For Kids

What is Syncopation in Music & How to Play Syncopated Notes on Piano

By Jesse Preis
What is syncopation in music? Learn all about syncopated notes with Hoffman Academy.

What is syncopation in music?

Have you heard the term syncopation before? Syncopation refers to musical rhythms that place more emphasis on either the weak beats of a measure, such as beats 2 and 4, and/or the second half (the “and” part) of the beat. When the weak beats and/or the second half of the beats are accented, the music is said to be “off-beat.” In this article, we will address the importance of syncopation in music, give some examples of syncopation within musical passages, and help you identify and play syncopated phrases in your own music! Read on to learn more.

Why is syncopation in music important?

Are you tired of boring simple rhythms? Do you need a little variation or flavor in your music? Then syncopation could be right for you! By shifting rhythmic accents from the beats to the off-beats, syncopation creates fun and interesting rhythms for dancing, singing, and playing! Many styles of music use syncopation, especially dance music including Latin music, jazz, rag, and ballroom dances, such as the waltz. Syncopated rhythms add variation to standard rhythms and grab the listeners’ attention because the rhythm often feels unexpected. 

What is an example of syncopation in music?

One popular tune that uses a lot of syncopation is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s Encanto, which composer Lin-Manuel Miranda based off of Latin-dance rhythms. Look at the opening phrase from this song below. Notice the eighth rests, eighth notes, quarter notes, and ties? Where are the eighth rests placed? Where are the eighth notes and quarter notes placed? If you drew hearts around them, would the eighth notes or eighth rests be placed in the first part of the heart-beats? What is placed in the second half of the beat? How would the hearts be drawn with the quarter notes? Look at the example below and see if you came up with the same answer. 

To learn more about syncopation in music and counting syncopated rhythms, check out some of the examples in the following paragraphs. After you feel comfortable counting with those examples, come back and try counting this one!

Other examples of songs that include syncopated rhythms would be rock classic “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, jazz sensation “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington, and the rag favorite “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin. Can you name any other songs or pieces that include syncopations?

How do you know if music is syncopated?

You can tell that a passage of music is syncopated when the off-beats are treated with equal or more emphasis compared to the beat. Remember that the weak beats of a measure and the second half of each beat are called “off-beats,” which are treated with less emphasis in un-syncopated music. 

Below are some examples of phrases without syncopated rhythms. Can you clap and say the rhythms out loud? As you count, remember that every beat can be split into two halves. The first half is the beat’s number (ex. 1, 2, 3, 4), and the second is “and” or “+”. You can see this type of counting below in the examples!
Not syncopated notes.

Not syncopated notes.

When playing syncopated rhythms, it’s important to make sure that you feel the rhythm’s groove. One way to do this is to count the beats and off-beats. Let’s try it! Below are some examples of rhythmic patterns that show syncopation. Count out loud while you clap the rhythms.

Example of syncopated notes.

Here’s a challenge that you can do at home! When practicing syncopated rhythms, count out loud and clap the rhythm while tapping a steady beat with your foot. This means that your foot will tap at the same time that you say each number. This may seem difficult at first, but with consistent practice, it will feel easy. Here is an example you can try! 

Example of syncopated notes.

What beats are typically strongest in syncopated music?

Typically, syncopated music emphasizes the weaker beats or off-beats more than the strong beat. The strong beat is the first beat of each measure. The weak beats fill the rest of the measure. In 4/4 music, the 3rd beat could also be said to be stronger than beats 2 and 4. In some syncopated rhythms, especially in Latin music, beats 2 and 4 are accented.

How do you explain syncopation to a child?

A fun way that a young musician can learn how to count syncopated rhythms is by listening to Mr. Hoffman! Join him in some fun activities and count and clap some exciting rhythms by watching this video on Syncopation! Remember, if you have any trouble, pause the video and practice the activity before resuming the video.

Now that you know more about syncopation, you are ready to try some syncopated piano music! Syncopated rhythms may seem challenging at first, but don’t worry. With consistent practice counting out loud, clapping, and playing, you will soon find that they become easier to grasp. Take your time and have fun with syncopation in music!

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