When we listen to music, our ears organize things rhythmically. We instinctively place emphasis on some beats and deemphasize others. Were we unable to make these distinctions, we would not be able to grasp rhythm.
Syncopation happens when rhythmic emphasis falls on a weak as opposed to strong beat. Syncopation can thereby enliven a rhythm by simulating what happens in our bodies when we dance. We might land on the strong beats, but our joints are flexing on the weak beats, so emphasis there keeps our bodies in motion.
You might think of syncopation as analogous to hot sauce: It can be added in varying amounts, with varying effects.
Funk music, aimed as it is at dancers, provides countless illustrations of what I call the teeter-totter principle, the balancing of the tradeoffs that come when we make a particular groove more or less syncopated.
This is a classic track from the Whispers, with drumming by one of my all-time favorites, Wardell Potts Jr.
Note the handclaps that enter with the singing. They fall on “two” and “four” of each four-count measure, aligning with the words thusly:
When times get tough, I want to . . .
Now, try clapping (or patting your knee) on “one” and “three.”
When times get tough . . .
You may notice how this switch saps the groove somewhat. The shift to clapping on “one” and “three” changes the balance of strong-beats to weak.
Think of the groove as a teeter-totter. At one end sit the strong beats and at the other, the weak beats. When balanced, the riders have an easier time moving up and down. But when we start shifting weight to one side, the work for the riders increases. The work will appeal to some and not to others.
In “The Best of My Love” by the Emotions, the hand claps in the song come on “two” and “four” of each measure. If you were to clap along on “one” and “three,” the groove would not suffer as much as in the case of the Whispers track. That’s because the song's melody emphasizes weak beats:
Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee
Never, never will I be discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery
If you were to pat your hand on “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four” of each measure, you’d notice that Sheila Hutchinson’s vocal line hits all of the moments when your hand is raised. The song has a tad more syncopation built into it. Even so, this groove and the Whisper’s groove hit a sort of iconic funk/r&b sweet spot.
While it may be natural to suppose that syncopation make a song danceable, it’s interesting to consider the tradeoffs that come with each added bit of syncopation.
Consider the aptly titled (and oft-sampled) James Brown song, “Funky Drummer.”
Notice how this track immediately assumes a listener’s ability to make her way through a more syncopated landscape. Listen to the Clyde Stubblefield's famous (and oft sampled) drumbeat at 5:20. Is it danceable? Of course! But will everyone who can dance to the Emotions be able to dance to this? No, because to do so requires a greater ability to feel the strong beats even when they aren’t played. Those who can feel the strong beats, however, will feel the full ticklish power of this groove.
Tower of Power’s classic, “What Is Hip,” makes even bigger demands of the listener. Again, this is merely an observation, not a criticism. Audiences enjoy having demands placed on them.
If you dance along with the track, notice what is expected of you at 0:52, when the drums and bass combine to emphasize weak beats and leave dancers to imagine the strong beats in their minds. The weak-beat end of the teeter-totter is getting heavier.
Devo’s reworking of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” is so weighted on the side of syncopation, a listener can easily get lost. As a result, notice the difficulty of dancing. (This is not to deny that some may be thrilled by the rhythmic play and Devo’s twisted and insightful reworking of the original.)
If one does get lost, it’s because one has become so overwhelmed by the syncopations as to be unable to decide which beats are strong and which are not, which results in our inability to organize things rhythmically in our mind.
The teeter-totter principle does not prescribe any particular weighting between strong and weak beats. It simply observes that shifting the balance comes with tradeoffs. And playing with the tradeoffs is what art is all about.
Thank you for reading.