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What is syncopation?

Syncopation is a vital characteristic of the rhythms of many different types of music from around the world -- pop, jazz, African, Carribean, Latin American... 

play button

But what is syncopation and how do you make a rhythm 'syncopated'? Click play on the Note Canvas tool below, to hear a straightforward two-bar rhythm. At the moment, there's no syncopation. Scroll down for more...

image of notes grouped horizontally

This rhythm is played by cowbell and congas. You'll notice that five of the notes are groups together with a grey line (as pictured left).

move left button

If you select the Move left tool and then click on this group of notes, they move left, or backwards in time. Click once on this group and then click play to hear the result.

If you clicked Move left just once on this group, what you should now hear is a syncopated rhythm. Before you moved those notes, all the notes in this rhythm were 'on the beat'. Syncopation is basically playing 'off the beat'.

See if you can hear the different expressive feel that the syncopation creates in the music: the syncopated rhythm has quite a different sound, or feel, from the non-syncopated one.

move right button

Try selecting Move right and clicking on the same group twice. This will move them 'behind' the beat, instead of 'ahead of' the beat -- but, again, it's off the beat, so syncopated.