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3 minutes reading time (596 words)

The rhythms of jazz: Syncopation

An important aspect of rhythm (in any style of music) is the alternation of accented and unaccented musical elements. When the accented elements differ from what is expected, we have syncopation, an essential part of jazz. This article will examine two kinds of syncopation first outlined by Winthrop Sargeant in his pioneering 1938 work Jazz: Hot and Hybrid (Third enlarged edition, Da Capo Press, 1975). 

Simple syncopation 

In a measure of 4/4 meter in a non-jazz context, we expect the first and third beats to be stressed, and the second and fourth beats to be unstressed. In jazz, the heart of simple syncopation is the stressing of a normally weak beat (sometimes called an offbeat), weak part of a beat, or a lack of stress on a normally strong beat or strong part of a beat. Simple syncopation may be accomplished in the following ways, among others. 

A. Simple syncopation through anticipation of the beat: 


B. Simple syncopation through note placement and durational value:


In the example above, the placement of the half note on the second beat constitutes a shift of stress from a strong beat (beat three) to a weak beat (beat two). 

C. Simple syncopation through delay of the beat:


D. Simple syncopation through dynamics (accent displacement):

E. Simple syncopation through harmonizations:


In the example above, the harmonized notes on the normally weak beats (two and four) tend to be heard as notes of greater importance than the unharmonized ones that fall on the stronger beats (one and three). The resulting implied stress on the offbeats is therefore heard as accent displacement. 

The original composition (first page only), "Aunt Tissy," is an example of simple syncopation through anticipation of the beat. All the anticipations are marked in the music (see Excerpt 1).

Polyrhythmic syncopation 

Polyrhythm (sometimes called cross rhythm) is the simultaneous use of contrasting rhythms within the same meter. Here are some examples: 

A. Groups of three-note or three-beat phrases superimposed on 4/4 meter (see Example 1). 

B. Groups of notes having a duple pulse are played simultaneously with groups of notes having a triple pulse (see Example 2). 

C. A melody note (in this case C) appears at intervals of three pulses in a context of duple meter (see Example 3). 

D. Tones from normally strong beats are shifted to normally unstressed ones. Note that in the second measure the durational values are different from those in the first measure (see Example 4). 

In the original composition, "Friendly Enemies," the right hand plays a triple pulse against the left hand's duple pulse (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 1: “Aunt Tissy” from The Rhythms of Keyboard Jazz by Lee Evans, mm. 1-24.
Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4
Excerpt 2: “Friendly Enemies” from The Rhythms of Keyboard Jazz by Lee Evans.


Sprinkling jazz performances with an abundance of syncopated rhythms will be sure to provide great vitality and added interest to your playing! 


"Aunt Tissy" and "Friendly Enemies" by Lee Evans. Copyright © 1984 by Piedmont Music Company. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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