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In music, syncopation is the stressing of a normally unstressed beat in a bar or the failure to sound a tone on an accented beat. For example, in 4/4 time, the first and third beats are normally stressed. If, instead, the second and fourth beats are stressed and the first and third unstressed, the rhythm is syncopated. Also, if the musician suddenly does not play anything on beat 1, that would also be syncopation.

The stress can also shift by less than a whole beat so it falls on an off-beat, as in the following example where the stress in the first bar is shifted by a quaver (or eighth-note):

Playing a note ever-so-slightly before or after a beat is another form of syncopation because this produces an unexpected accent.

Syncopation is used on occasion in many music styles, including classical music, but it is a fundamental constant presence in such styles as ragtime and jazz. In the form of a backbeat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music.

Syncopation in dance

The term syncopation in dancing is used in two senses:

  1. The first one matches the musical one: stepping on (or otherwise emphasizing) an unstressed beat. For example, ballroom Cha cha is a syncopated dance in this sense, because the basic step "breaks on two." When dancing to the dispartate threads contained within the music, hands, torso, and head can independentaly move in relation to a thread, creating a fluidly syncopated performance of the music.
  2. The word syncopation is often used by dance teachers to mean improvised or rehearsed execution of step patterns that have more rhythmical nuances than "standard" step patterns. It takes advanced dancing skill to dance syncopations in this sense. Advanced dancing of West Coast Swing makes heavy use of "syncopation" in this sense.

A common incorrect usage of syncopation is to refer to a double-time rhythm as syncopation. Incorrect statement: "In music, splitting the beat into two parts is syncopation." Again, please note this is incorrect, but is often taught.

Many dance teachers are now abandoning the use of the term syncopation in the second, loose, sense. They are now using the term "double-time" steps when that is what they mean. They've decided that they don't change the meaning of other musical terms, so they should honor the musical definition of syncopation. In this way, they can enjoy subtle musical syncopations and dance to them as well.

Dance syncopation often matches musical syncopation, such as when (in West Coast Swing) the leader touches slightly before beat 3 or stomps on beat 6. Kelly Buckwalter (a Two Time US Open WCS Champion) teaches these syncopations.

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