Syncopation in Music and Dance
By Philip Seyer
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We Dance to Music
Since we dance to music, its only natural that many musical terms will creep into our dancer's vocabulary. Common terms are tempo, measures, and beat. When dance teachers use these words they conform to correct musical definitions. The word syncopation, however, is a different story! In music the word syncopation has a very specific meaning. Many dancers and dance teachers use the term much more loosely. Although I'm not likely to change the habits of the millions of dancers who use this term, I would like to clarify it's meaning in music. I also suggest that we keep that same meaning when we refer to syncopation in dance.
Splitting the Beat is NOT Syncopation!
I've heard more than one dance teacher explain: "in music, syncopation is the splitting of the beat into two parts." These teachers, in this case, were explaining how you take two quick steps in cha-cha. Yes, a beat is split into two steps in cha-cha. Usually this is beat four. But no! This action does not constitute syncopation!. Actually, the main syncopation in cha-cha happens on beat two (usually the first part of a rock step), I'll explain why shortly
Other teachers and dancers use the term "syncopation" to refer to fancy footwork or a deviation from some basic pattern of steps that they have learned. This is getting closer to the true meaning of syncopation, but it still misses the mark. You could being doing fancy footwork that deviates from a basic step and still not be syncopating the steps. So what then is syncopation?
Before I get to that definition, I need to clarify some basic terms: beat, strong beat, weak beat, and accent.
Beat. A beat is a regular pulsation. A spring driven clock ticks to a regular beat by itself. In classical music the beat tends to somewhat flexible and is an expressive element. That's why a conductor is needed in classical music to show the beat by the up and down movements of a baton. The conductor helps the musicians stay together on the beat. Popular dance music, in contrast, usually has a steady never ending beat indicated by a drummer; a conductor isn't needed to help musician follow the beat during the playing of a song. The beat is not the same as the drummer part--the beat is the regular pulsation created by all of the musical parts working together. The drum part usually just highlights the beat.
Strong and Weak Beats. When we listen to a series of beats, we tend to organize them into strong and weak beats. If you can find a clock that ticks, try this experiment. Listen to the ticks. Do you hear "tick-tick-tick-tick" or "TICK-tock-TICK-tock"? Most people hear the TICK-tock-TICK-tock. We hear the first beat as strong (TICK) and the second one as weak (tock). We tend to hear every other beat as strong.
Measure. A measure is a grouping of beats. If a piece of music has four beats to a measure, the first beat is considered strong. What about the second beat? Will it be weak or strong? What about the third and fourth beats?
We tend to hear the second beat as weak, the third beat strong and the fourth beat weak. I'll illustrate that here by making the strong beats boldface:
Normally, then, when there are four beats per measure, beats one and three are strong and two and four are weak. (For the sake of simplicity, I'm not dealing with Waltz music, here, which has three beats per measure.)
Accent. An accent in music is created whenever a music tone sounds. (When a musician plays a note, a musical tone is created.) If a tone is played or sung loudly or with a unique quality, the tone is said to have a strong accent.
A dancer creates an accent whenever she takes a step. But she can create a strong accent by making a step larger than usual, by delaying the step slightly and then stepping quickly to arrive on the beat. A dancer can also accent a step in some dances by stomping his foot or by making unusual moves with his or her upper body. (Some dances allow more freedom in this respect then others. In certain smooth dances, the rule is to "not make noise when you step." But that rule is not always the case, as in swing when a good stomp can provide a needed accent.)
Now with that background information out of the way I'm ready to define syncopation.
Defining Syncopation. In What Makes Music Work, I define syncopation as "the shifting of an expected accent , moving it from the usual strong beat to a beat that is usually weak. " Other writers offer similar definitions. For example, Miller, Taylor, and Williams in Introduction to Music write: "The shifting of the accent to a weak beat or to an off beat is known as syncopation. " Let's consider this in more detail and explore how it relates to music and dance.
