Twice last week I had students – marginally experienced beginners – who were confronted with this fact. One was a young woman who had taught herself a few chords and she loves to sing (hooray for that!!) but she knew that she was essentially matching her single strums to the lyrics without any semblance of a beat. I see this frequently and those who do this know that something is lacking. It’s easy to define what that is and I give them exercises right away to get them counting beats and measures in preparation for the first big step, which is matching the lyrics to the rhythm, not the other way around. She’ll do fine.
The other case was more perplexing but I’ve dealt with it many times before. That student wanted to know exactly what is the difference between a syncopated beat and a “straight” beat?
To be totally honest, I wish I had a better explanation. When explaining rhythm I always use a “fractional” system. If one is reading music this is pretty straight-forward, i.e., the value of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and so on. But as it relates to strumming, which is what the vast majority of my students want to do rather than just read single lines of printed notes I find myself defaulting to something that I used to hate from music teachers I had way-back-when: it needs to be felt as much as (or more than?) intellectualized. Arrggh! Just typing that gives me a headache!
Interestingly, if you do an internet search for an explanation of syncopation you won’t find any terribly clear information. The best most people can come up with is something along the lines of “accents on beats which are unexpected” (!!!). If your search includes You Tube videos, the person attempting to explain it often then plays something that is syncopated and yes, there it is, but again – what is it, REALLY?
The best explanation I can come up with is this. Let’s assume you’re in 4/4 time (although syncopation is certainly used in ¾, 2/4, even more exotic time signatures like 5/4 and 7/8). This means there are 4 beats per measure. Just count evenly and slowly: one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. (that would be two measures of 4/4, with a quarter note on each beat if you’d like to think in terms of musical notation)
Now here’s the slightly tricky part. In most explanations I’ve seen it is suggested that “normal” accents come on beats 1 and 3; in syncopation the accents are on 2 and 4. Think of the piano playing “Maple Leaf Rag.” But I suggest counting a triplet for each of those four beats, like this: ONE, 2, 3, TWO, 2, 3, THREE, 2, 3, FOUR, 2, 3. Try saying this out loud to get the feel for the triplets on top of a four-beat measure. Just say what’s above evenly with no hesitation between the words/count.
Now…… REST on the “2” of each of those triplets:
ONE (rest) 3, TWO (rest), 3, THREE (rest), 3, FOUR (rest), 3
Again, say the above EVENLY, or better yet, tap your hand on your leg on the numbers but not on the rests.
Do you feel it? I hope so! But see what I mean? Breaking it down into actual mathematical fractions of the beat is tough to think about. Some people can do it, some have real trouble. And this, my friends, is why I often default to “feeling” syncopation rather than thinking about it.
But wait, there’s another thing you can do, which is LISTEN for syncopation. Virtually all blues employs syncopation, either in the back rhythm or in soloing. Listen to Eric Clapton’s version of “Before You Accuse Me” to hear strong syncopation. Many country songs use it. Listen to Hank William’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” for examples of syncopation in both 4/4 and ¾ time.
Back at the beginning I mentioned how adamant I am about my students conquering rhythmic concepts and applying them to their playing, regardless if the song is difficult or very basic. For some it comes easy, for others it is a real struggle. This is because they often have never had to actually THINK about the concept of keeping a steady beat. Whether they can verbalize it or not, most people assume rhythm is just something that “happens.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Like every other musical skill, it must be practiced and the player has to be focused on it both mentally and physically. Then, sooner or later, it does get easier. This is what I mean by internalizing rhythm. Or as I tell my students: If you count now, you won’t have to count later.
Want to test your internalization of this? Try taking a song, any song, and playing it both with a “straight” beat and then a syncopated beat. Sure, it might sound a bit funny but if you can do this you can be sure you’re on your way to conquering rhythm, the most basic musical skill of them all.
Peace & good music,