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Can anyone give me a good definition for syncopation? (As in a rhythm.)

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This seems pretty good:

The FreeDictionary by Farlex, Encyclopedia: Syncopation

Syncopation (sĭng'kəpā`shən, sĭn'–) [New Gr.,=cut off ], in music, the accentuation of a beat that normally would be weak according to the rhythmic division of the measure.

Although the normally strong beat is not usually effaced by the process, there are occasions (e.g., the second theme in the final movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor) when the natural rhythmic structure is entirely altered, the syncopation being so elaborate and persistent that the actual metrical structure is obliterated aurally.

Occasional syncopation is present in music of all types and in all periods. It predominates, however, in African music and therefore in African-American music through which it became the principal element in ragtime (see jazz).

Here is the Schuman piece referred to there:

This is not piano music, but try counting how many different syncopated rhythms there are in this piece. (The vocals also count.) At around 4.5 minutes in, the band stops, and then they come in one by one as JB calls them - you can hear how things develop:

From comment by @jdjazz :

It might be worth pointing out that, for the 4/4 time, the emphasized beats are usually the 1 and 3, so the syncopation is heard when Brown emphasizes beats 4 (or the 'and' of 4, etc.).

James Brown's compositions and arrangements are harmonically simple, but he was a world-class master of rhythm and syncopation.

  • Nice answer and awesome examples. +1 It might be worth pointing out that, for the 4/4 time, the emphasized beats are usually the 1 and 3, so the syncopation is heard when Brown emphasizes beats 4 (or the 'and' of 4, etc.). – jdjazz Nov 12 '17 at 5:36
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    @jdjazz - On that cut I think there is syncopation on every beat relative to some other beat. I just grabbed one example - as I'm sure you know, there are 100 others - he was amazing. Check out this one - and how he works the vocals : youtube.com/watch?v=CKpb0GInIJU - that's one of his best bands on there - Bootsy Collins on bass, his brother Phelps on guitar - those recordings launched their careers. – Stinkfoot Nov 12 '17 at 5:48
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It is an emphasis on the weak part of beats, the weak part of the beat differs from Time Signature to Time Signature. So for instance...

In 4/4 time the weak part is the 2nd and 4th beat and every second part of the subdivision of the beat, So when you have quavers every second quaver of the crotchet beat.

In Compound Time Signatures you have three parts to the beat, the weak part of the beat is the 2nd and 3rd division of the beat so any emphasis on these parts will be a syncope.

Just a few examples.

  • I don't think 'Syncope' is a musical term. It means 'a temporary loss of consciousness usually related to insufficient blood flow to the brain.'. Fainting. – Laurence Payne Nov 12 '17 at 21:08
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"The accentuation of a beat that normally would be weak" only really covers the jazz and rock 'backbeat'. Syncopation is more about accented notes that AREN'T on a beat. A quick definition could be 'An unexpected rhythm, with its accents not aligned to the basic pulse of the music'.

There are lots of inaccurate or confusing definitions out there! And it's quite hard to construct one that would be useful to someone who didn't know what syncopation is already.

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