Since the sounding of a music tone creates an accent and beats one and three are normally strong beats, we can create a syncopation simply by playing notes on the weak beats (beats two and four) and not playing (resting) on the strong beats (one and three)
(Playing on beats two and four)
Swing dancers (and many black people) like to clap in a syncopated fashion, that is, on beats two and four. Classically trained musician will sometimes clap to music on the strong beats--beats one and three because they have been trained to listen for the usual accent on those beats. If a large untrained group of people are clapping to music, some will clap on every beat, some on the strong beats and some on the weak beats. But if the music has a strong syncopated feel--with some heavy accents on beats that are normally weak (namely, two and four), it feels good to clap on those beats. But there is no one correct way of clapping to music. I recently saw an all black audience clapping on beats one and three!
In seemed appropriate in that case, though to clap on beats one and three because of the nature of the music, which did not have a strong syncopated feel. Even though there is no one right way to clap, I like to train my swing dance students to clap on beats two and four because syncopated clapping is the tradition in the swing community.
But accents on one and three are still needed! So that the normal accents on one and two can be heard, some instruments or singers must accent those beats, too. These instruments provide the foundation that lets us enjoy the syncopation--the shifting of the accent to the weak beats. Instruments playing bass parts will often accent beats one and three. Often singers will accent beat one at the beginning of a musical phrase. For example, in the Star Spangled Banner, we sing: "Oh, SAY can you see." The word "SAY," here comes on beat one.
All instruments and voice parts, of course, can syncopate at different times by accenting weak beats or by resting (not playing anything) on the strong beats.
Before and After the Beat Syncopation
Another way to syncopate is to play a note slightly before the beat or slightly after it. For example, it's possible to break a beat into four parts and count like it like this:
1 ee AND uh.....2 ee AND uh etc.
If we play a note on the "ee," or "AND" or "uh" and hold that note into the next beat, we are syncopating by accenting an offbeat.
I'm going to try to illustrate syncopation again. This time a word in bold indicates that a musician is playing a note. (If you are reading this online, the word will be bold and in red ) Four musical notes are being played. Look at the count. See if you can figure out which notes are synopations.
One ee AND uh .....Two ee AND uh.....Three ee AND uh..... Four ee AND uh
What do you think? Which notes are syncopated? (I suggest you try to come up with answer before reading below the horizontal line.)
The first note is not syncopated because it is coming in as expected on beat one. The second note is arriving on the "uh" count of beat one--just before beat two. Since it is off the beat, the second note is syncopated. The third note lands on the third beat, so it is not syncopated. The fourth note arrives just before the fourth note (on the "uh" of beat three) so it is syncopated.
Other kinds of syncopation are also possible in music. I won't go into detail here about these variations. Instead, let's consider now how we can syncopate dance steps.
Syncopation in Dance
In West Coast Swing (California style) the leader usually steps back with his left foot on count one and leads the follower to step forward. By stepping back and leading the follower to come forward, the leader is accenting the beat. Since the normal accent in music is on count one, this is not syncopation. The follower can syncopate, however, by declining the leaders invitation to step forward. (Does this surprise you? Followers in West Coast Swing have quite a bit of freedom!)
Syncopation by Resting. For example, on beat one when the leader leads her forward, the follower might just touch her heel to the floor (and not step forward). This will tend to surprise a leader who is not used to syncopation because he expects the follower to come forward. To make this work and this stay together with the leader, the follower can let her arm go forward but not her body. In music, we might say she is resting. By not moving forward, she is removing the accent from the normally accented strong beat number one. Also, to stay together with the leader, the follower may pull her right foot in and step on the ball of that foot on the AND of beat one.
By suddenly resting (failing to step and change weight) on beat one and then stepping on the offbeat, the follower is syncopating. This pattern is often called "heel-ball, change." (Short for "touch your heel to the floor, step with the same foot onto the ball of that foot and then change weight to the other foot.) Another similar dance syncopation involves kicking on beat one (instead of touching the heel to the floor). You've may have heard it referred to as "kick-ball change."
So a dancer can syncopate by suddenly doing an unexpected touch step or a kick step on a strong beat where one would normally expected a weight change. That's like a musician who syncopates by not playing a new note on a beat that is normally accented.
Accentng a Weak Beat. Another way to syncopate would be to stomp on a weak beat. For example, in West Coast Swing, the leader might stomp on beat 6 with his right foot (without changing weight). This stomping action can create a powerful accent and makes some noise! This is especially effective if the music is also accenting this beat with a cymbal crash or some other strong accent. The count might go:
One..Two...Three and Four.. Five and SIX (stomp with right foot keeping weight on left foot.)
