This is another word that you’d think everyone understands given how frequently it is used, but most people would be hard-pressed to explain it. Here’s what you should know.

Although syncopation in music can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, the most common meaning is when the musical emphasis falls where you don’t expect it, making the line sound off-beat and disturbing the rhythm in a way that actually sounds better. When you avoid the obvious beat, you surprise the listener, which grabs their attention. For example, with a song in regular 4/4 rhythm, you can count “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” before repeating, with the emphasis of the drums, bass, and other instruments, as well as your tapping foot, falling on the numbers in bold. To experience a form of syncopation, de-emphasize the “2” and add the emphasis to the “and” just after it so that it looks like this: “1-and-2-and3-and-4-and”. You can feel the syncopation energizing the line, driving it forward and making it sound more like dance music. In fact, modern pop music is full of syncopation to keep it hopping. When you’re tapping your foot to a song the emphasis usually corresponds with your foot hitting the floor. If, however, the emphasis happens when your foot is at the top of the tapping motion, that’s syncopation. There’s a lot more to it, but is what you should know to get started.

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