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Reading syncopated rhythms can be tricky. The key is to do what professional percussionists do: subdivide, subdivide, subdivide.
It’s all about mathematics, really. Instead of thinking “one, two, three. four,” it’s better to think “one-and-two-and-three-and-four” (in terms of an eighth note pulse) or even “one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a-three-ee-and-a-four-ee” (a sixteenth note pulse).
I could give an entire masterclass in reading syncopated rhythms, but instead of re-inventing the wheel, I am going to refer you to one of the the truly great Old Masters of syncopated music: Scott Joplin. In 1908, Joplin published his famous “School of Ragtime,” which was the definitive tutorial of its time on how to play and interpret syncopated rhythms. Although his target audience was aspiring ragtime pianists, the fundamental principles outlined in this work are applicable to any kind of music with tricky, syncopated rhythms.
Happily, this tutorial is in public domain. There are many Internet sources from which this work can be viewed and downloaded; however, since we are talking about the mathematics of music here, it seems appropriate that we found it here.
In the meantime, here’s a piece of syncopated music that was so far ahead of its time, the composer’s publisher actually made him rewrite it – because it was thought to be too difficult! George Gershwin originally wrote Fascinatin’ Rhythm in the time signature of 7/8 – common in Greek music, but unheard of in American jazz of the time.
The result was the delightful juxtaposition of seven against four – presented here by Fred and Adele Astaire and accompanied by the master himself.
If you have questions or need guidance on how to apply Joplin’s principles to your own music, please leave a comment below!
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