Syncopation, swing and groove
The propulsive quality or "feel" of a rhythm and swung notes to serve it


Syncopation is a musical term meaning a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm": a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur". It is the correlation of at least two sets of time intervals.

Syncopation is used in many musical styles, especially dance music. According to music producer Rick Snoman, "All dance music makes use of syncopation, and it's often a vital element that helps tie the whole track together". In the form of a back beat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music.

Syncopation can also occur when a strong harmony is simultaneous with a weak beat, for instance, when a 7th-chord is played on the second beat of 3/4 measure or a dominant chord is played at the fourth beat of a 4/4 measure. The latter occurs frequently in tonal cadences for 18th- and early-19th-century music and is the usual conclusion of any section.

Types of syncopation

Technically, "syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent". "Syncopation is", however, "very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two- or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat."


For the following example, there are two points of syncopation where the third beats are sustained from the second beats. In the same way, the first beat of the second bar is sustained from the fourth beat of the first bar.

Though syncopation may be very complex, dense or complex-looking rhythms often contain no syncopation. However, whether it is a placed rest or an accented note, any point in a piece of music that changes the listener's sense of the downbeat is a point of syncopation because it shifts where the strong and weak accents are built.

Off-beat syncopation

The stress can shift by less than a whole beat, so it occurs on an offbeat, whereas the notes are expected to occur on the beat. Playing a note ever so slightly before, or after, a beat is another form of syncopation because this produces an unexpected accent:

It can be helpful to think of a 4/4 rhythm in eighth notes and count it as "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and". In general, emphasizing the "and" would be considered the off-beat.

Anticipated bass

Anticipated bass is a bass tone that comes syncopated shortly before the downbeat, which is used in Son montuno Cuban dance music. Timing can vary, but it usually occurs on the 2+ and the 4 of the 4/4 time, thus anticipating the third and first beats. This pattern is known commonly as the Afro-Cuban bass tumbao.


Richard Middleton suggests adding the concept of transformation to Narmour's prosodic rules which create rhythmic successions in order to explain or generate syncopations. "The syncopated pattern is heard 'with reference to', 'in light of', as a remapping of, its partner." He gives examples of various types of syncopation: Latin, backbeat, and before-the-beat.

Latin equivalent of simple 4/4: a syncopated rhythm in which the first and fourth beat are provided as expected, but the accent occurs unexpectedly in between the second and third beats, creating a familiar "Latin rhythm" known as tresillo.

Backbeat transformation of simple 4/4: the accent may be shifted from the first to the second beat in duple meter (and the third to fourth in quadruple), creating the backbeat rhythm. Different crowds will "clap along" at concerts either on 1 and 3 or on 2 and 4.

This demonstrates how each syncopated pattern may be heard as a remapping, "with reference to" or "in light of", an unsyncopated pattern.


The term swing has two main uses. Colloquially, it is used to describe the propulsive quality or "feel" of a rhythm, especially when the music prompts a visceral response such as foot-tapping or head-nodding. This sense can also be called "groove".

The term swing, as well as swung note(s) and swung rhythm, is also used more specifically to refer to a technique (most commonly associated with jazz but also used in other genres) that involves alternately lengthening and shortening the first and second consecutive notes in the two part pulse-divisions in a beat.


Like the term "groove", which is used to describe a cohesive rhythmic "feel" in a funk or rock context, the concept of "swing" can be hard to define. Indeed, some dictionaries use the terms as synonyms: "Groovy ... denotes music that really swings." The Jazz in America glossary defines swing as, "when an individual player or ensemble performs in such a rhythmically coordinated way as to command a visceral response from the listener (to cause feet to tap and heads to nod); an irresistible gravitational buoyancy that defies mere verbal definition."

