Introduction to Rhythm (Syncopation)

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INTRODUCTION TO RHYTHM (assignment details are provided at the end of this Unit)

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In the first third of this course we examined music from a relational, neurological and cultural perspective. We will now start delving into the rudiments of music theory. To truly appreciate the content that comes later in the course it is essential for you to take in some of the fundamental concepts behind RHYTHM. In doing so, you will go from loving music, which I assume you already do, to actually understanding how music works!

So, what is rhythm’s place in music? Rhythm moves through music as a driving force in several different ways. It creates the basic pulse of a song. Rhythm is the part of the song your toes tap along to and your head nods to. A principle we call METER helps organize notes into groups using a time signature while also defining the repetitive pattern of strong and weak beats that noticeably move a song along. (The individual measures in a piece of music determine the meter).

Let’s define some of those terms from that last paragraph and add a few more essential ones. (Take notes!)

Pulse is the regular or repeating occurrence of rhythm in time without any emphasis or division. In music, an established or steady and repeating pulse is referred to as the beat.

Tempo is simply the speed or pace of a given piece of music. Nowadays, tempo is usually measured by and indicated in Beats Per Minute or bpm. In earlier times (classical music), tempo was indicated by a commonly accepted set of Italian terms such as lento (slow), andante (moderately slow, walking pace) or allegro (lively and fast).

Subdivision is the process of dividing the beat. I’ll come back to subdivision a little later.

Meter is the rhythmic pattern created by the grouping of basic temporal units, called beats, into regular measures, or bars. For example, 3/4 metre has three quarter-note beats per measure. In Western notation, each measure is set off from those adjoining it by bar lines.

Closely associated to meter is Time signature. Time signature tells you how the music is to be counted. Time signatures consist of two numbers written like a fraction. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats to count in a single measure. The bottom number tells you what kind of note length to count. Examples:

A 4/4 time signature means you count four (top number) quarter notes (bottom number) to each measure. So a 4/4 pulse or beat is counted one-two-three-four…one-two-three-four and so on.

A 3/4 time signature means you count three (top number) quarter notes (bottom number) to each measure. A 3/4 pulse or beat is counted one-two-three…one-two-three and so on.

Accent occurs when a particular pulse or set of pulses receives emphasis over others.

The following two videos do an excellent job of illustrating the rhythm basics mentioned above, focusing on pulse, beat, note duration, measures, and time signature.

This video is geared toward non-musicians. Watch it now.

