The definitions of syncopation I've come across generally talk about stressing the offbeat (see, for example, Wikipedia) where "offbeat" sometimes refers to placing the accent in between beats (on the "and") and in other cases it's about emphasising the weak beats (such as beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 or beats 2 and 3 in 3/4). Most explanations of syncopation include only these basic examples.

More generally though, syncopation is about subverting the listener's rhythmic expectations and interrupting the regular metric patterns. I feel like this broader definition would include putting unusual emphasis on beat 3 in 4/4 even though, as far as I understand, beat 3 is not usually considired "weak" of "offbeat".

OVERWERK — Canon was the track that prompted my question, though in this example the effect I'm describing is heard on the hypermetric level, which complicates things. After 0:35 there's a clear grouping of measures into 4-measure phrases ("hypermeasures") where the emphasis on individual measures ("hyperbeats") follows the usual 4/4 pattern of strong-weak-medium-weak. After 0:47 though this pattern is subverted and replaced by medium-weak-strong-weak, and this new pattern then governs most of the rest of the track. (The hypermeasures don't merely shift their starting points: 4-measure phrases clearly continue to start on the "medium"-accented measures.)

Would you call something like this syncopation (hypermetric syncopation in this specific example)? Perhaps there's a more appropriate and specific name for that? Or maybe I'm ovethinking things and this metric device is what it is and doesn't need to be called anything special?

  • Accenting the 3 is almost the base definition of reggae. Having said that, I listened to about the first 30s of that link & I can't tell where the one is anyway. I gave up soon after, not my kind of thing, too mechanical. – Tetsujin Mar 15 at 17:29
  • You can use words in unconventional or expanded meanings, but don't expect everybody to understand straight away without any explanations. :) If your note is on the beat, it's not syncopated. "Hypermetric syncopation" ... it seems like a very narrow specific thing that few people encounter or think about, so you'll have to start by explaining the idea and defining your terms anyway. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 15 at 17:43
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    @Tetsujin, yeah, the intro to that track is not clearly structured. After 0:35 the main metric structure starts to appear, and after the drop at 1:29 it becomes very clear. – artli Mar 15 at 17:49
  • I had people talking in the room, which wasn't helping, but there's a certain mechanical feel to it which seems to prevent you deciding whether it starts on the one or has an anacrusis, whether parts are really syncopated or it's where it all 'ought to be'. I found it hard to concentrate on it sufficiently to make my mind up - I'd cal it 'half my fault, half the fault of how stiff the piece is'. ;) – Tetsujin Mar 15 at 17:56
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    @Tetsujin, where the 'one' is becomes clearer after the drop: it is marked by the changes in the track's composition. But you're right: it sounds pretty ambigious. That's partly why I like it and I guess that's why I asked this question :) – artli Mar 15 at 18:07

To me, the context-agnostic definition of syncopation has always been "something unexpected". Usually applied to rhythm, but it has been used in many other music dynamics too. In that sense, the answer depends on both the particularities of the genre-style, and the song itself.

In other words, it depends on the expectations that have been established; first by convention / tradition / influence, and then the expectations that the song carves as it develops. It's a very relative concept, that doesn't have one single definition.

With that in mind, it doesn't really make a lot of sense to apply the concept to isolated, miscro-scoped, rhythmic patterns like "stressing n beat in a/b", or structure abstractions like "hypermetre". And it doesn't help that everyone uses syncopation to mean whatever they like (including everyone at Wikipedia).

Would you call something like this syncopation (hypermetric syncopation in this specific example)? Perhaps there's a more appropriate and specific name for that? Or maybe I'm ovethinking things and this metric device is what it is and doesn't need to be called anything special?

If you want appropriate, specific, and accurate semantics, I'd stay a million miles away from "syncopation", literally. Unless you've already established a clear idea of what you mean by it, but you'd betraying the very concept of syncopation that way.

If you are somewhat subverting expectations rhythmically, chances are that everyone will understand what you mean, but it is used for rhythms that don't subvert expectations, and things that are not rhythms, so it might not be a very useful concept to use in formal, academic, scenarios.

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  • This is interesting: if I'm reading you correctly, "syncopation" as a term is (or should be) frowned upon in formal contexts. Then how are the most prototypical examples of rhythmic syncopation usually described instead? – artli Apr 16 at 13:21
  • @artli Depends on the author, context. Similar to what happens with "diatonic". See music.stackexchange.com/q/92411/7218 – Von Huffman Apr 16 at 19:22

Yes, the Wikipedia writer classes a simple backbeat as syncopation.

I disagree. I'd just call that a 'backbeat'. Reserving 'syncopation' for rhythms with accents that DON'T align with the prevailing beat.

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    Wikipedia's claim about backbeat being an example of syncopation was marked "Citation needed". :) I wouldn't call backbeat syncopation either, that's just unusual, misleading usage of the word. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 15 at 17:49
  • Well, the popular descriptions I've encountered seem to consider stressing the weak beat ("suspension") to be a type of syncopation (1, 2, 3), and it matches how I think of the word (though, indeed, it's usually not the main example of syncopation they consider). I understand that those articles may not be rigorous; perhaps, you have other sources? – artli Mar 15 at 17:59

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