When jazz performer Cootie Williams was asked to define it, he joked, "Define it? I'd rather tackle Einstein's theory!" When Louis Armstrong was asked on the Bing Crosby radio show what swing was, he said, "Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation—then they called it ragtime, then blues—then jazz. Now, it's swing. Ha! Ha! White folks, yo'all sho is a mess."

Benny Goodman, the 1930s-era bandleader nicknamed the "King of Swing", called swing "free speech in music", whose most important element is "the liberty a soloist has to stand and play a chorus in the way he feels it". His contemporary Tommy Dorsey gave a more ambiguous definition when he proposed that "Swing is sweet and hot at the same time and broad enough in its creative conception to meet every challenge tomorrow may present." Boogie-woogie pianist Maurice Rocco argues that the definition of swing "is just a matter of personal opinion". When asked for a definition of swing, Fats Waller replied, "Lady, if you gotta ask, you'll never know."

What is Swing? Perhaps the best answer, after all, was supplied by the hep-cat who rolled her eyes, stared into the far-off and sighed, "You can feel it, but you just can't explain it. Do you dig me?" — Treadwell (1946), p.10

Stanley Dance, in The World of Swing, devoted the two first chapters of his work to discussions of the concept of swing with a collection of the musicians who played it. They described a kinetic quality to the music. It was compared to flying; "take off" was a signal to start a solo. The rhythmic pulse continued between the beats, expressed in dynamics, articulation, and inflection. Swing was as much in the music anticipating the beat, like the swing of a jumprope anticipating the jump, as in the beat itself. Swing has been defined in terms of formal rhythmic devices, but according to the Jimmie Lunceford tune, "T'aint whatcha do, it's the way thatcha do it" (say it so it swings).

Swing as a rhythmic style

In swing rhythm, the pulse is divided unequally, such that certain subdivisions (typically either eighth note or sixteenth note subdivisions) alternate between long and short durations. Certain music of the Baroque and Classical era is played using notes inégales, which is analogous to swing. In shuffle rhythm, the first note in a pair may be twice (or more) the duration of the second note. In swing rhythm, the ratio of the first note's duration to the second note's duration can take on a range of magnitudes. The first note of each pair is often understood to be twice as long as the second, implying a triplet feel, but in practice the ratio is less definitive and is often much more subtle. In traditional jazz, swing is typically applied to eighth notes. In other genres, such as funk and jazz-rock, swing is often applied to sixteenth notes.

In most jazz music, especially of the big band era and later, the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 measure are emphasized over the first and third, and the beats are lead-in—main-beat couplets (dah-DUM, dah-DUM....). The "dah" anticipates, or leads into, the "DUM." The "dah" lead-in may or may not be audible. It may be occasionally accented for phrasing or dynamic purposes.

The instruments of a swing rhythm section express swing in different ways from each other, and the devices evolved as the music developed. During the early development of swing music, the bass was often played with lead-in—main-note couplets, often with a percussive sound. Later, the lead-in note was dropped but incorporated into the physical rhythm of the bass player to help keep the beat "solid."

Similarly, the rhythm guitar was played with the lead-in beat in the player's physical rhythm but inaudible. The piano was played with a variety of devices for swing. Chord patterns played in the rhythm of a dotted-eight—sixteenth couplet were characteristic of boogie-woogie playing (sometimes also used in boogie-woogie horn section playing). The "swing bass" left hand, used by James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines, used a bass note on the first and third beats, followed by a mid-range chord to emphasize the second and fourth beats. The lead-in beats were not audible, but expressed in the motion of the left arm.

Swing piano also put the first and third beats a role anticipatory to the emphasized second and fourth beats in two-beat bass figures.

As swing music developed, the role of the piano in the ensemble changed to emphasize accents and fills; these were often played on the lead-in to the main beat, adding a punch to the rhythm. Count Basie's style was sparse, played as accompaniment to the horn sections and soloists.

The bass and snare drums started the swing era as the main timekeepers, with the snare usually used for either lead-ins or emphasis on the second and fourth beats. It was soon found that the high-hat cymbal could add a new dimension to the swing expressed by the drum kit when played in a two-beat "ti-tshhh-SH" figure, with the "ti" the lead-in to the "tshhh" on the first and third beats, and the "SH" the emphasized second and fourth beats.

With that high-hat figure, the drummer expressed three elements of swing: the lead-in with the "ti," the continuity of the rhythmic pulse between the beats with the "tshhh," and the emphasis on the second and fourth beats with the "SH". Early examples of that high-hat figure were recorded by the drummer Chick Webb. Jo Jones carried the high-hat style a step further, with a more continuous-sounding "t'shahhh-uhh" two beat figure while reserving the bass and snare drums for accents. The changed role of the drum kit away from the heavier style of the earlier drumming placed more emphasis on the role of the bass in holding the rhythm.

Horn sections and soloists added inflection and dynamics to the rhythmic toolbox, "swinging" notes and phrases. One of the characteristic horn section sounds of swing jazz was a section chord played with a strong attack, a slight fade, and a quick accent at the end, expressing the rhythmic pulse between beats. That device was used interchangeably or in combination with a slight downward slur between the beginning and the end of the note.

Similarly, section arrangements sometimes used a series of triplets, either accented on the first and third notes or with every other note accented to make a 3/2 pattern. Straight eighth notes were commonly used in solos, with dynamics and articulation used to express phrasing and swing. Phrasing dynamics built swing across two or four measures or, in the innovative style of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, across odd sequences of measures, sometimes starting or stopping without regard to place in the measure.

The rhythmic devices of the swing era became subtler with bebop. Bud Powell and other piano players influenced by him mostly did away with left-hand rhythmic figures, replacing them with chords. The ride cymbal played in a "ting-ti-ting" pattern took the role of the high-hat, the snare drum was mainly used for lead-in accents, and the bass drum was mainly used for occasional "bombs." But the importance of the lead-in as a rhythmic device was still respected. Drummer Max Roach emphasized the importance of the lead-in, audible or not, in "protecting the beat." Bebop soloists rose to the challenge of keeping a swinging feel in highly sophisticated music often played at a breakneck pace. The groundbreakers of bebop had come of age as musicians with swing and, while breaking the barriers of the swing era, still reflected their swing heritage.

Various rhythmic swing approximations:

  • ≈1:1 = eighth note + eighth note, "straight eighths."
  • ≈3:2 = long eighth + short eighth.
  • ≈2:1 = triplet quarter note + triplet eighth, triple meter;
  • ≈3:1 = dotted eighth note + sixteenth note.

The subtler end of the range involves treating written pairs of adjacent eighth notes (or sixteenth notes, depending on the level of swing) as slightly asymmetrical pairs of similar values. On the other end of the spectrum, the "dotted eighth – sixteenth" rhythm, consists of a long note three times as long as the short. Prevalent "dotted rhythms" such as these in the rhythm section of dance bands in the mid-20th century are more accurately described as a "shuffle"; they are also an important feature of baroque dance and many other styles.

In jazz, the swing ratio typically lies somewhere between 1:1 and 3:1, and can vary considerably. Swing ratios in jazz tend to be wider at slower tempos and narrower at faster tempos. In jazz scores, swing is often assumed, but is sometimes explicitly indicated. For example, "Satin Doll", a swing era jazz standard, was notated in 4/4 time and in some versions includes the direction, medium swing.

Genres using swing rhythm

Swing is commonly used in swing jazz, ragtime, blues, jazz, western swing, new jack swing, big band jazz, swing revival, funk, funk blues, R&B, soul music, rockabilly, neo rockabilly, rock and hip-hop. Much written music in jazz is assumed to be performed with a swing rhythm. Styles that always use traditional (triplet) rhythms, resembling "hard swing", include foxtrot, quickstep and some other ballroom dances, Stride piano, and 1920s-era Novelty piano (the successor to Ragtime style).


