I use Musescore to practice making music, and I noticed that when I syncopate one instrument, it sounds better to me that the other instruments are also syncopated at the same time. I figure that it's because the rhythms are synchronized between instruments.

Is this usually the case? Are there cases where rhythms between instruments might be completely discrepant?

  • 2
    It would be helpful to have a specific example, allowing there might be a variety of different reasons for the effect.
    – Aaron
    Jun 6, 2021 at 15:56
  • 3
    Also note that, if every instrument is syncopated in the same way, then the aural effect could be one of no syncopation at all.
    – Richard
    Jun 6, 2021 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


First of all, a quote: Duke Ellington said "If it sounds good, it’s good music, and if it doesn’t, then it is the other kind." So if it "sounds better to you," pay attention to that feeling and try to figure out why. But to answer your question:

Are there cases where rhythms between instruments might be completely discrepant?

Absolutely. Brahms often layered instruments playing rhythms that didn't divide with each other—one group playing 3 notes within a beat and another playing 4, for example, at the same time. At the most extreme, there are works where different instruments or voices aren't even supposed to be at the same tempo (in Henry Cowell's Quartet Euphemetric instruments play in different time signatures; in Steve Reich's Come Out a recording of a person speaking is looped, and then a duplicate is played but gets slightly slower until it forms echos and new patterns (

). In another of his pieces, Clapping Music, two people clap the exact same rhythm, but start at a different point in the pattern, so they combine to form a new rhythm pattern (

For a less extreme example, consider Coldplay's song "Viva La Vida" (

). It opens with a string section playing a rhythm that features some syncopated notes—in the pattern ♩♩♩♪♩♩♪♩♩ the first three ♩s are on the beat, but after the single ♪ the next two ♩s fall "between" beats.

For the first few seconds of the song, that's the only rhythm present. Soon, though, the lead vocal enters with its own rhythm, and at the same time the bass drum starts repeating, one hit per beat, exactly on the beat. Meanwhile, the strings' pattern continues throughout the song. The syncopated notes of that repeating pattern are in direct conflict with the drum's on-the-beat pattern; their offbeat notes emphasize the space "between" the beats, while the drum emphasizes the beginning of each beat.

But here's the thing: that tension is what makes the syncopation interesting. Without a beat for the offbeat to "push against," it doesn't even "feel" syncopated. So yes, it can often serve an important purpose for instruments to have conflicting rhythms.


The most likely reason is that having instruments playing "un-syncopated" will tend to pull the ear toward the expected strong (parts of the) beat(s). This could undermine the effect of any syncopation.

As an experiment, try setting the playback dynamic for the non-syncopated parts lower than the syncopated parts. The question would be whether that enhances the effect of the syncopation. Another possibility would be to place accents on the syncopations.


Syncopation is only a thing because it contrasts with the expected straight beat. It's very common for the bass line to 'lay down the beat' while melody instruments syncopate around it. Likewise drums may keep the beat, or may go with the syncopations. Both are good. enter image description here

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