Music Theory

What Is Syncopation In Music?

Written by Samuel Chase

Last updated

Syncopation is a word you’ve probably heard a lot when talking about rhythm. It is especially common in African-American music like jazz, blues, and hip-hop and is widely popular today in all kinds of music. In fact, in almost every piece of music you hear, there will be some kind of syncopation. 

So, just exactly what is syncopation in music? To learn about it, we first have to take a quick look at rhythm.

What is Rhythm?

First of all, rhythm is just any regularly repeating pattern of beats.

A beat is just a single unit of time, and rhythm in music makes use of alternating patterns of accented beats and unaccented beats.

Accented beats are simply the pulse that you ‘feel’, or that you tap along to with your foot while listening to music, and unaccented beats are the other beats around it.

Different Beats of the Bar

As an example, let’s take a look at a single bar (or measure) with a time signature of 4/4.

Beats in a bar

The example above is one bar in the time signature of 4/4.

This time signature means that there are four beats to a bar and that each beat is the length of a quarter note.

Each of these four beats has a different importance in the measure. The first beat of the measure (the note C on the far left, right next to the time signature) is called the downbeat.

The downbeat is the strongest, most accented beat in the whole bar.

The next strongest beat in the bar is beat three.

This is because a four-beat bar can be in quadruple metre (with the first beat being strong and the next three being weak) or duple metre (with the first and third beat being strong and the second and fourth beat being weak).

An example of a song that really shows off both beat 1 and beat 3 is ‘Radioactive’ by Imagine Dragons.

“Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.

So, beats 1 and 3 are the more accented beats – they are called ‘on’ beats.

Beats 2 and 4, on the other hand, are less-accented ‘off’ beats.

Beat 4 is also called the upbeat, because it is right before the downbeat of beat 1 in the next measure.

These are called upbeat and downbeat because when a conductor is conducting an orchestra during a concert, he or she always starts the bar with moving their baton in a downward motion (beat 1 – downbeat), and at the end of the bar they move it up (beat 4 – upbeat) to get ready to move it down for the next downbeat. 

Other beats in between the four main beats of a 4/4 bar, like those made by eighth notes or smaller notes, are also always considered “off” beats.

It is this concept of “on” and “off” beats that brings us to syncopation.

Definition Of Syncopation

In music, syncopation is the placement of rhythmic stresses or accents on non-important beats where they normally wouldn’t occur.

It can do this by highlighting certain “off” beats or by putting a rest where normally an “on” beat would be. 

So, take the melody shown earlier (with arrows pointing to the four quarter note beats):

Beats in 4/4

It is not syncopated because it has a note playing on each of the four main beats, especially on beats 1 and 3 (the two red arrows).

If we were to change that melody to this one, it would then be syncopated.

It does not have a note on either of the two main “on” beats at all and places most of the emphasis melodically and rhythmically on eighth note “off” beats in between the four main beats.

A good example of a song with a predominately syncopated rhythm is “Orinoco Flow” by Enya.

Enya – Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)

The rhythm used in the main instrumental part at the beginning is as follows: 

Rhythm in Orinoco Flow

The notes are X’s because that is just a way to show rhythm without showing the pitches of the notes as well, so a drummer’s staff music would look something like this. 

The ‘> signs above some of the notes are accent symbols, and they are there to indicate that we are placing an accent on a note that does not normally have one (i.e. any note besides those on the 1st and 3rd beats).

In this piece, the accented beats are the 2nd beat and the ‘and’ of beat 4 in the first measure, and beat 2 and the “and” of beat 3 in the second measure.

To create enough beats when using eighth notes rather than just quarter notes, we say ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’ rather than just ‘1 2 3 4’.

This creates eight countable beats in a measure, and the “and” beats are just the eighth note beats in between the four main beats.

Listen to these other examples of syncopation in two different types of pop songs:

Dave Matthew’s Band – Stay (Wasting Time)
Mumford & Sons – Little Lion Man

They both have instrumental parts at the beginning that are very syncopated. The guitar part especially in both examples does not play on the ‘on’ beats very often.

Try to feel and listen for the beat, and maybe clap or tap your foot along with it. It’s pretty difficult! 

Unusual Time Signatures

You can also have syncopated rhythms in odd time signatures.

In the 7/8 time signature, there are 7 eighth note beats to a bar.

In each bar of 7/8, there are three “on” beats” and four “off” beats.

In the tune ‘Unsquare Dance’, the bass plays only on the ‘on’ beats, and the claps all appear on the ‘off’ beats.

Take a listen:

Dave Brubeck – Unsquare Dance

And here is what the first bar of “Unsquare Dance” looks like on staff paper: 

1st Bar of Unsquare Dance

The claps are the X’s and regular notes are what the bass plays. Put the song back on and see if you can clap along on the “off” beats!

The “Backbeat”

One of the most common uses of syncopation is the backbeat.

This is when the drummer or rhythm section plays an accented beat on beats 2 and 4 of a measure, rather than 1 and 3. 


A backbeat is sometimes called a “rock beat” because it was first found in early blues and Rock ‘n Roll music.

An example of this in a rock song is “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Listen to the drum beat and guitar riff at the beginning.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Dani California

It has two eighth notes on beat 1 followed by an accented quarter note on beat 2, and then this is repeated for beats 3 and 4, creating a backbeat of accented quarter notes on beats 2 and 4.

In written form, it looks like this:

Dani California backbeat

In most rock and pop music today, as well as jazz and blues for the last century or so, people clap along on the backbeat.

If you go to a concert, you’ll most likely hear people clapping on beats 2 and 4. Clapping on beats 1 and 3 is so uncommon nowadays that it sounds almost wrong. 

Watch this clip of Harry Connick Jnr to understand the difference between clapping on the “on” beats of 1 and 3, and clapping on the “off” beats of 2 and 4:

Harry Connick Jnr

In the beginning of the video, the audience is clapping on beats 1 and 3. But around the 0:40 second mark, Harry plays an extra long bar (he adds one beat to make it a bar of 5/4), and that causes the audience to start clapping on beats 2 and 4.

The difference between the clapping at 0:24 seconds and around 0:50 seconds is the difference between the “on” beats and “off” beats.

That’s All For Syncopation

So those are all the main points you need to know about syncopation! It occurs when you highlight or accent a note or beat that does not fall on one of the main “on” beats in a bar.

We hoped you were able to learn something from this post, and if you have any questions or comments please let us know in the comment section below!

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.