Groove is the sense of an effect ("feel") of changing pattern in a propulsive rhythm or sense of "swing". In jazz, it can be felt as a quality of persistently repeated rhythmic units, created by the interaction of the music played by a band's rhythm section (e.g. drums, electric bass or double bass, guitar, and keyboards). Groove is a significant feature of popular music, and can be found in many genres, including salsa, rock, soul, funk, and fusion.

Characteristic rock groove: "bass drum on beats 1 and 3 and snare drum on beats 2 and 4 of the measure...add eighth notes on the hi-hat".

From a broader ethnomusicological perspective, groove has been described as "an unspecifiable but ordered sense of something that is sustained in a distinctive, regular and attractive way, working to draw the listener in." Musicologists and other scholars have analyzed the concept of "groove" since around the 1990s. They have argued that a "groove" is an "understanding of rhythmic patterning" or "feel" and "an intuitive sense" of "a cycle in motion" that emerges from "carefully aligned concurrent rhythmic patterns" that stimulates dancing or foot-tapping on the part of listeners. The concept can be linked to the sorts of ostinatos that generally accompany fusions and dance musics of African derivation (e.g. African-American, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, etc.).

The term is often applied to musical performances that make one want to move or dance, and enjoyably "groove" (a word that also has sexual connotations). The expression "in the groove" (as in the jazz standard) was widely used from around 1936 to 1945, at the height of the swing era, to describe top-notch jazz performances. In the 1940s and 1950s, groove commonly came to denote musical "routine, preference, style, [or] source of pleasure."


Musicians' perspectives

Like the term "swing", which is used to describe a cohesive rhythmic "feel" in a jazz context, the concept of "groove" can be hard to define. Marc Sabatella's article Establishing The Groove argues that "groove is a completely subjective thing." He claims that "one person may think a given drummer has a great feel, while another person may think the same drummer sounds too stiff, and another may think he is too loose." Similarly, a bass educator states that while "groove is an elusive thing" it can be defined as "what makes the music breathe" and the "sense of motion in the context of a song".

In a musical context, general dictionaries define a groove as "a pronounced, enjoyable rhythm" or the act of "creat[ing], danc[ing] to, or enjoy[ing] rhythmic music". Steve Van Telejuice explains the "groove" as the point in this sense when he defines it as a point in a song or performance when "even the people who can't dance wanna feel like dancing..." due to the effect of the music.

Bernard Coquelet argues that the "groove is the way an experienced musician will play a rhythm compared with the way it is written (or would be written)" by playing slightly "before or after the beat". Coquelet claims that the "notion of groove actually has to do with aesthetics and style"; "groove is an artistic element, that is to say human,...and "it will evolve depending on the harmonic context, the place in the song, the sound of the musician's instrument, and, in interaction with the groove of the other musicians", which he calls "collective" groove". Minute rhythmic variations by the rhythm section members such as the bass player can dramatically change the feel as a band plays a song, even for a simple singer-songwriter groove.

Theoretical analysis

UK musicologist Richard Middleton (1999) notes that while "the concept of groove" has "long [been] familiar in musicians' own usage", musicologists and theorists have only more recently begun to analyze this concept. Middleton states that a groove "... marks an understanding of rhythmic patterning that underlies its role in producing the characteristic rhythmic 'feel' of a piece". He notes that the "feel created by a repeating framework" is also modified with variations. "Groove", in terms of pattern-sequencing, is also known as "shuffle note"—where there is deviation from exact step positions.

When the musical slang phrase "Being in the groove" is applied to a group of improvisers, this has been called "an advanced level of development for any improvisational music group", which is "equivalent to Bohm and Jaworski's descriptions of an evoked field", which systems dynamics scholars claim are "forces of unseen connection that directly influence our experience and behaviour". Peter Forrester and John Bailey argue that the "chances of achieving this higher level of playing" (i.e., attain a "groove") are improved when the musicians are "open to other's musical ideas", "finding ways of complementing other participant's [sic] musical ideas", and "taking risks with the music".

