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Syncopation II : Off-Beat-Phrasing
"Syncopated" or "Off-Beat"?
The classic meaning of syncopation and its application have already been discussed in the first part.
Large parts of today’s pop music (“backbeat”) as well as Afro-American music such as jazz or bossa nova make use of the accent shift against the basic pulse in accompaniment and melody. However, the classic rules of tension and resolution are often not applied here. In this respect, the term “syncope” is no longer up-to-date, but is often used synonymously with the meaning “on the weak beat” or “off-beat”, especially in the English language .
In bossa nova, many melodies and rhythms are strongly “syncopated”, i.e. shifted against the basic pulse. This means not just displaced by a quarter note, but in the rhythmic subdivisions of eighth or sixteenth notes. It is therefore often difficult to execute these rhythms precisely.
A case in point is the first four bars of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado“, as in this arrangement by Quincy Jones. The accented phrasing of the horn section clearly shows how the melody is displaced against the groove.
The notation of the vocal part can look like this: Almost every note is on an unaccented beat between the main beats.
The following exercises are recommended to master such a phrase and generally strengthen the feeling for off-beat phrasing.
Exercises for Off-Beat-Phrasing
Here’s a simple exercise in 4/4 time and its equivalent in 2/4 time.
In the example below, the last note (the first beat of the second bar) is moved to the last beat of the first bar (the 4+ in 4/4 time, or the 4d in 2/4 time). This is an important concept in Afro-American Music and creates the feeling of forward motion and swing.
It is important to feel this shift in emphasis as anticipating rather than laying back of the rhythmic information. This subtle thought can make a difference in phrasing and help create the forward motion so characteristic of this music.
In the following examples, this shift is ultimately added to every note until at the end only the first beat is on the downbeat (= “heavy beat”).
If you play these rhythms without the “pause bar” (the second bar from the examples), you get a constantly driving melody rhythm that eludes the basic pulse – just like in “Desafinado“!