Syncopation is one of the basic ingredients of rhythm. It’s what makes the difference between a straightforward,stomping beat, and something funky, fluid and interesting.But what is it? Can anyone get in on the act? And can you use it for other things than drums too? Let us shed some light…
Syncopation is, basically, just putting things in the gaps between beats. But not just on 8ths; as this can sound pretty straight too; so use 16th note shuffles to accentuate and emphasise the main beats. The simplest way is to try a quiet snare drum (known as a ‘ghost note’) just before or after a main kick or snare. See how it leads into, or jerks out of, the beat? It’s a technique that most hip-hop or jungle producers will be familiar with already. You can enhance the feel of this even further; for instance if it’s a snare preceding a kick, try delaying the kick by half a beat. Now the main beat is displaced by an 8th note too; the listener’s attention is grabbed further by the fact that it wasn’t where they were expecting. You’re creating a ‘tension and release’ moment.
This technique is common in breakbeat-based music, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work in house and techno too. A common rhythm heard in Detroit techno, used by the likes of Juan Atkins, is pulling the 4th kick of the bar earlier by a 16th note. This adds a degree of funk to the beat, and sets it apart from the standard 4/4 stomp – but when teamed with the usual hats and claps can still keep the steady groove of house and techno. This kick pattern is also the bedrock of Baltimore Club music, as pushed by Scottie B et al. But it can be switched up – you can pull any one of the kicks off the beat, to add some shuffle to your track while still leaving it straight enough to play in a regular house set.
Ragga and dancehall music is very syncopated; to the point where you could argue it’s just a polyrhythm (but that’s a discussion for another day). The beat is usually sub-divided into lengths of three 16ths, or if you’re looking at it on a grid format, it hits on 1, 4, and 7 (and then repeats on 9, 12 and 15). It makes for a very distinctive groove; team it with a kick on all the fours and you’ll have an instant African vibe (or indeed UK Funky).
This isn’t all about drums though – you can syncopate anything to make it sound more interesting. To take the dancehall-style rhythm above, a popular groove in dubstep is to have the classic halfstep drumbeat, with a sub-bass hitting on every three 16th notes. Or leads and main riffs – see Redlight’s recent hit ‘Get Out My Head’, where the piano chords switch from being on the beat for the first half of the bar, to a syncopated rhythm in the 2nd half of the bar.
Anything you have that falls on a straight rhythm, you can give consideration to pulling it back and forth off the beat to make it more interesting; as countless jazz and blues masters have said over the years, it’s all about the spaces in between the beats. And if you can make these spaces surprising, attention-grabbing, or even just more varied, you’ll be half way to making your track a much more interesting listen overall. Whether it’s a synth arpeggio, sub bass thump or brass stabs, the rhythm can make all the difference.
So work as hard on the rhythms of your track – from drums and bass to pianos and lead lines – as you do on the melodies and harmonies, and you’ll soon find that syncopation can bring life to loops that previously sounded dull and predictable. And you’ll be a lot closer to having a groove that’s ready to make into a full arrangement!