Turry and Aigen cite Feld's definition of groove as "an intuitive sense of style as process, a perception of a cycle in motion, a form or organizing pattern being revealed, a recurrent clustering of elements through time". Aigen states that "when [a] groove is established among players, the musical whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, enabling a person [...] to experience something beyond himself which he/she cannot create alone (Aigen 2002, p.34)".

Jeff Pressing's 2002 article claimed that a "groove or feel" is "a cognitive temporal phenomenon emerging from one or more carefully aligned concurrent rhythmic patterns, characterized by...perception of recurring pulses, and subdivision of structure in such pulses,...perception of a cycle of time, of length 2 or more pulses, enabling identification of cycle locations, and...effectiveness of engaging synchronizing body responses (e.g. dance, foot-tapping)".

Neuroscientific perspectives

The "groove" has been cited as an example of sensory-motor coupling between neural systems. Sensory-motor coupling is the coupling or integration of the sensory system and motor system. Sensorimotor integration is not a static process. For a given stimulus, there is no one single motor command. "Neural responses at almost every stage of a sensorimotor pathway are modified at short and long timescales by biophysical and synaptic processes, recurrent and feedback connections, and learning, as well as many other internal and external variables". Recent research has shown that at least some styles of modern groove-oriented rock music are characterized by an "aesthetics of exactitude" and the strongest groove stimulation could be observed for drum patterns without microtiming deviations.

Use in different genres


In some more traditional styles of jazz, the musicians often use the word "swing" to describe the sense of rhythmic cohesion of a skilled group. However, since the 1950s, musicians from the organ trio and latin jazz subgenres have also used the term "groove". Jazz flute player Herbie Mann talks a lot about "the groove." In the 1950s, Mann "locked into a Brazilian groove in the early '60s, then moved into a funky, soulful groove in the late '60s and early '70s. By the mid-'70s he was making hit disco records, still cooking in a rhythmic groove." He describes his approach to finding the groove as follows: "All you have to do is find the waves that are comfortable to float on top of." Mann argues that the "epitome of a groove record" is "Memphis Underground or Push Push", because the "rhythm section [is] locked all in one perception."


In Jamaican reggae, dancehall, and dub music, the creole term "riddim" is used to describe the rhythm patterns created by the drum pattern or a prominent bassline. In other musical contexts a "riddim" would be called a "groove" or beat. One of the widely copied "riddims", Real Rock, was recorded in 1967 by Sound Dimension. "It was built around a single, emphatic bass note followed by a rapid succession of lighter notes. The pattern repeated over and over hypnotically. The sound was so powerful that it gave birth to an entire style of reggae meant for slow dancing called rub a dub."


The "groove" is also associated with funk performers, such as James Brown's drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, and with soul music. "In the 1950s, when 'funk' and 'funky' were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of soul music—the meaning being transformed from the original one of a pungent odor to a re-defined meaning of a strong, distinctive groove." As "[t]he soul dance music of its day, the basic idea of funk was to create as intense a groove as possible." When a drummer plays a groove that "is very solid and with a great feel...", this is referred to informally as being "in the pocket"; when a drummer "maintains this feel for an extended period of time, never wavering, this is often referred to as a deep pocket."

Hip hop

A concept similar to "groove" or "swing" is also used in other African-American genres such as hip hop. The rhythmic groove that jazz artists call a sense of “swing” is sometimes referred to as having "flow" in the hip hop scene. "Flow is as elemental to hip hop as the concept of swing is to jazz". Just as the jazz concept of "swing" involves performers deliberately playing behind or ahead of the beat, the hip-hop concept of flow is about "funking with one's expectations of time"—that is, the rhythm and pulse of the music. "Flow is not about what is being said so much as how one is saying it".