How to hear syncopation
April 19, 2009 1:52 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to hear something as syncopated? Whether it's Brahms or something from jazz, I have a tendency to hear things as being on the beat when they shouldn't be, and I have a hard time getting out of it. Suggestions?
posted by dicetumbler to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I understand about hearing things "on the beat" instead of as syncopated, and it can make a totally familiar song sound completely unrecognizable.

What about taking pieces that switch pretty obviously from one to another in relatively short intervals, to see how that helps. The borders should make it a little more obvious about the difference. If you need to, get yourself a metronome and play that along as something to "ground" you to the real beat. It's a little harder with recordings because they aren't always rigorous about the timing, but it may help.
posted by that girl at 2:57 AM on April 19, 2009

Have you tried counting along to the "true" beat, and simply picking out the difference? Also, like that girl says, try listening to very obviously syncopated songs to train yourself.
posted by jhighmore at 4:01 AM on April 19, 2009

You suggest you've mainly been trying with classical and jazz. Listen to something with a clearer 4/4 drum beat. Classical doesn't have a drum beat. A lot of jazz drumming is pretty faint.

Stevie Wonder - Higher Ground. Tap your finger along with the drum beat, and focus on how the keyboard starts out in sync with the drums but then goes off. "Dadadadah - derrr, derrr - dadadah - syn- co - pa -te, dah ...." Also, at the end of the chorus: "till I reach my higher ground."

Arcade Fire - Tunnels #1. The recurring guitar/piano riff that starts out the song is very syncopated, while the vocals are strongly on the beat. A clear contrast with a clear beat.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:59 AM on April 19, 2009

Listen to Billy Cobham
posted by mattoxic at 5:50 AM on April 19, 2009

1. can you "find the beat" by clapping or foot tapping? can you lock onto the beat and tap it out regularly? practice and focus on this with a medium tempo song you are familiar with.

2. once comfortable practice foot tapping and muting the music for a second, 5 seconds, ten seconds etc... until you can stay so locked onto the beat that you are still in step when you unmute it... or google: "the syncopated clock" a song from a 50s era game show (maybe jeopardy??). lock onto the beat, and you'll hear the syncopated notes. because in this case the syncopation is part of the melody instead of part of the rhythm its much easier to "hear" it without straining rhythmically.

let us know how you heard it.

posted by chasles at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2009

You need to listen to ska and rocksteady.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:04 AM on April 19, 2009

Karaoke. I've always liked syncopated songs and trying to learn them for karaoke has emphasized that they're off the beat, particularly compared to other songs I've learned that are on the beat. See: Werewolves of London (the beginning of each verse kills me), Should I Stay or Should I Go?, Short Skirt, Long Jacket.

Note: This may be more difficult if your love for Brahms and jazz excludes pop music.
posted by immlass at 7:21 AM on April 19, 2009

You can get this stuff by counting very slowly — it takes practice. Do a melody in slow motion. At full speed, the beat may be "1-2-3-4." Slower, it's "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and" (in other words, it's now divided into eight beats). Then you can try "1 two three four 2 two three four 3 two three four 4 two three four" By this time it should be glacial — you might be counting a bar in 30 seconds.

Think of the music as a machine, with moving parts that go up an down. The beat is the cycle the machine runs on. A truly syncopated beat will fall off any of the named beats, but most of them just don't fall on top (1-2-3-4) layer. You'll catch where it falls when you use more detail.

If you really want to train yourself, notate in some way. Standard music notation is fine (although not intuitive), or you can mark rhythms on graph paper (a row of sixteen square for sixteen beats), or you can try programming a simple drum machine. Be patient with yourself.

(By the way, "Higher Ground" is syncopated all over the place, but I think it's because the keyboard is based in triplets while the drums aren't. In other words, kind of an advanced example. "Superstition" might work better.)
posted by argybarg at 7:32 AM on April 19, 2009

No one has mentioned ragtime, which is, by definition, syncopated. I'd suggest you get yourself a CD of Scott Joplin rags- you couldn't possibly regret it, because they are so much fun. I'd recommend Joshua Rifkin's performances. When I play ragtime on long car trips, I tap along with my fingers on the steering wheel, and the syncopated parts are really obvious.
posted by acrasis at 7:52 AM on April 19, 2009

John Phillips Sousa. Those marching band tunes are great for this.

Take "The Star-Spangled Banner", for instance. I will use the popular lyrics to help illustrate (starts at about 1:10 into the above recording)

Be Kind To-your Web Foot-ed | Friends

Each of those separated word groups is one beat. The "to-your" and "foot-ed" are split evenly making one beat into two half-beats (this is not syncopation). The | indicates the end of one larger grouping of beats called a "measure". In this instance, this song has 4 beats to a measure, so we have the fifth beat "Friends" falling on the first beat of the second measure. It's an easy clapping / marching rhythm.

Now, a non-Sousa song, Sentimental Journey

Go- 'na Take 'a Sen 'ta Men 'tal | Jour 'eny.

Again, with four beats to a measure, but if you notice, it's not sung in march step -- Gon-Na-Take-A-Sen-Ta-Men-Tal-Jour-Ney. The second syllable of each beat (indicated with the ' above) is delayed, seems to be falling into the next beat or syllable. Yet you can still clap along with the beat, even march to it if you wish.

