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What do we call music which is not played on the beat?

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Notes not played on the beat are called syncopated. Not sure if it's this you're after though... –  Meaningful Username Sep 2 at 12:21
    
A couple of examples will help us to provide answers that will be helpful to you. For example, do you mean reggae, or where there are triplets in a piece. –  Tim Sep 2 at 12:41
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If you mean 'rhythmically free' then the correct term would be rubato. –  Matt L. Sep 2 at 13:06
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There are many different specific terms for this because there are many different specific types of "not playing on the beat". If you can give us some concrete examples we can explain further. –  Wheat Williams Sep 2 at 13:23
    
Three more I can think of, with rough & variable terminology like; laying it back or behind the beat; conversely, pushing the beat; lastly & by no means rare... plain old 'out of time'. –  Tetsujin Sep 2 at 15:34

5 Answers 5

Syncopation is the technical term for off-beat rhythms. There are many genres that incorporate a syncopated style, as noted by Louis Armstrong:

Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it's swing.

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It can be called Off beat.

Per the above Wikipedia article

In music that progresses regularly in 4/4 time, counted as "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4...", the first beat of the bar (downbeat) is usually the strongest accent in the melody and the likeliest place for a chord change, the third is the next strongest: these are "on" beats. The second and fourth are weaker - the "off-beats".

So, when you don't play on the 'strong' beats of the measure, but on the weak ones, you play off beat

or a simpler

Offbeat, originally a music term meaning "not following the standard beat", which has also become a general synonym for "unconventional" or "unusual"

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Also, it is called syncopation, but that is @meaningfulusername's answer –  Shevliaskovic Sep 2 at 12:32
    
Came here for lame jokes about permutations of "off beat" ; left disappointed :-). But seriously: is "offbeat" really from music? I thought it was from "off the beaten path" idiom. –  Carl Witthoft Sep 2 at 17:07

Your question could be interpreted a bunch of different ways.

  1. If every note from a given instrument is consistently played a bit before or after where the beat "officially" lies, then that instrument is considered "early" or "late" / "pushing" or "laying back", respectively.

  2. In a "syncopated" rhythm, notes are accented in places other than the obvious/conventional times (eg. anything other than the 1 and 3 in a 4/4 rhythm).

  3. "Rubato" means playing in free time, with no/variable time signature or tempo.

  4. "Swing" means squeezing each 2nd eighth- or sixteenth- note into less time, so that the downbeats are longer than the upbeats. Depending on the difference in size between each note, you have:

    • "straight": each note is the same size
    • "lope": each second note is slightly delayed
    • "swing": each second note is close to where you would place a 2nd triplet
    • "shuffle": each second note is very delayed
  5. "Off-beat" means accenting the rhythmic opposites of the "normal" beats - playing in the negative space (eg. accenting the 2 and 4 in 4/4).

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"off beat" has been mentioned here. That's basically the name for rhythms that are accentuated, well, on a beat, just a different one than the "normal" beat. So a swing accent is on beat 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3.

"Syncopated", in contrast, usually implies coming in early or late by fractions of a beat. Like { c'4. c'8~ c'4 c' } a typical tango rhythm with an early second note that blunts the hard "slow-quick-quick-slow-quick-quick" of the original tango.

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Quite agree that there's a difference, but your characterisation of syncopation sound a bit like it's always just a few "moved" beats per measure – which isn't true. In classical music, you often have quite lengthy passages played only on the offs, still this is called syncopation and IMO is not off beat, because the strong beats are "grossed over" rather than explicitly used as silent beats or minor accents. –  leftaroundabout Sep 2 at 19:46

Both syncopated and off beat can be used. In my book, these are not entirely synonymous!

I would characterise the difference much as what Caleb's and Shevliaskovic said: off beat means, you put accents on weak beats (but the strong beats are still played quietly, perhaps as dead notes or at least "pronounced rests"). Whereas syncopated means, you play between strong beats, without really making these beats audible or "feelable" at all (though another voice may play on-beat). To give a concrete example of the difference: a Reggae guitar is off beat. String parts with notes on the weak beats are syncopated, prominent e.g. in the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky I.

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