Since the leader now has the weight on his left foot, he might change weight on the and of beat six to get back to the normal foot pattern. He might also throw in a kick-ball-change syncopation on the next one and two.
Syncopation in cha-cha. In cha-cha, there is a heavy accent on beat two. That's why many leaders prefer to start dancing by breaking forward on beat two of the music. What do you think? Is this syncopation? (Try to come up with your answer. Then checkout what I have to say below the horizontal line.)
Since beat two (by definition) is normally a weak beat, this is definitely a syncopation. When doing a cross over break, well-trained dancers who want to put some fancy style in their dancing will almost freeze on beat one while facing their partners--they won't start pivoting slowly to the crossover break. Then they will make a quick, sharp step for the cross-over break on beat two. This is the syncopation in cha-cha--not the splitting of the beat in the cha-cha step. The cha-cha steps happen on beat four, a weak beat. If the music is accenting that beat, then it would be correct to refer to it as a syncopation, but it's not syncopation just because the beat is split into two steps!
Here is a fancy step in cha-cha:
The leader does a normal cross over break to the right side on count two. Then he does a normal replace and cha-cha step followed by a cross over break to the left so that he steps on his right foot on count two and plants it here. Normaly stuff so far--the right foot is crossed in front of and to the left of the right foot. But on count three he brings his left foot around so that it is directly beside his right foot. On four, he leader suddently slides (skootches) back with both feet leading the follower to do the same in a kind of open break! On the and of beat four, he changes weight to the right foot so that he can come forward land on the left foot on beat one. Is this syncopation? (Check you answer below the horizontal line.)
Well, that quick skootching action is certainly creates an accent. And since it is happening on beat four, it definitely a syncopation!
Coordinating Syncopation to the Music
Since we dance to music, dance syncopations look best when they coincide with strong musical syncopations. But it's possible to throw in dance syncopations when the music isn't syncopating, it's just not as much fun and not as effective. But when you're first learning to use syncopation in your dance, you can't always fit them to the music. We have to practice syncopations a lot before they feel natural and that means we may need to just do the syncopations when we can and not worry about dancing to the music (did I say that?) Anyway, the goal is eventually to make our dance syncopations fit with the music whenever possible.
A Little Music History
When did syncopations first start? Some people may think that syncopations began when jazz first evolved in the US. Traditional dance music before 1910 didn't have many syncopations. In his book The Creation of Jazz, (University of Illinois Press, 1992) Burton Pertetti points out that 1910 recordings of Dixieland music reveal a syncopated version of traditional "two step" dance music. Leonard Bernstein, the famous composer and orchestral conductor used to be fond of pointing out that you can take traditional sounding music and give it a jazz flavor by adding syncopations. But Beethoven also used syncopations in his music more than a 100 years earlier than the early American jazz musicians. And you can find a good example of syncopation in the A minor Two Part Invention by J.S. Bach.
Most books on Western music history trace first use of syncopation back to a time period referred to as Ars Nova (The New Art) in the 14th century! The difference, though, is that these early musicians used syncopations sparingly for special effects, whereas jazz musicians incorporate syncopation as a basic stylistic element in their music.
I could go on and on about syncopations, but my deadline for this article is drawing near. I hope you have enjoyed it. Please remember, splitting the beat in music is NOT syncopation. Syncopation happens when we shift an accent from a beat that's normally strong to one that's normally weak or when we fail to provide an accent for a normal strong beat. Dancers and dance teachers sometimes use the term syncopation to refer to steps that deviate from the basic, simple steps that a beginner dancer learns. It's too bad that this rather precise musical term has to be distorted in this way. I guess the best I can hope for is that dance teachers will stop saying, "In music, syncopation is..."
About the Author
Phil Seyer is a composer, dancer teacher, music educator. He is the author of What Makes Music Work, a self-teaching guide to music theory for adults. He uses syncopations extensively in his new album of original music entitled Starlight Room. The album is a mixture of dance and new age jazz music. Phil combines his composing and computer skills to arrange, perform and orchestrates all musical parts on the album. You may contact Phil by calling 916-772-7555.
For group or private dance lessons in Roseville, Sacramento area, call Philip Seyer, 916-772-755
See also: http://www.lovemusiclovedance.com