A rhythm is syncopated when it emphasizes a note on an "off-beat"
fraction of a beat, rather than on a neighboring beat. Here's an
obvious (and extreme) example of a syncopated rhythm:
In the above example, there is a note on every "and" (the half-beats or
"pluses"), but no note is struck on beats 2, 3, or 4.
Syncopations appear occasionally in "classical" music. However, syncopation
is used heavily in all pop music styles (including rock, jazz,
etc.), usually in particular "pop music" syncopation patterns. These
particular syncopation techniques are one of the key elements which make pop
music sound different from classical.
Below we'll explore two important, specific pop music syncopation techniques:
(Note, the word "anticipation" has other meanings in music also. This is about
the syncopation technique.)
An anticipation is basically a note that is moved ahead of the
beat. You can create an anticipation like this:
Start with a "straight" (not syncopated) rhythm.
Pick a note that's on a beat.
Move that note ahead (earlier) by 1/2 or 1/4 of a beat.
Let's demonstrate this with an example, from Bob Dylan's
Like A Rolling Stone (see end of lesson for link), Verse 1
(00:16 in the recording). First, here's a simplified, "straight" version of
the melody, with the anticipations removed:
Next, we take two "on-beat" notes from the straight version above:
The note on beat 2 (the word "on")
The note on beat 4 (the word "fine")
... and move each of these notes 1/4 of a beat earlier, creating
anticipations. Here's the result:
This second version, with the anticipations, is a lot closer to what Dylan
actually sings (not exactly what he sings, because he "bends the
rhythm"). Play both versions above. See if you agree that:
The first version sounds more "square", "march-y", "choppy";
The second version sounds more "jazzy", like "real pop music".
Anticipation is used all over in pop music. Often, half or more of the notes
that could be anticipated, are anticipated.
(Note, "repeated threes" is my own name for this pattern. It's a common
pattern, but I haven't seen a common, standard name for it. It's not
the same thing as "three against two", or "polyrhythms", or triplets.)
Repeated threes describes any rhythm that emphasizes notes on every
third half-beat or every third quarter-beat. Here's a simple
The above example emphasizes every third half-beat starting on
beat 1, so the emphasized notes are on beats 1,
2½, and 4.
Next, here's a "real song" example of repeated threes. This is the same
Like A Rolling Stone example we used above, because one of these
notes is anticipated and also in a "repeated three" (this is very
common), but now we add V's to show the repeated threes:
The above example emphasizes every third quarter-beat starting on beat
1, so the emphasized notes are on beats 1, 1¾, and
Some notes about repeated threes:
The repeated-threes pattern in the above examples is just three notes long,
but in other songs the "threes" pattern may continue, every 3rd 1/2-beat
or 1/4-beat, for 4, 5, or more notes.
The "threes" pattern starts on beat 1 in the above examples, but it can
start on any beat or fraction of a beat.
There can be "extra" notes between the "threes" notes. The above
example has some of these.
Repeated threes are common and are a kind of anticipation, but they're not as
common as anticipation in general; you may not find repeated threes in every
Pop music rhythms are often more complicated, and take more practice or skill
to count and play, than "traditional" or classical rhythms, because of the
syncopation. You can add these activities to your writing exercises
(from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
Learn to read, count ("1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and") and play a bunch of pop
melodies from written music. Written pop music (if it's written
correctly) almost always contains syncopations. Fake books, which are
easy to find online, are an easy way to get lots of pop sheet music to
Transcribe (write down, by listening to recordings) pop melodies.
Count and play what you've written to check your understanding of the
Analyze the rhythms in music you like. Find the anticipations
and repeated threes. Where are these techniques used and not used,
and what do you think of the effects?
Create melodies with anticipations and repeated threes.
You can often create a "straight", non-syncopated melody first, and then
move some notes to create these syncopations.