an example of syncopation from the African American Spiritual Down By The Riverside:
Down By The Riverside syncopation example Sheet Music extract

Down By The Riverside

Some styles of music have a particularly characteristic syncopated rhythm.
For example, in reggae the off beat guitar downstrokes called the skank are crucial in producing the distinctive reggae sound:

Jazz musicians also use a huge amount of syncopation in their music to create rhythmic interest.
Have a look/listen to the syncopation in So What by Miles Davis:

Composing Using Syncopation

Syncopation is one of the great tools in any composer’s musical toolbox.
It can be a really useful way to develop a basic melody into something creative and interesting.
The contrast between on beat and off beat sounds is vital in creating distinctive and innovative sounds.

Try experimenting by composing some simple melodies and then changing their rhythms to be increasingly off beat.
I think you will be really pleased with what you manage to produce using this composing technique!