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That Can Be Arranged: In Sync With Syncopation

Syncopation or syncopated rhythm is any rhythm that puts emphasis on a beat or subdivision of a beat that is not usually emphasized.

Welcome back! In this installment, we will take a look at syncopation and use my original composition “Barcelo” as an example. Be sure to listen to the audio example a few times before diving into playing the piece. I say this because hearing and feeling syncopation is much easier than trying to count it. This doesn’t discount the importance of being able to read and write syncopated rhythms. Without a doubt, if you play an instrument, you have played syncopations. You may not have known it, been able to define it or read it, but you have felt, heard, and played syncopated rhythms.

As a secondary supplement, I have also included some short examples of simple rhythms followed by the same melodic content played in a syncopated rhythm. For those who may be new to reading syncopation it may be helpful to first study the examples before playing “Barcelo.”

Let us start by defining syncopation. Syncopation or syncopated rhythm is any rhythm that puts emphasis on a beat or subdivision of a beat that is not usually emphasized.

In other words, syncopation is a shifting of the accent to a normally weak beat. Musicians often refer to this as anticipation. Often the harmony will change at this point. Anticipating the harmony is also commonly referred to as a “push.” Syncopations can be played in the melody with the chords played on the beat or both can simultaneously be syncopated. It’s also common to have the bass note syncopated while the chord is played on the beat. Most often, a variety of combinations happen in any one piece of music.

Fig. 1 is based on a very common chord sequence. The chords are G6–Am7 A# diminished–G6 with B in the bass. The A# diminished is a passing chord since it’s not diatonic to the key of G major. Note how the chords take on new life in Fig. 1a when played with syncopation.

Fig. 2 is a classic boogie-woogie bass line over an E7 chord. Fig. 2 of course is played with straight quarter notes. While this example does outline the chord tones, it takes on a swing feel when syncopated in example Fig. 2a.

Fig. 3 is based on the first few notes of “Camptown Races.” Can someone please give me a doo-dah! doo-dah? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. I have always enjoyed giving folk songs a jazzy twist. The first two techniques that I would apply so these tunes are syncopation and altered chords. Fig. 3a uses both.

Fig. 4 is based on the progression of C7–A7–D7–G7, all dominant 7th chords. Notice the half-step approach bass line on both examples. When the syncopation is added in Fig. 4a, it really takes on a great swing feel with the movement in the bass line. The syncopation is on the top of the chord with rests written in after each chord stab. Make sure to cut off the chords on each rest by placing your fingers back on the strings.

Fig. 5 is based in A harmonic minor (A–B–C–D–E–F–G#) and uses a i–VI–V–i progression through inversions up the neck. Fig. 5a has syncopation in measure two and three while Fig. 5a uses it in each measure. This is an example of how you can freely change to your liking where you use syncopation. Fig. 5b adds a bass line to Fig. 5a. Notice the bass line syncopation on the “and” of beat 4 in measures one and three.

Fig. 6 is a classic turnaround based on the progression of C–C7/E–F7–C dim/Gb–Db/Ab–C7/G. Fig. 6a is played with straight quarter notes while Fig. 6a adds syncopation. Both examples contain contrary motion between the top and bottom voices. Contrary motion is very attractive to the ear. I search for it in every arrangement that I do.

Fig. 7 uses a simple A minor voicing with an open B added. When played against the C on the third string you get a dissonant yet pleasing interval of a minor second. I use this voicing often. The progression takes on a nice Bossa Nova feel in Fig. 7a.

In order for your syncopations to feel good, it is most important that they are played rhythmically accurate. This is not only important for the syncopated parts but it is equally important for the notes played on the beat. You may want to check yourself with a metronome.

All music has syncopation to some degree. Most of the time, we do not realize how syncopated vocals often are when listening to a simple pop or country song. This tends to be a little less noticeable than whole chords being syncopated. Of course, musical styles, interpretation, and arrangement effect how you may choose to use syncopation. In the end, it is up to you as the artist, to feel and therefore play what you feel.

Music would be a sky without blue if not for syncopation. Thank God for both.

Click here to go to page 2 for the full arrangement, PDF, and audio for "Barcelo."

By Bill Piburn
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