Jazz Theory – Syncopation

28 December 2015 Articles Jazz Theory


Despite the freedom and improvised nature of jazz music, there are several common elements that help to define something as being jazz. One of the more technical elements is called syncopation, or an unexpected rhythm on the off-beat. Western music is built upon several expectations. Certain chord changes and progressions place emphasis on certain beats, usually the first and third. Syncopation places rhythmic stress in areas where it normally isn’t found, like on the second and fourth beats. This is one of the ways that jazz maintains such an improvised feel, even when it’s not improvised.

Syncopation feels unexpected, sometimes even forced, but breaks up normal rhythms into unique patterns. In jazz, syncopation really traces its roots back to Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornet player who played between 1895 and 1906. Bolden’s band is often credited with developing the first standard syncopated bass drum pattern, which created emphasis on the off-beats.

A Simple Example of Syncopation

Try tapping your foot to a steady beat and say:

  1. “oom” every time your foot hits the floor and “pah” every time your foot is in the air (oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah…)
  2. now, keeping your foot tapping steady, just say the “pahs” when your foot is in the air ( pah -pah -pah -pah…) — this is syncopation

Syncopation is Natural for the Jazz Musician

Syncopation might seem tricky at first, but to the jazz musician it’s as natural as a speaker raising his/her voice to make a point.

Jazz in America




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