Music Theory: Syncopation

Syncopation is the alternation of regular rhythm, produced by placing the strongest emphasis on part of the bar not usually accented.

In a bar of common time, the simplest form of syncopation is produced by giving three notes of the value of a crotchet, a minim, and a crotchet respectively. This last crotchet is often tied on to the first crotchet of the next bar, so that for several bars the displaced accentuation obtains the mastery.

In the Coda of the great Overture ‘Leanora No. 3’ Beethoven has a passage given out syncopated on the wind and naturally on the strings, then vice versa. It was not, however, always sufficient for Beethoven’s requirements, as may be seen from a well-known place in the Scherzo of the Eroica, where he first gives a passage in syncopation:


and then repeats it in common time, which in this instance may be taken as an extreme form of syncopation.


Schumann was fonder of syncopation than any other composer. His works supply many instances of whole short movements so syncopated throughout that the ear loses its reckoning, and the impression of contra tempo is lost: e.g. Kinderscenen, No. 10; Faschingsschwank, No. 1, and, most noticeable of all, the opening bar of the “Manfred” Overture:


Wagner has one or two examples of exceedingly complex syncopation: an accompaniment figure of Act 2 of ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ which runs thus throughout:


and a somewhat similar figure in Act 1 of “Gotterdammerung” (the scene known as ‘Hagen’s watch’), where the quavers of a 12-8 bar are so tied as to convey the impression of 6-4. The prelude to Act 2 of the same work presents a still more curious specimen, no two bars having at all the same accent.


The figure at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s string quartet in D, op. 11, is an interesting instance of syncopation carried out for many bars at a time:


Brahm’s favorite device of crossing rhythms in triple time is not usually called syncopation, though it belongs to the same class of devices.