I found this copy of Sloop John B online...

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I wanted different line breaks so re-notated it.

But I changed the rhythm notation to use ties to the third beat...

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What is the right way to notate these syncopations?

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    The question is not right or wrong, but your solution is better! – Albrecht Hügli Jan 9 at 22:42
  • @AlbrechtHügli I would say that it's more modern. The first example would be unsurprising in the romantic period or earlier. – phoog Jan 9 at 22:54
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    As others have said, both are "correct". But why did you stop there? The "on" in the first measure and the "sau" in "Nassau" could also usefully be split into two eighth-notes. I think I'd prefer an all-or-nothing approach. – Adam Chalcraft Jan 10 at 4:45
  • @AdamChalcraft, I was following the rule of thumb about beats 1 and 3, like in Aaron's answer. – Michael Curtis Jan 11 at 13:49

Your notation is correct. When notating syncopation, the goal is to visually preserve the strong (part of the) beat. In 4/4 time, that means making clear where beats 1 and 3 lie, which your notation does and the "original" version does not.

A couple of references articulating this idea: here and here.


It is standard practice to write 4/4 measures as if there was an invisible barline in the middle, forcing syncopation to be broken down to two 2/4 half-measures. (Excluding whole notes.) So your modified version is "better". It makes syncopation more explicitly visible if you're used to having things spoon-fed like that. ;) I'm sure you could get used to reading rhythms without everything being split to such small pieces.

  • I've seen before that rule of thumb to imagine an invisible bar line dividing 4/4 to 2/4. It's very helpful. – Michael Curtis Jan 8 at 22:30

Your version is correct.

In the example below A is fine (to the extent that B would be considered incorrect). C is acceptable, and even preferred to D in some circumstances. The mainstream musical world is not yet ready for E.

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  • From various notation guides I gather A and C are sort of conventionally preferred over B and D despite the "show beat 3" rule. Is there more to it than just convention? PS. I really need to get Gould, Behind Bars. – Michael Curtis Jan 8 at 22:27
  • Gould won't help you much. She states the rule, then lists some 'common exceptions' including A but not C. But Gould is very 'classical' orientated. – Laurence Payne Jan 8 at 23:15
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    @LaurencePayne the C version is a very common exception in classical music. I have encountered it many times. – Lars Peter Schultz Jan 8 at 23:40
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    A and C are accepted too, surely because of the clear symmetric structure. – Albrecht Hügli Jan 9 at 22:27
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    @AlbrechtHügli, the symmetry of C was my thought too. It's easy to see three equally syncopated notes, compared to D. IMO. – Michael Curtis Jan 11 at 13:53

The arguments of the other answers respecting the beats are all correct.

But there are exceptions like the example A and C of Laurence Payne which show a clear symmetric structure and also the group 3-3-2 notated by two dotted fourth are common. The goal is the readability of the notation and if we have a repeated rhythmic pattern 3-3-2 this notation is ok.

I don‘t think that any one has the competence to give rules about right or wrong. Rules in music are conventions and not laws and if they are convicting they become common used.

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