40. Syncopation Defined


Music dictionary definitions of syncopation are often oriented toward classical music and indicate a different understanding of it than we know in popular music.  Consider this definition, from The Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary:


Deliberate upsetting of the meter or pulse of a composition by means of a temporary shifting of the accent to a weak beat or an off-beat.


The use of the words ‘temporary’ and ‘upsetting’ to define syncopation in classical music terms is revealing. For in “modern” (since early 20th century) popular styles, it is common for the same syncopation, or a number of them, to repeat throughout a song, and is considered neither temporary nor upsetting. The difference is this: In classical music, syncopation consisted mostly of accenting weaker beats within the confines of the printed page. For instance, what is commonly referred to as basic “swing” rhythm today was in classical music written into the time signature (6/8, 9/8 etc.)  Blues, jazz, country, rock and other popular music forms employ a greater variety of syncopation. The Harvard Dictionary of Music definition of the word addresses this in its lengthy definition of syncopation:


“There is another, more subtle way of altering the pattern; it consists of tiny hesitations, playing a note very slightly sooner or later than it would normally be played. This last kind of syncopation is very common in jazz but is used much less in other kinds of music, probably because it is very hard to notate exactly (the hesitation could, conceivably, be indicated by a very short rest).


I checked the copyright date myself after I first read this; I was expecting perhaps 1940. I was surprised. The original copyright is 1960; the edition I own is 1987. So even in the original edition, rock and roll had been in existence for at least 5 or 6 years, and the blues and country music it was derived from was far older than that. One could say that jazz was an extension of those forms and therefore includes them. However, the notion that this type of syncopation is used less in music other than jazz because ‘it is very hard to notate exactly’, seems to say that it goes unused because it can’t be accurately written. This is where I beg to differ, because so much popular music has never been written in standard notation by its composers. There have always been songbooks and other sheet music available, but most of these are written by professionals who transcribe from the recordings for publishing companies to sell. Most popular guitarists learned to play by ear. If they do learn to read and write music, they discover that indeed much syncopation is difficult to notate, so they tend to write only melody in standard notation, if at all. While it is almost universal for popular guitarists to write chord charts for their songs, relatively few write complete scores in standard form. So the “dilemma” of writing syncopation into this music is really a non-issue.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield