Two Cool Rhythmic Devices

Two important rhythmic devices-syncopation and polymetric grouping patterns-are the focus of this article. The purpose is to examine and define the basic forms of these devices as found in contemporary music, and briefly show how they might be used in composition. They exist in almost every style of music, but most examples I've used are from The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections: 1960-1973 by Allan Slutsky and Chuck Silverman.

  Scott McCormick is a professor in the Harmony Department. He has written the MusicGamesOne and MusicGamesTwo software programs that teach music fundamentals in a video game format.
  Score Examples

Example 1 - Syncopation patterns

Example 2 - Alternate form syncopation patterns

Example 3 - Components of the eighth-note syncopation pattern

Example 4 - Standard and displaced syncopations

Example 5 - Syncopation patterns with anchor removed

Example 6 - Repeated syncopation

Example 7 - Extended syncopation patterns

Example 8 - Bass line segment from "Mother Popcorn" as played by Charles Sherrell Words and music by James Brown and Alfred James Ellis © 1969 (renewed) Dynatone Publishing Company (BMI) Used by permission, all rights administered by Unichappell Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

Example 9 - Bass line segment from "Licking Stick" as played by Tim Drummond Words and music by James Brown, Bobby Byrd and Alfred Ellis. Copyright © 1968 by Fort Knox Music Inc., Bug Music-Trio Music Company and Toccoa Industries. Copyright Renewed, International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

Example 10 - Syncopation applied to a simple motif

Example 11 - Polymetric groupings at the eighth- and sixteenth-note levels

Example 12 - Eighth-note polymetric grouping examples

Example 13 - A polymetric grouping at the sixteenth-note level in the rhythm guitar part of "The Payback" Words and music by James Brown, Fred Wesley, and John Starks © 1973 (renewed) Dynatone Publishing Company (BMI) Used by permission, all rights administered by Unichappell Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

Example 14 - A rhythmic cell from the keyboard intro to Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." The top line is the rhythm of the right hand.

Example 15 - Compositional applications of polymetric groupings

Hear the songs at the Apple iTunes Store by selecting "Power Search" and entering James Brown as the artist.

Perspectives on Syncopation

In general usage, the term syncopation refers to "a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The discussion here is more narrowly focused on the syncopation pattern: a specific rhythmic pattern and its variations rather than the generalized concept.

The syncopation pattern occurs at the quarter-note, eighth-note, and the 16th-note rhythmic levels (see example 1). One perspective on the syncopation pattern is that its essential nature is created by a "nonevent." There are four equal rhythmic divisions inside each syncopation pattern, but there is no attack point (that is, the beginning point of a note) on the third division. As example 2 shows, this third division could also be notated as a rest. It's obvious that syncopation patterns with rests sound different from those without rests because the middle note is not sustained. But both forms share the same attack points, and the attack points are the defining element of syncopation.

Another view of the syncopation pattern is to think of it as a short-long-short pattern, with the first short note starting on a beat and being half the length of the long note.

As shown in example 3, the eighth-note syncopation pattern has three notes. The first note in the upper line is the anchor that falls on the beat. The second and third notes are offbeats. The syncopation pattern is forged from these rhythmic opposites.

In 4/4 meter, the basic form of syncopation will begin on beat one or on beat three: the two strongest beats of the measure. Displaced forms of the syncopation pattern begin on the weaker metric positions: beats two or four (see example 4).

The other form of the basic syncopation pattern has the anchor removed (see example 5). It's thus a two-note rather than a three-note pattern.

In looking at usage and variations of the syncopation pattern, the simplest may be repeated syncopation in which the syncopation is expressed multiple times (see example 6).

An even more popular development of the syncopation pattern is defined as extended syncopation. After the initial three-note syncopation pattern is expressed, subsequent attack points occur without the anchor (see example 7).

Example 8 shows a segment of the rhythm of a bass groove from James Brown's tune "Mother Popcorn." In the first bar, it contains extended eighth-note syncopation and shows that syncopation has an impact on the feel of the music surrounding it. The effect of the "on the beat" rhythmic patterns in bar two is heightened by the preceding syncopated bar. Example 9 shows extended 16-note syncopation in the bass line of James Brown's "Licking Stick."

Example 10 shows that syncopation and its variations can create a profound impact on the rhythmic feel of a simple motive.

Polymetric Groupings

Polymetric groupings are an organization of attack points that allow a listener to perceive a secondary metric grouping of notes. The most common examples in contemporary popular music occur when the primary meter expresses subdivisions in groups of two or four, and the secondary meter expresses the subdivisions as groups of three. It is the opposite effect of a triplet. The three notes of a triplet are squeezed into a beat, and the basic subdivision is changed. With polymetric groupings, the basic subdivision is not changed; rather, it is expressed in groupings that fight against the normal groupings suggested by the meter.

Example 11 shows both eighth- and sixteenth-note polymetric groupings. The bottom lines are intended to clarify the three-note groupings and use XRC rhythmic notation. In this system, the X represents an attack point, the C represents a continuation of a note, and the R represents a rest. This notation is useful because the grouping patterns are by definition alien to the prevailing meter and are therefore somewhat difficult to see when notated in standard notational format.

Example 12 shows polymetric groupings of eighth notes in the 3+2 "son clave" and bossa nova groove patterns.

In the rhythm guitar part of James Brown's song "The Payback," we can easily hear the polymetric groupings in 16th-notes (see example 13). Like syncopation, polymetric groupings change the perception of nearby rhythm patterns. The last two eighth notes of this bar acquire added meaning, emphasis, and contrast because they conform to the grouping pattern of the prevailing meter. The nonconforming polymetric groupings in the remainder of the bar make the conformity of the last two eighth notes meaningful.

Sometimes the three-note groupings are expressed with an internal rhythm pattern rather than the combined duration of three notes of the prevailing subdivision. This repeating rhythm pattern, a rhythmic cell, expresses a polymetric grouping. A clear example of this is the intro to Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (see example 14). In this example, the polymetric rhythmic cell creates a crossover into the syncopation pattern. Both rhythmic elements exist at the same time. Compositional applications of polymetric groupings are shown in example 15.

Both syncopation and polymetric groupings are used frequently in contemporary popular music. Sometimes they add only surface color. In other situations, they create a climax in the overall structure of a piece. Each rhythmic device adds a flavorful twist to music. Our musical landscape would be much less interesting without them.