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Syncopation is a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm. It's the placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur.

Music is divided into beats, and beats are grouped together in measures based on patterns of strong beats and weak beats. These patterns make up what is called the meter of a piece of music; they are "metrical patterns." In regular metrical patterns, or the regular flow of rhythm, the first beat of a measure — the downbeat — is the strongest beat, where the most rhythmic emphasis, or weight, is felt. Syncopation shifts this emphasis, or, to put it another way, it places the accent on the wrong syllable. A syncopated rhythm is one that places stress on a weak beat, or that creates a strong impulse on a subdivision of a beat, an in-between beat. Weak beats and in-between beats are also known collectively as "offbeats," and syncopated rhythm may be thought of as "offbeat rhythm."

Syncopation is a general term: there is no limit to the number or variety of possible syncopated rhythms, nor are there limits to the ways they may be used. A syncopated rhythm may occur just once in a piece or passage, or various syncopations may recur, regularly or irregularly, or syncopations may form repetitive patterns, with extended successions of stressed offbeats. Syncopation is one of the most powerful and versatile tools that composers can employ to create rhythmic interest and variety. And although some composers have certainly been more rhythmically inventive than others, syncopation has been an important element of musical composition for centuries. From the masters of the Middle Ages to Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Copland to Lennon and McCartney, there is no such thing as a composer who has not made extensive use of syncopation. Sometimes syncopation can even be a means to musical mischief or humor: many composers have enjoyed playing "Where's the beat?" and delighted in fooling us.

Some musical styles have built their character around syncopation. Syncopation is such an integral element of jazz and ragtime, for example, that for those styles the regular flow of rhythm is in fact a syncopated flow. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," goes the Duke Ellington song, and it's syncopation that provides the swing.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.