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The easy guide to music theory: how to use syncopation to make rhythms more exciting

An old musicians’ joke defines syncopation as being particularly popular with brass players because it involves ‘an uneven movement from bar to bar’.

The actual definition, however, is a shift in rhythmic emphasis made by placing an accent on a beat that’s normally weak - in other words, changing up a standard rhythm by stressing beats that wouldn’t normally be stressed.

Syncopation is all around us and occurs routinely in multiple forms of music, but it’s particularly present in Latin, dance and jazz forms. It’s all about which beats in a pattern are important and which aren’t - the important beats are normally emphasised by being played louder or harder, while the less important ones fit neatly in between.

Syncopation turns this on its head by moving the emphasis to the less important beats, introducing a more interesting, unpredictable feel. With beats cleverly shifted behind or ahead of where you’d normally expect them to be, syncopation has the effect of injecting more excitement into otherwise rigid, metronomic and straight timing.

We’re going to illustrate some simple ways of syncopating a basic rhythm to convey the idea, then look at some practical examples of applying them in a real-world, modern-day production scenario.