So far, the way we’ve worked with rhythmic cells might suggest that every beat is always a unit unto itself and always divided evenly. Of course, that’s not the case! And one particularly important exception—especially in contemporary popular music—is syncopation, where something important-sounding happens at a metrically-unexpected moment.

Many syncopations can be tracked without too much trouble by keeping track of the beat and, when necessary, subdividing to figure out exactly where notes are occurring/should occur.

However, we have noticed that students often struggle with a situation that is particularly common in the melodies of contemporary popular music, where something important happens right before an important beat, such as the downbeat. When this happens, many people mentally associate that important event with the important beat and have a difficult time figuring out where it actually occurs. In many cases, the answer is half of a beat earlier than the important beat; subdividing is generally a good way to check.

Activity: Reading syncopation

Goal: Get used to performing syncopation from notation.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of syncopated melodies. Sight-reading anthologies are a good source; many have chapters dedicated to syncopation. You can do this activity vocally or on another instrument.


  1. Start by noting and setting up the meter.
  2. Scan the notation, looking for syncopated notes. These are often apparent from ties (especially over barlines).
  3. Practice (silently or aloud, as appropriate) performing the syncopated passage, focusing on the relationship of the notes to the beats and using your subdivision skills as necessary.
  4. Perform the whole excerpt, with or without pitches.


Activity: Relate syncopated melodies to the meter

Goal: Get used to how syncopated melodies tend to relate to important beats.


  1. Listen to one of the songs below and figure out its meter.
  2. Listen to and memorize the first melodic phrase of the song, optionally conducting or tapping along to the beat.
  3. Play back the melody in your head or sing it aloud while conducting or tapping the beat, slowing the melody down as necessary. Notice where the notes occur relative to your physical motions tracking the beat.
  4. Optionally, notate the passage in staff notation or protonotation.

Suggest a song for this playlist!



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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