Stevie Wonder sings in a typical style I‘d like to know the english term. I wonder as I wander through Stevie Wonders style. What is this style called? Just syncopated? And when came this style up? (Year and names?)


By crikey this is broad. You've basically asked "What's the difference between 'white' music & 'black' music?"

Because you could write entire books on the subject & still not arrive at any real definition, especially in this day & age when everybody's borrowed from everybody else to such a degree as it's almost impossible to disentangle any more, let me say just this…

"White music works in the 8ths. Black music works in the 16ths."

So, yes, it's 'syncopated' but it's syncopated by anticipating the beat by 16ths, not by 8ths.

Compare it to, for example, Elton John, from the same period…

"Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane…"
All in the 8ths.

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    But I would be interested what are earliest songs we can remember. There surely negro spirituals known with this practice that are older than the fifties ... – Albrecht Hügli Oct 6 '19 at 18:13
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    I claim that the ability to make syncopation to work doesn't depend on the color of one's skin, but on the strength of one's sense of rhythm. 16th syncopation requires a stronger sense of rhythm than 8th syncopation. The smaller the division is, the stronger and steadier the sense of "one" has to be. You can add smaller subdivisions only after the next larger division is settled in like concrete. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '19 at 18:13
  • I'll certainly give you that one @piiperi You gotta have the 8s nailed before you're ever going to be able to play around so effortlessly as someone like Stevie does in the 16s. I agree it's more 'cultural' than 'racial' I just didn't really want to get into any kind of stereotyping beyond the really really broad strokes I used. – Tetsujin Oct 6 '19 at 18:17
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    I think we've now drifted waay outside the scope of the original QA. – Tetsujin Oct 7 '19 at 9:37
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    A quick note for future viewers: "white music" and "black music" are referring not to some mystical innate racial musical ability, but rather to the different styles of and idiosyncracies that evolved separately in the predominantly "white" and predominantly "black" musical traditions in the United States. Those terms often get used both because they've been around for so long and because there are huge differences between the two musical cultures that the two terms allude to. (Boy, do I feel like a lawyer.) – user45266 Oct 8 '19 at 3:42

It's syncopated, but really there is so much to this topic. One of the earliest practitioner (that we have recorded) of this was, and the most famous, was Louis Armstrong on his many early recordings. It's really one of the main reasons that he was so revolutionary (and he was - in contrast to his later rather cabaret image, he had a reputation in the 30's comparable to Hendrix in the 60's). Check this out, to hear him taking incredible liberties with time.

Anyway there isn't really a generic term, other than "syncopated", but that doesn't really get to what is going on. The fact that it is rhythmically almost impossible to notate doesn't really help. It's a combination of things - phrasing slightly late of the beat, or early of it, or sometimes a combination of both, or even at times almost going into what sounds a bit like a whole other tempo.

On "Sunshine" it sounds to me like Stevie is mostly holding back, slightly late on the beat. But if you listen carefully there is more to the story. At the start of the tune, it's fairly subtle - very slightly behind, and soft phrasing. Then in the bridge (cleverly with bringing the vocal a bit forward in the mix, and hitting those off beat notes with a bit more attack - are they ahead now?) it gets a bit more accentuated, and then stays like that. But if you really listen - it seems to me that some notes/words are a bit longer than they should be ("you must have known that I waaaaas lonely ..." at 1:47 for example) so actually he is playing with it - getting ahead/behind the beat, and then landing on it again. The more I listen the more I hear this going on.

It's time bending - made more possible by the fairly open and steady bossa-ish groove of the song, which allows him to play freely with phrasing, and accentuate the expressive nature of this lovely song. Just like Louis did with Stardust back in the early 30's (also with a rather strict tempo rhythmic backing). That's partly why jazz and its derivatives turned the world of music upside down.

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  • Time bending is a good term. I think back phrasing describes it quite well too. You also use free phrasing and groove. Did you listen to my 3 classic examples. I could also mention some notated songs like it ain‘t necessarily so, let it be, all you need is love*. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 8 '19 at 5:02
  • yes I am having a listen. But what I hear in those examples is quite a lot less free or spontaneous in character than what I hear in the Stevie Wonder vocal, or other "black music" examples. I'd agree that Streisand definitely borrows elements from what many jazz singers do but it's somehow a lot different in the way it eventually feels. You can almost hear her thinking "I'm going to delay this note" ... I like it but the end result is very different. – danmcb Oct 8 '19 at 18:07
  • as for the Dvorak - I don't really hear it at all there. I see when I look at the score I see that the woodwind part is indeed offset against the others, but it again doesn't really achieve the same effect at all for me. I'm thinking now why this is ... – danmcb Oct 8 '19 at 18:09
  • Yes, it is in the melody of the woodwinds, but the transmission of this youtube video is not so good. I knew it from a CD where you can hear it very clear. It's fantastic! I will look for a better playback. It's not free of course but e.g. the Bach prelude could be played very freely. You could even make a similar effect in the C-Dur prelude by playing an accent on an eight note before the bar line. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 8 '19 at 18:26

Isn't this called back phrasing?

Back phrasing:
A stylistic technique where the singer is either ahead or behind the beat, on purpose. Jazz singers typically use this technique, as do some pop singers.


I think already Brahms wrote this in the piano accompaniment of this song:


and Dvorak did it in section C of the 2nd movement of his Symphony nr. 4 (min 16:57)

or Bach in Prelude Dm WTC:

either ahead or behind the beat!

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  • I honestly don’t think any ‘European’ composer prior to the mid 20th century would have ever come close to the kind of ‘push/pull’ that came from ‘black’ music. It brought a feel that, through jazz & blues, the ‘west’ would never have dreamed up on its own. It’s like trying to teach a polka band to swing. ;) – Tetsujin Oct 9 '19 at 9:40
  • @Tetsuijin: Actually I would have agreed with you. My brother said to me in the 50ies: white musicians will never be able to play Jazz or sing the Blues like the black jazzer. And what you say about teaching a polka band to swing I noticed 1:1 in my millitary service 1968. But I've learnt the groove of back phrasing at the Jazz school and I think the best lesson was Janis Joplin PIECE OF MY HEART, The Beatles: All you need is Love, Revolution, Back in the U.S.S:R, OH HAPPY DAY by Edwin Hawkins, Joe Cocker: WITH A LITTLE HELP. You have to agree that some of them are white musicians. ;) – Albrecht Hügli Oct 9 '19 at 10:47

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