“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

The Syncope (la Síncopa)

This page is about the real musician's syncope. Most tango dancers don't bother with it, and you don't need any of this to be a proficient tango dancer. When tango dancers speak of syncope, they often mean something less complicated and less jerky: just a doubling of the rhythm (see traspié). But it can't do harm to know a thing or two about what syncopation really is.

It is all about messing with rhythm in a playful way. In essence, it is also about implying a much faster underlying rhythm without having to resort to playing or dancing faster. How can this be?

An Example of Implying Quick While Remaining Slow

Look at the following example. Since our quick-slow rhythm language will fail on us almost completely, I'll write out rhythms as text strings where every character lasts the same amount of time.

If we change (the beats)
x...x...x...x...x...x...x...x... (our steps or musical notes)


we don't have to play our notes quickly. But the four times faster underlying rhythm of the dots is implied in our minds, which will certainly give the music more energy. It will give a jerky feel to it. This trick however requires precision, or it will come across as random or unskilled, and simply won't work. It is impossible to play or dance this well if we don't feel this faster rhythm.

How does this sound? As an example, this figure is precisely what the keyboards imitating violins start doing after 20 seconds in Michael Jackson's “Billy Jean” throughout almost the entire song. Admittedly, the dots are played by the drums. As an interesting side note, people start clapping on the light beats (2 and 4), right on the snare drum hits, which strangely enough is pretty normal in rock and pop music.

The syncope can happen on a slow or a fast level. As long as some duration between “moments” that normally are stressed (the heavies) gets divided into two (or three for waltz) by some less heavily stressed moment(s) (a light), it can be done.

What Is a Syncope?

Now for a more precise definition. A musical syncope—in the broader sense—is to suddenly

  • (a) either play nothing at all on a heavy;
  • (b) either play a heavily accented note right in between these heavies (and thus on a light).

Simply said: it's a temporary reversal of heavy and light stresses.

So the idea is not to do the completely unexpected (which would be playing something random), but to do the opposite of the expected, which in a sense still is rather expected. Take (b) as an example: interestingly it is not that random at all: since it happens precisely halfway between two heavies, it happens exactly on a light, which undoubtedly is the second most natural moment available!

This can happen on slower and faster levels of the big stack of divisions in two (or three) encountered in most music, and of course in myriads of complicated combinations.

Possibilities of Syncopation

This spicing can be applied in a number of flavors:

  • Leaving some notes on heavies out, or inserting some on lights here and there. Dancer's equivalent: (a) skipping a step on a heavy beat or (b) inserting an extra step on a light beat (see traspié). This is really the most basic rhythmical thing to do, and to a musician this wouldn't be much of a syncope yet. However, most tango dancers would consider this simple effect already to be a syncope.
  • Combining both as to delay a note, or play it too early, as shown in the example above. The normal thing would be to shift the note that was on the heavy at position 50% (halfway) of the previous and/or the next heavy towards 25% or 75%. That is a real syncope.
    • An example: the two snare drum hits right after “Yeah yeah yeah” in the intro of “She Loves You” by the Beatles.
    • Or exactly the same thing, the snare drum in Nirvana's “Lithium” every time Kurt Cobain sings “I'm not gonna crack” (during “gonna”, after 2m00s).
    • In the “Billy Jean” example above it is even half of that 25%.
  • A special case of this delaying is swing in jazz or even in house music. In this case all the notes on the lights get delayed just a little bit, say from laying on 50% towards some 55% in between the heavies. Again, this is not what is usually understood by a syncope.
  • Or another interesting possibility is instead of delaying to this magical point at 75% (3/4), you can delay to another very natural point at 67% (2/3). If done for all lights in a song, this is called shuffle. It's what happens in ZZ-Top's “Tush” or “La Grange”, but also in the Police's “Walking on the Moon”. There certainly is some hopping feel to this, which is completely absent in tango. In a way, this is the waltz principle of dividing into three equal parts, but on a very fast level. Not really a syncope neither.
  • If you would be stressing the lights all the time, you'd simply be reversing the rhythm (light and heavy get swapped). It is the literal meaning of the word upbeat.
    • Example: it is what the violins and many other instruments continuously do throughout Khachaturian'sSabre Dance”'.
    • Exactly the same thing happens in Black Sabbath's “Paranoid”: almost all of the syllables are sung like this on the backbeat (just headbang and you'll notice he mostly sings when your head is up). As a nice extra: the guitar in the intro starts with a 3-3-2.
    • Or similarly the clapping accompanying flamenco uses this. If another person does clap on the beat, the two together produce twice as fast clapping.
    • Or again on a slower level, in the Police's “Walking on the Moon”, the bass drum and guitar accentuate the light beats 2 and 4 in the verses, which causes the reggae feel.
  • A syncope is even more unexpected when isolated.
    • In “She Loves You” by the Beatles, the brutal syncope played on all instruments at once right after the first “She says she loves you”. You can actually see Paul pull his bass backward in a jerky move on that one in the videos here and here. Even if you don't now what a syncope is, you hear something weird happens there. As a contrast, a bit later after “Yes she loves you” there is no syncope at all and everything goes smoothly.
  • To musicians, the real fun starts when alternating between this reversed and the normal mode. It is a very defining characteristic of rock music.
    • For instance, the syllables in the chorus of U2's “Sunday bloody Sunday” have the following syncopated rhythm:
      ..sd.bds.d...... (the six syllables “Sun-day Bloo-dy Sun-day”)
      Two on the beat, four on the backbeat. That would be quick-slow-quick-quick-slow-slow :-).
    • Another good example might be Neil Young's “Rocking in the free world”. As well the guitar riff as the chorus lyrics alternate between accenting on the heavy and on the light beat. The syllables in the chorus have the following syncopated rhythm:
      ....ko.r.iitf.w. (the eight syllables “Keep on rock-ing in the free world”)
      Four on the beat, four on the backbeat. And that would be quick-slow-slow-quick-quick-quick-slow-slow :-).
    • The most striking similarity and central theme here is that the most important syllable (the second “sun”, and “rock”) is sung half a beat too early: on a (very) light and before the heavy beat where it normally should have been.

See also this very good explanation of syncopation.

Tango music (and jazz, rock, ragtime, gipsy music, ...) is full of syncopes. And milonga music simply doesn't exist without it, because it is in every bar.

A Real Musician's Syncope in Our Dancing?

It's is pretty hard to lead or follow a real musician's syncope, mainly because of the inherent amount of unexpectedness. Very few do. But it can be done, and it is really about playing around with the rhythm. It becomes possible once you both feel the underlying rhythm that usually is twice as fast.

No need to bother with it though, because in a way, it might go against the relaxed walking principle of tango. Many very skilled dancers never do it.

But on the other hand: the musicians do it all the time, and what if we want to dance to the music?


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