What is Syncopation?

What is Syncopation?

As a jazz fan, you obviously love listening to the notes flowing out from the bell of a saxophone, but can you actually visualize those notes, on a staff? Are you able to see the music as well as hear it?

Trust us, learning a bit about musical composition won’t ruin the magic of jazz—far from it, it’ll only enhance it. Because when you gain a deeper understanding of all the intricacies, you’ll develop an even stronger appreciation for the enchanting nature of jazz music!

So, in that spirit, we’re continuing our blog series on the basics of musical theory and composition. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our posts about melody, harmony, and polyphony.

Today, we’re going to be learning about syncopation. But first, before we talk about that, let’s quickly run through the concepts of rhythm and beat. As you might already know, every piece of music has an internal natural flow, like a pulse or the ticking of a clock, that repeats until the end. This pulse is called the rhythm, which is organized into beats per measure.

Syncopation is a rhythmic structure that avoids the natural flow, or beats, of a piece. And how does syncopation avoid the beats, you may be wondering. Well, it’s actually quite simple—the notes are displaced so that they don’t fall precisely on the beats of the time signature. Instead, the notes can be played in anticipation—earlier than you’d expect—right before the marked beats, or they can be delayed and played after each beat of the pulse.

Believe it or not, in some melodies, every single note is syncopated—meaning that every note falls before or after the beat! And in jazz, this is a very popular technique. Most jazz musicians prefer to accentuate the upbeats. So, if you’re tapping your foot along to the music, the notes that are played when your foot is in the air are the ones that are emphasized.

Now this all may sound very complicated, but to the jazz musician, it actually comes quite naturally—eventually, master musicians do it intuitively, just like how you fluctuate your voice while speaking.

Syncopating notes gives the musician freedom to express their own interpretations of the beat. And to be honest, if there was no syncopation, jazz simply wouldn’t be jazz—it wouldn’t sound right—because most jazz compositions incorporate a mixture of syncopated and non-syncopated notes.

Many well-known songs from “Hey Diddle Diddle” to “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” include syncopated notes.

Can you spot any syncopation in this 2022 jazz rendition of “Can’t Buy Me Love” from the WJ3 All-Stars?

“Can’t Buy Me Love” comes from the album My Ship, which is available in our store and on all major music platforms today.

This post was written by Digital Marketing Manager, Jacqueline Knirnschild.


Photo by weston m on Unsplash

What do Poetry and Jazz Have in Common?

In honor of World Poetry Day this Sunday, March 21st, we decided to explore the connections between these two art forms. 

When you think about poetry, you probably think about nature and love, rhyme scheme and metaphor, rhythm and imagery. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. You probably think about the beautiful but perplexing language that takes a few reads to really sink in. Or maybe you think about those poems and stanzas that have changed your life—those words that are seared into your memory forever and those afternoons spent sprawling on a blanket in a park, taking turns reciting love poems with your sweetheart. 

When you think about jazz music, you probably think of smooth saxophones, energetic pianos and moody lyrics. Sultry vocals, energetic horns and forceful rhythms. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe you think about dancing and swinging at a jazz club (before the pandemic, of course), or relaxing after a stressful day, reclining in your favorite chair or soaking in a bubble bath and listening to some heartfelt tunes. 

There are actually not many concrete differences between the two forms of artistic expression. While reading poetry is often a solitary activity and not something commonly done at a party, it still can be performed in public, at cafes and bars, like jazz. Although some poetry can be free verse, with no rhyme scheme or rhythm, about two-thirds involve a strong rhythm, like jazz. And both poetry and jazz enrich our understandings of the world by reaffirming our shared humanity through beauty, feelings and questions. Let’s take a more in-depth look at these similarities.  

They both have origins in oral traditions

The earliest poetry is believed to have been sung, as a method of remembering important oral histories, genealogies and laws. The rhythmic and repetitious nature of poetry made it much easier to remember and retell long stories before writing became available. The earliest poetry actually existed in the form of chants and hymns and was considered a verbal art, not a literary art like it is today. 

A signature component of jazz music is the call and response, which originates from Sub-Saharan African cultures. At public meetings, religious rituals and musical gatherings, the call and response served as a pattern of democratic participation and thus made its way, through enslaved Africans, to the 1920s African American jazz scene. 

They both usually have strong rhythms

Poetry can be broken down into three main verses: formal, blank and free. Formal and blank both involve a strict meter, which is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that determines the rhythm of the poem. Think of the iambic pentameter in the Shakespearean sonnets, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The first word is unstressed, the second is stressed and so forth. 

Jazz involves rhythms ranging from simple to complex that always include a basic underlying beat to which we tap our feet. Syncopation is the main rhythmic feature of jazz, which displaces beats or accents so that the stronger beats become weaker and vice versa. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it…?

How poetry and jazz have come together

The similarities between poetry and jazz became apparent to poets like Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Poets began writing poems that responded to and wrote about jazz music. They coined the term “jazz poetry,” which encompasses a range of forms, rhythms, sounds and improvisations. To give you a better idea of jazz poetry, here are a few lines from Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues:” Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon. The popularity of jazz poetry continued throughout the Beat movement and the Black Arts Movement and is still alive today. 

How Night is Alive is bringing poetry and jazz together

Many of the songs featured on the albums produced by Night is Alive include lyrics and rhythms that are quite poetic. On the newly released album, “Cryin’ In My Whiskey,” Janis Siegel and John Di Martino create a lovely rendition of Willie Nelson’s classic hit, “Always on My Mind.” The evocative lyrics rhyme beautifully: Girl I’m sorry I was blind / You were always on my mind. 

“Cryin’ In My Whiskey” is available right now in our store. Check it out!  

This post was written by Blog Editor, Jacqueline Knirnschild.