Syncopation demonstration

Several years ago, I recorded a song on Portraits of Hope called “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” I don’t know what I was thinking when I arranged it. Basically if I am being honest, it is a virtually unplayable, complicated mess. I could not even play it in the studio that day with the orchestra because I could not get the timing right. Eventually, I just let them do it by themselves.¬†Steve Mauldin was conducting and I remember him referring to the song as “Tis So Syncopated.”

I am not proud of that particular arrangement (I really am a bit embarrassed by the arrangement of “Heaven Came Down” on that project, too). However, I have learned some things since I made that recording. Today I want to write about some of what I have learned about syncopation.

The best way that I know to illustrate syncopation is to think of a clothes line with clothes pins on it. Let’s say you space all those clothes pins equally apart. In musical terms, you get something like this.

Of course, a clothes line with all the pins an equal distance apart is not realistic because clothes come in different sizes. The same is true in music too; a melody consisting solely of quarter notes gets boring really quickly.

There are two main ways that writers/performers make the kind of line above more interesting. The first is rubato. Rubato is essentially leaving the clothes pins in place but stretching or contracting the line itself. When you do that, the pins themselves are not moved; what moves is the underlying timing of the song.

Syncopation is the opposite approach. When you syncopate, you are leaving the clothes line itself alone but moving the clothes pins on the line. Here is the same melody line syncopated.

This looks a bit complicated but it is not. What is happening here is this: I am shifting the second beat of each bar a quarter of a beat forward in time. This essentially steals a sixteenth note from the first beat of each bar and adds it to the second beat. However, in the end, you still have exactly two beats.

I have said before that when you write music, you have to decide whether you want syncopation or rubato. You can have one or the other or you can have neither but it really does not usually work to try to have both. If you try, listeners just get confused.

Typically, I write rubato music but in January, my arrangement of the month was syncopated. In fact, the first line uses a similar approach to syncopation as the example above. Compare that example to this line.

Now, let’s talk about rules for syncopation. Assuming there are not other factors at play (such as trying to match lyrics), I follow two basic rules. Here they are:

  1. Syncopation needs to be restrained. As a general rule, less is more. The truth is I could throw a few hundred rhythmic ideas into this piece. Once you realize you can start shifting notes a bit, you will see opportunities everywhere. However, I am basically sticking with one idea per bar (and not every bar).
  2. Syncopation needs to be consistent. Note that I am using the exact same idea in every bar here. I am not going to stick with it forever (in the second half of the piece, I switch it up) but anyone looking at what I am doing sees a logical and consistent idea being used.

To elaborate just a bit more on these points, I am not holding this example up as some kind of holy grail. You should feel free to go further if you want both in complexity and quantity. These two guidelines are just basic rules to keep things a bit under control. You will find that there is diminishing return with syncopation and at some point, you flat out start losing your audience.