Pop Music Theory


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42: Syncopation

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Lesson 42: Syncopation

This lesson explains syncopation, a rhythm technique that's used heavily in pop music. You'll need to understand syncopation to understand the examples in Lesson 44: Hook Melodies.

Before taking this lesson, you should know how to read rhythms, including:
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:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

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:
  • Anticipation
  • Repeated threes


(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:
  1. Start with a "straight" (not syncopated) rhythm.
  2. Pick a note that's on a beat.
  3. 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:

1 e Once + a up- 2 on e a + time a you 3   e dressed + a so 4 e + a fine

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:

1 e Once + up- a on 2 - e a + time a you 3   e dressed + so a fine 4 e + a -

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.

Repeated Threes

(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 example:

V 1 + 2 V + 3 + V 4 +

The above example emphasizes every third half-beat starting on beat 1, so the emphasized notes are on beats 1, , 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:

V 1 e Once + up- V a on 2 - e a V + time a you 3   e dressed + so a fine 4 e + a -

The above example emphasizes every third quarter-beat starting on beat 1, so the emphasized notes are on beats 1, , 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 song.


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 practice.
  • Transcribe (write down, by listening to recordings) pop melodies. Count and play what you've written to check your understanding of the rhythms.
  • 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.

Go on to Lesson 43: Pentatonic Scales, another concept you'll need to understand the examples in Lesson 44: Hook Melodies.

Song link:
For Like A Rolling Stone, I used the recording from The Essential Bob Dylan ($1.29 at Amazon as of this writing).


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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