How to Use Music Theory to Create Stress Patterns and Syncopation

By Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day

The underlying rhythmic pulse in music theory is called the beat. In some ways, the beat is everything. It determines how people dance to music or even how they feel when they hear it. The beat influences whether people feel excited, agitated, mellow, or relaxed by music.

When you’re writing a piece of music down on paper, the way you group your notes together in a measure (the music contained within two bar lines) reflects the kind of beat the music will have. As a musician, you can feel this natural pulse when you play music and count off the beats.

Placing stress: Knowing the general rules

Generally, the first beat of a measure receives the strongest stress. If more than three beats are in a measure, usually a secondary strong beat comes halfway through the measure. Lots of theories exist about why the brain seems to demand that music be broken up into units of two and three beats. But no one has come to a consensus on why music should be broken up into units of two or three beats.

In a piece of music with four beats in each measure, such as a piece in 4/4 time, the first beat in the measure has a strong accent, and the third beat has a slightly less strong accent. The beats would be counted as follows:

ONE two THREE four

A piece of music written in 6/8 time, which has six beats in each measure, is counted as follows:

ONE two three FOUR five six

Syncopation: Hitting the off‐beat

Syncopation is, very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two or three beat stress pattern. Musicians most often create syncopation by stressing an offbeat, or a note that isn’t on the beat.

In 4/4 time, the general stress pattern is that the first and the third beats are strong, and the second and fourth are weak. Another way to say this is that downbeats, or accented beats, such as those at the beginning or halfway through a measure, are strong, and upbeats, or unaccented beats, are generally weak.

So if you had a piece of music that looked like this, the quarter rest where the natural downbeat is located is considered the point of syncopation in the music. The fourth beat of the measure is accented instead of the third beat, which is normally accented, creating a different‐sounding rhythm than you would normally have in 4/4 time music. The measure would be counted off as such:

ONE‐two‐three‐FOUR

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The natural stress of the meter has been disrupted. The count ONE‐two‐(three)‐FOUR is weird to your ear because you want to hear that nonexistent quarter note that would carry the downbeat in the middle of the measure.

If you do anything that disrupts the natural beat with either an accent or an upbeat with no subsequent downbeat being played, you have created syncopation.

People often mistake syncopation as being comprised of cool, complex rhythms with lots of sixteenth notes and eighth notes, as often heard in jazz music, but that isn’t necessarily true. For example, this piece of music shows a bunch of eighth notes and then a bunch of sixteenth and thirty‐second notes.

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Just because this shows a dense rhythm doesn’t necessarily mean those rhythms are syncopated. As you can see from the accent marks, the downbeat is still on the “one” and “four” count in both measures, which is the normal downbeat in 6/8 time.

Even if a piece of music contains an entire measure of eighth notes, it doesn’t necessarily have syncopation. Every eighth note has a subsequent rhythmic resolution. In other words, the downbeats still occur in the measure where they’re supposed to be, on the accented notes.

The same is true of a bunch of sixteenth notes in a row. They aren’t syncopated because, again, even though you have some interesting notes that aren’t on the downbeat, everything ends up always resolving to the beat, like the following measure in 4/4 time:

ONE two THREE four

Here’s another example of the beat resolving in 6/8 time:

ONE two three FOUR five six

Now take a look at the following rhythm. Inside each box is a point of syncopation in the measures, giving you the following rhythm:

ONE two three FOUR one TWO three FOUR

The natural stresses have been shifted over in both measures, resulting in a purposefully disjointed‐sounding beat.

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So does syncopation involve a carefully placed rest or an accented note? The answer is both. If your perspective of where the downbeat occurs is moved, a point of syncopation results because it’s shifting where the strong and the weak accents are built.

Try counting out the beats while listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and you’ll hear some great examples of syncopation.