VII. Popular Music

Rhythm and Meter in Pop Music

Bryn Hughes; Kris Shaffer; and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • can be understood as taking a square rhythm and shifting some of the notes early by half the duration.
  • Other syncopations are derived from dividing a unit into nearly even parts.
  • A particularly common nearly even syncopation is the pattern of 3+3+2.

Chapter Playlist

Straight Syncopation

In contemporary pop/rock music, syncopation typically involves taking a series of notes of equal durations, cutting the duration of the first note in half, and shifting the remaining notes early by that half duration.

For example, a series of four quarter notes, all sounding on the beat, can be transformed in this way by making the first note into an eighth note and sounding each successive quarter note one eighth note early—all on the .

This process can occur on any metrical level. The unit of syncopation (the duration of the first note, and the amount of shift applied to the following notes) is always half the duration of the straight notes. All of the following syncopations are relatively common in contemporary pop/rock music:

  • If the duration of the series of “straight” notes is two beats, they will be syncopated by changing the first note to a single beat and shifting each of the other notes early by a beat.
  • If the duration of the straight notes is one beat, they will be syncopated by a division (one half beat in simple meter).
  • If the straight notes are each divisions, they will be syncopated by shifting each note by a subdivision.

As a convention, when we take a series of notes that each have a duration of one beat and shift them early by half a beat, we will call that beat-level syncopation (Example 1). When we take a series of notes that each have a duration of one division and shift them early by a subdivision, we will call that division-level syncopation.

Example 1. Straight syncopation moves the attacks forward by half the value of the metric level.

Transcribing straight syncopations

Straight syncopated rhythms are easily identified by the frequently occurring offbeat rhythms.For example, if you listen to a song and conduct or tap the counting pulse, you may notice several notes in a row that are articulated between these pulses, with no notes articulated right on a pulse—this indicates syncopation.

Once you identify a syncopated passage—which may only involve two or three notes—figure out the metrical level on which the syncopation occurs. For example, in simple meter, if no notes are articulated directly on the counting pulse beats and one note is articulated in between each beat, the syncopation is occurring at the beat level. If no notes are articulated directly on the counting pulse beats and two notes are articulated in between each beat, listen to the passage again while tapping the division. If no notes are articulated directly on the division taps and one note is articulated in between each tap, the syncopation is occuring at the division level.

Determining the metrical level allows you to identify the durational value of the shift. If the syncopation occurs on the beat level (one note sounding between each counting pulse beat), the value of syncopation is a division: each beat-length note has been shifted one division early. If the syncopation occurs on the division level, the value of syncopation is a subdivision: each division-length note has been shifted one subdivision early.

Lastly, determine how the syncopated pattern begins. Does the offbeat pattern simply begin offbeat? Or does the pattern begin with two quick notes back-to-back as in Example 1—one short note on the beat followed by the first of the longer syncopated notes?

Once you have determined the level of syncopation, the duration of the shift, and whether or not the pattern begins with a truncated onbeat note, the rhythmic pattern should be easy to notate. If, however, you are still having difficulty, try using the lyric syllables and the stress patterns of the lyrics to help you keep track of the individual notes and which ones are on or off the beat. Writing lyrics down before notating the rhythm can be a big help.

Tresillo

Drawing on its roots in African and Cuban musical traditions, another common rhythmic pattern in pop/rock is to divide a beat (or two beats) into three almost-equal groups: for example, dividing a half note into two dotted eighth notes and an eighth note (3+3+2). This pattern approximates a triplet while still maintaining the simple division of beats by 2, 4, 8, etc., creating an experience of something like a “fake triplet.” The term for this rhythmic pattern is tresillo (Example 2). A tresillo pattern can be heard after the opening guitar solo of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (2016) in the bass and bass drum. The tresillo pattern is extremely common, even in pop music that otherwise doesn’t seem to draw on Afro-Cuban music.

Example 2. Tresillo rhythms.

The tresillo is actually more common than “real” triplets in most pop/rock genres, but true triplets do occur, so take care to distinguish between the two. “Cathedrals” by Jump, Little Children (1998) juxtaposes both, and it’s an excellent example for practicing performing and identifying tresillo patterns and real triplets. In Example 3, notice that the violins play quarter-note triplets against simple eighth notes in the guitar, but the guitar begins a tresillo accent pattern after the triplets stop.

Example 3. “Cathedrals” by Jump, Little Children (1:01).

While tresillo patterns occur most often in 3+3+2 groupings, 3+2+3 and 2+3+3 are also possible.

The tresillo pattern can be expanded: in Example 4, the 3+3+2 pattern is doubled, resulting in 3+3+3+3+2+2. Nicole Biamonte (2014) refers to this pattern as the double tresillo. In the opening of “Electric Co.” by U2 (1980), the guitar plays subdivisions (sixteenths) grouped 3+3+3+3+2+2, while the kick drum plays straight beats (quarters) under the hi-hat playing straight subdivisions.

Example 4. The double tresillo.

Further Reading
Assignments
  1. Transcribing rhythms worksheet (.pdf). Asks students to transcribe and identify straight syncopations as well as tresillo rhythms in “Sorry” by Beyoncé (2016).

License

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Bryn Hughes; Kris Shaffer; and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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