Syncopation has been a very misunderstood concept in the Christian church. Some advocate that syncopation is diabolical and stems from immoral music. But is this true? Lets take a look.


Understanding Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm and meter are very basic concepts of music that are taught very early in musical training (usually within the first month). In order to understand syncopation, it is critical that you have a firm grasp on the concepts of rhythm and meter.

  • Rhythm, is the pattern of accented and unaccented beats in a song.
  • Meter is the grouping of beats in a song that provides recurring rhythm in a song. It is defined at the beginning of the song by a time signature, which commonly consists of two numbers, one written on the top of the other (like a fraction in math). The top number defines how many beats are in a measure. The bottom number defines which note values get a beat (2 for half notes, 4 for quarter notes, 8 for 8th notes, etc.). Measures are separated by bar lines. Some music has no meter, and is called free meter.

In 4/4 meter, there are 4 quarter note beats in each measure. By default, the first and third beats are accented. Say this pattern to yourself, putting stress on the bold numbers: 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4. 4/4 meter is the foundation of march music. Here is an example video.

In 3/4 meter, there are 3 quarter note beats in each measure. By default the first beat only is accented. Say this pattern to yourself, putting stress on the bold numbers: 1-2-3 | 1-2-3 | 1-2-3 | 1-2-3. 3/4 meter is the foundation of waltz music. Here is an example video.

Compound meter is a kind of meter that divides each measure into two or more groups of three sub-beats. Examples of compound meter include 6/8, 9/8, 12/8. In complex meter, the first beat of each group of beats is accented. An example of 9/8 meter is: 1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a | 1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a. This video describes compound meter very well.

There are several other types of meter, including free meter and complex meter. There are also common variants of rhythm such as the swing rhythm. For the sake of keeping this simple I will not discuss those here. If you are interested in learning more about them, a quick Google search will yield some helpful results.


What is Syncopation?

The Basics of Syncopation

Syncopation occurs when the regular rhythm is interrupted by placing an emphasis on a beat that is not normally accented. One common way to incorporate syncopation into a rhythm is to change the note values so that a note is “offset” from the rhythm. Another way is to replace a normally accented beat with a rest.

Syncopation can be simple, such as reversing a beat (e.g. 1-2-3-4, known as a back-beat); or very complex. Here is an example of some complex syncopated beats. Note that the metronome in this recording is beating a steady 4/4 meter in the background.

Syncopation is like the “salt” of music. It makes a song artistic and beautiful if used in small quantities. However, when it is used in excess it often degrades the true artistic quality of songs (or covers up the lack thereof). Excessive syncopation in Christian music almost always subtracts from the spiritual value of the lyrics. I will go deeper into this in my upcoming post concerning the morality of music.


Syncopation in Contemporary Music (music written recently)

“Do Life Big” by Jamie Grace is an example of a song by a Christian artist that uses heavy syncopation. While this song is uplifting in nature, the syncopation and repeated phrases seem to make the beat the focus of the song rather than the lyrics.

The a capella group Home Free sings an arrangement of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that uses various syncopated beats. While there is still quite a bit of syncopation in the percussion of this song, it complements the lyrics rather than distracting from them.

The song “River Flows in You”, a popular piano song written by Yiruma, is a great example of a song that uses tasteful syncopation. It may be a little hard to hear the syncopation at first. It is in the motif (short pattern of notes that recurs throughout a song) that first appears at around 15 seconds into the song.


Syncopation in the Church

Syncopation has made its way into many of the songs that we commonly sing in church. Consider the song “Stepping in the Light”. Listen to this recording and pay special attention to the line “happy how happy the songs that we sing”.

Another example of a syncopated song that we often sing is “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”. This song has a strong back-beat even when sung a capella – notice how the audience starts clapping along in this recording. The gospel songs “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” also have a natural back-beat.

Many songs written for choral performance contain syncopation. Listen to this recording of “Tidings of Great Joy”, written by Larry Nickel. This song contains quite a bit of syncopation. It is especially noticeable in the line “go find the manger and worship the baby”.


Is Syncopation Wrong?

I do not believe that syncopation itself is wrong. It helps to add beauty and creativity to a song. But syncopation, like anything else, can become wrong when it is used outside of God’s intended purpose. I will discuss this more in my upcoming post about the morality of music.


Next up: the value of musical training and performance


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