This next video is geared toward piano players, but the basic concept of rhythm applies to all instruments. Watch it now all the way through. For this video you may want to print out a blank music notation sheet which will help you to understand the information provided. This sheet is provided in the “Files” link to your left.

~~~~~~~~~~Once you have finished viewing and taking notes, take a break and then come back and review your notes, Then move on to the next part of the Unit (below).~~~~~~~~


SUBDIVISION is where the fun really begins in rhythm. As mentioned before briefly, subdivision is what happens when you divide the beat. For musicians, subdividing the beat means playing not only the main beat, but at the rhythmic points in between the beats, an especially critical skill for rhythm section players like bassists and drummers.

But, wait! What do I mean by playing in between the beats?

Well, think of the beat as a reference point around which other rhythms dance. Here’s a very simple exercise that illustrates this point…

Tap out a basic 4/4 beat with your right foot:

FOOT: one…two…three…four…one…two…three…four

| | | | | | | |

Keep your foot going, and with your right hand tap the exact same beat:

HAND: one…two…three…four…one…two…three…four

| | | | | | | |

Now keep your foot the same, but double the beats with your hand:

FOOT: | | | | | | | |

HAND: | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |

Congratulations! Your hand has subdivided the beat in two, giving you 8th notes or an “8th note pulse.” Those places where your hand is tapping on its own (the smaller “|” marks) is you playing in between the beat.

So why does this matter? It matters because this is where groove comes from. The groove associated with any particular genre of music occurs as a direct result of rhythmic subdivision!

The groove of traditional rock’n’roll is based on “straight eighths.” Rockers take a 4/4 beat, subdivide it in 2, and drive it hard by playing those 8th notes in between the main beat.

The Funk groove typically has an underlying 16th note pulse (as do faster genres of rock, like punk and metal). Guitar players including Prince, Nile Rogers (Chic), Freddie Stone (Sly & TFS), and Jimmy Nolan (James Brown) were all masters of 16th note funk groove!


So, subdivision helps to organize the beat in a particular way. And accent gives emphasis to a particular beat or set of beats within that organization. Let’s see what happens when you combine the two…

First, recall that a beat can be divided in many different ways. The three most common examples of this in western music are:

1. Double time. (2 beats per measure) Marching bands use “double” time which is time divided by two’s or four’s => ONE -two… ONE -two… ONE -two… You might notice that that type of rhythm has a militaristic feel. That’s the sound of two legs marching.

2. Waltz. In waltz there are 3 beats per measure and an accent is placed on the first beat of every three (also known as “triple meter”). ONE-two-three…ONE-two-three…Observe the choreography of a Waltz and you will notice that waltz dancers almost always perform their major pivots or turns on that first beat of three. Waltz shows how the organization of beat and accent influences the choreography associated with a style of music.

3. Rock-n-Roll. Standard Rock-n-Roll typically operates in “4/4” time: four ¼ note beats (or “down beats”) to a measure. The strong, steady pulse of the 4/4 time signature, often divided further into “straight 8ths” creates the driving effect associated with rock music. Early rock artists and musicians of the 1950’s and 60’s combined the 4/4 time signature with a fast tempo. Then they added presence (volume) through electronic amplification, and rock-n-roll was born!

One of the earliest rock hits, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, is a great example of a song with a fast driving tempo of 168 beats per minute (bpm) set to a 4/4 time signature. Click the link and give it a quick listen.

So, in western rhythm, beats are most commonly divided in two, in three, and in four, as demonstrated in the three genre examples above.

But what happens if you take a standard 4/4 time signature and emphasize certain beats over others? Three variations of accent in 4/4 time that have had a tremendous impact on popular music. They are backbeat, offbeat, and syncopation.


BACKBEAT is based on a 4/4 time signature, however backbeat places the emphasis on the second and fourth beat: one-TWO-three-FOUR…one-TWO-three-FOUR…one-TWO-three-FOUR…

What is the effect of this? Well, for starters, it’s extremely danceable! Early R&B used a stomping backbeat to get people up and moving. Here’s a very short list of some well known songs that use backbeat (videos to all of these can be viewd by clicking the link):

You Can’t Hurry Love (The Supremes) – the tambourine emphasizes backbeat throughout.
The Twist (Chubby Checker) – hear those hard snare drum hits, especially in the intro and first verse? That’s backbeat!
Hound Dog (Elvis)
Twist & Shout (The Beatles) – here’s backbeat, but set to a slower tempo (compared to the songs above).
Hey, Ya (Outkast)
Happy (Pharrell Williams)

To demonstrate the power and influence of backbeat, here is a fun little exploration that I created for this course:

Backbeat Exploration – Valerie (by The Zutons). Listen to the following song Valerie by Liverpool band, The Zutons. The song’s time signature is a fairly straight-forward 4/4. There is some electric guitar emphasis on the 2 from the start, but it’s not until later, as the song really develops, that the snare drum in particular starts hitting down hard on the 2 and 4, establishing a solid backbeat. So yes, there’s backbeat here, but what is keeping it from having a 100% get-up-and-dance backbeat groove? The simple answer is probably tempo. At 85 bpm, the song is on the slower side, especially compared to any of the songs in the above list.

Now let’s hear a different version of the same song, as covered by Amy Winehouse. In this famous cover version of this song, there is no easily discernable backbeat. Winehouse maintains the 4/4 beat, uses a repeating keyboard part to add straight 8th note beats to the central 4/4 down beat, and she ups the tempo. She also funks things up a bit through intermittent 16th note strumming of electric guitar and through the lovely and unexpected timing of her vocals. All in all, it’s funky and very groovy, but not backbeat.

Finally, here is my version of Valerie. I sometimes like to strips things down, and yet go heavy on the backbeat. I do this by stressing the 2 and 4 with my (acting as percussion) while the thumb of my picking hand acts as bass. This style of playing, by the way, stems from a blues technique often referred to as “three finger blues.” (Note: the sound quality on this clip is not great. Listening on headphones might help you to hear the foot and backbeat better):


OFFBEAT. A variation of backbeat that is commonly used today is “offbeat.” Take a standard 4/4 measure:


Now divide it into 8th’s by sticking “AND” in between the main beats:


Notice how emphasizing the “AND” beats brings a lift to the beat and helps make the beat fall forward into the music a little more. This, again, is essentially backbeat.

But, now do this. Emphasize the “AND” beats with barely any emphasis on the main beats. You have now arrived at “Offbeat.” This is the core rhythmic feel of House and Electronica or what people often refer to as “oontz-oontz” music…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ASSIGNMENT (10 points)~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Below are two different performances of the same exact song: Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears Around Me.” Watch and listen to each of these performances. Using what you have just learned about rhythm, first do your best to describe the main rhythmic structure (tempo, meter, time signature) of the original version by Neil Young. Next, compare the rhythm and feel of my cover version to Neil Young’s original. How is my version different rhythmically? How does the difference in rhythmic feel color or flavor the song as a whole? Try to incorporate as many observations about tempo, meter, accent, and subdivision as you can in your response.

*P.S. Have no fear- this will be the only Unit in which I use myself as an example in the course; also do NOT be afraid to be critical should you find one version more pleasing or appropriate than the other.


Minimum 2 pages, uploaded to Unit 5 assignment link
title your paper “Music Assignment 5”


Video 1: Neil Young – Don’t Cry No Tears Around Me

Watch Video





Video 2: Professor Baker – cover of Don’t Cry No Tears Around Me (by Neil Young)

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