This offsetting, the lack of lock-step... that's the syncopation.

As long as you can find a beat to clap along with, anything which isn't 1-2-3-4 or 1-and-2-and-3-and-4 in a steady rhythm (the ' syllables above), are likey the syncopation.
posted by hippybear at 7:57 AM on April 19, 2009

Syncopation is about prediction. It's a bit like reading. If you are a good reader you don't just look at words--you make predictions about where the words are going, and if you are right there is very little effort in reading the next group of words. Bad writers will confuse you. Ordinary writers will confirm your predictions. Good writers will surprise you. Good syncopation is like good writing--you are surprised when the next note doesn't appear on time, yet there is something about its placement that is better than if it had. It is quite subtle, because as you listen you become used to being surprised, and it takes an extremely talented musician to keep you surprised. That's exactly what I love about good jazz.

So predict. Anticipate. Look for surprises.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:02 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do a lot of International Folk Dance, and I learned about syncopation from really good Greek dancers.
posted by theora55 at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2009

What a "beat" is, is somewhat arbitrary, especially when you're not worried about how something is written, but rather how it sounds. So one technique is to simply change the beat to match the music. Take something that sounds syncopated when your counting 4 beats to a measure (also arbitrary, btw) and count twice as fast. Count to 8 in the same time. Now instead of 4 beats for notes to fall on, you have 8. If the syncopation is simple, the syncopated notes may fall on all of those 8. Try 16.

It's called "subdividing" and it's quick and easy way dissect and memorize a rhythm.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 10:35 AM on April 19, 2009

well, my natural sense of rhythm is abhorrent, and my music theory rudimentary at best, so the thing that helped me a lot was familiarizing myself with music that uses polyrhythms or compound time signatures. if, like me, you grew up on american popular music, you are used to hearing pretty steady 4/4 (or variations thereon), making syncopation harder to understand, and sometimes downright mystical (which is aesthetically valuable and not to be under-rated of course. i mean isn't his radical syncopation part of the magic of hearing charlie parker for the first time?).

something like the dave brubeck quartet's time out (1959 columbia records) is a nice place to start. the immortal 'take five' is entirely in 5/4 time and got me used to time signatures that 'lope' instead of 'walk' (and the left hand piano vamp pretty steadily and clearly reinforces the time signature to the benefit of untrained ears!). and 'blue rondo a la turk' (from the same album) has interesting sections in 9/8 (only grouped irregularly = 2 + 2 + 2 + 3) alternating with swinging passages in 4/4. deliberate contrast without sacrificing musicality, and just a fun tune.

latin jazz or bossa nova is a great resource as well. something like the accessible (and overplayed, but still sweet) getz/gilberto (1964 verve records) also proved useful to me. say, 'corcovado'. dig the clearly discernible clave patterns against the standard swing time. (and gilberto's guitar rhythms are pristine and beautiful.) instructional, but still goes well with wine and candles and those nights you want to make tender (and syncopated) love to that someone you're sweet on.

and depending on how deep you want to go, western african drumming often employs a two against three polyrhythm. this site offers basic instructions and midi files on these rhythms. if you can get the hang of these, you will never be flummoxed by syncopation in any context ever again (note: purely speculative; i have not actually done this myself, but listening to african drumming has definitely opened my ears).

and finally, for luxuriating in some of the best use of syncopation in jazz, get your ears on any solo monk you can. 'i'm confessin' (that i love you)' from 1964's 'solo monk' (columbia records) is representative of what the man could do with his ten fingers and genius. this album and 'thelonious alone in san francisco' (wikipedia entry) are like little history lessons in jazz piano playing: monk striding in the left hand while redrawing boundaries of jazz piano in the right (pretty much writing signposts for players like cecil taylor, btw).

all reet, that's all i gots. oh wait--on the 'classical' tip, consider maybe checking out bartok's use of compound time signatures borrowed from eastern european folk dances in his string quartets. such as, string quartet no. 5, Scherzo: alla bulgarese.

this is all just sharing bits from my own musical journey, and no real knowledge or authority should be inferred from the tone of the comment. but i hope it helps. cheers!
posted by barrett caulk at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding ragtime as a textbook example of syncopation. It has a steady thumping stride bass which you can easily lock onto (in the left hand/bass) and syncopated melody playing against that (in the right hand/treble). The beat is simple, just 4/4 or 2/4, so it's easy to follow. Try tapping or clapping along with the bass rhythm, and listen to how the treble inserts in between the bass chords.

Here's a guy called chocotiger playing Scott Joplin's "Pineapple Rag" on youtube, with a nice moderate tempo and very clear syncopation.
posted by Quietgal at 10:59 AM on April 19, 2009

By the way, "Higher Ground" is syncopated all over the place, but I think it's because the keyboard is based in triplets while the drums aren't. In other words, kind of an advanced example. "Superstition" might work better.

Not really. The keyboard part itself starts out on the beat and then goes off the beat. It's not just triplets against 4/4 drums.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2009

Watch this (How Music Works - part 2 of 4 - Rhythm)
posted by Dub at 6:17 PM on June 6, 2009

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