Rhythm: Syncopation, Polyrhythm and Tempo Changes

Rhythms in pop music can frequently be written and performed without extensive theoretical discussion. Nonetheless, our songs can benefit from knowledge of the following concepts: syncopation (playing “off beat”), polyrhythm (two simultaneous rhythms based on rhythmic values that seem to contradict one another) and tempo changes (changes of the speed of the beat).

Rhythm in pop music isn’t at all straightforward, as you may have noticed from the examples we’ve already studied. Pop vocal melodies, in particular, frequently are off the beat to such a great degree that a note sung on the beat often feels like it isn’t. Go back through earlier chapters and look at the notated rhythms of the songs we’ve examined — even simple-sounding rhythms frequently look complex when they’re written out.

If you already write songs, you’ve probably written some vocal rhythms that dance elaborately around the beat, without even realizing it. These rhythms are complex, but they don’t always seem that way to us, because we’re used to them, and because we often don’t need complex tools to appreciate and emulate them. If we, say, hear a modulation we like, we need to understand how it works in order to apply it to our own music. But if we hear a rhythm we like, perhaps the best way to learn from it is simply to imitate it. (Drummers, of course, do learn particular rhythmic patterns that have names, but these are well outside the realm of what we would typically learn in a music theory class.)

In general, the sorts of rhythms we hear in pop music come from Africa. Whereas much of this site so far and much of music theory in general deal with pitch, West African made (and makes) rhythm its central element, and aspects of West African music wound their way through jazz and blues and into the pop music of today. Given the European rooting of much music theory as it is typically taught at the college level, it perhaps isn’t surprising that it has much less to say about rhythm than it does about pitch.

Nonetheless, here are some rhythmic concepts that might help you.

Beat vs. Meter vs. Tempo

Let’s begin by defining some basic terms. Perhaps you are already familiar with all of these, but they’re still worth quickly reviewing, because it’s easy to get confused.

The beat is the basic rhythmic unit of most music – it’s what we tap our feet to when we’re listening.

Meter is a system of grouping beats, some of which will be stressed and some of which will not. The time signature tells us how many beats are in a typical measure (or bar) and what note gets the beat.

The tempo is the speed of the beat.


In the example above, the time signature of 3/4 tells us each measure will get three beats, and that the quarter note (the “4” in “3/4”) will get the beat. Because each measure contains three beats, the example is in triple meter. The tempo is 90 quarter-note beats per minute, as shown in the indication at the top left.

For more review of these ideas, have a look at the end of Appendix B.


Syncopation occurs when a rhythm seems to contradict the existing beat structure such that a musical element feels “off beat.” Syncopation occurs so frequently in pop music that we often don’t notice it. Particularly conspicuous examples occur in many ska songs, in which the guitar is typically syncopated in nearly every beat. Here, for example, is the main guitar figure in the Specials’ version of “A Message to You, Rudy.”


Syncopation also occurs quite frequently in the vocal lines of most contemporary pop music. In fact, much pop music is based around the rhythmic interplay between the vocal parts, which tend to be syncopation-heavy, and the accompaniment, in which the rhythms will often be more straightforward. This dynamic arises even in seemingly simple contexts. Take, for example, the verse of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (which we’ll study in more detail in the next chapter).


The accompaniment is straightforward, bouncing along in quarter notes, but the vocal part is syncopated, with prominent syllables like “rice,” “church” and “dream” occurring off the beat. (To say that a musical element is syncopated does not always mean that every note is off the beat, but that enough of them are to create the overall impression that the music is off the beat.) Aurally, though, the vocal does not feel rhythmically tricky. Pop vocals frequently feel rhythmically simple, but they’re often quite complex, due to ever-present syncopation.


A polyrhythm occurs when there are two or more simultaneous rhythms that seem to be in conflict with one another. Polyrhythms are common in African drumming and frequently arise in various genres of music as the result of the interaction between multiple percussion parts. They can also occur in other musical elements.

DNCE’s “Toothbrush” features a prominent polyrhythm in its prechorus.


Beginning on “mind,” there are six consecutive notes that have the duration of a dotted eighth note. The underlying rhythm is of a quarter-note beat, so the pattern is that of four against three – there are four evenly spaced impulses (“mind closing the”) in the span of three beats. The rhythm of the vocal briefly feels disconnected from the groove of the song. Listen closely, and it’s almost as if the vocal is playing a trick on you.

This same four-against-three rhythm is even more explicit at the beginning of the National’s “Fake Empire,” in which the pianist plays quarter notes in groups of three in the left hand, and four evenly spaced impulses against them in the right hand.


Each impulse in the right hand is worth three sixteenth notes, while each one in the left hand is worth four. The two land in the same place after every 12 sixteenth notes, or three quarter notes.

Practicing basic polyrhythms like these can help improve your musicianship, so let’s break down how we might approach a rhythm like this. First, tap your foot to the quarter-note beat.

ONE               TWO              THREE

ONE               TWO              THREE

Now, subdivide the beat into sixteenth notes by saying “ONE e and a TWO e and a THREE e and a” while you tap. (To subdivide the beat means to mentally divide it into equally spaced divisions, such as eighth notes or sixteenths.)


Next, continue tapping the beat and keep those sixteenth notes in your head, but begin grouping them in threes, emphasizing every third note rather than every fourth. You can say anything you want, but I find “BA ta ta BA ta ta BA ta ta” effective.


As a final step, stop saying the “ta”s and just say the “BA”s. If you’re still tapping your foot to the quarter note, you’re performing the four-against-three polyrhythm.


The main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” features a more complex example of a four-against-three polyrhythm.


(The lowest string of the guitar is tuned to D.)

I’ve notated the song in 3/4 time, but the drums are essentially playing in 4/4 …


… while the guitar is essentially in 3/8 or 6/8, depending on how you want to look at it. The pianist Brad Mehldau suggests that we feel the guitar’s characteristic “da da da” riff in groups of two because of the low D after every second iteration, which makes sense to me. So we’ll write the riff in 6/8, which we feel as two beats of a dotted quarter note apiece.


The drums, then, are in patterns of four quarter notes, or eight eighth notes; the guitar is in patterns of six eighth notes. That means the two patterns will converge after every 24 eighth notes. 24 eighth notes is the same duration as 12 quarter notes, which is the same duration as four measures of 3/4 – just as you see in the initial example. Listen to the song and feel the way the guitar and drums seem to clash before landing in the same place every four measures. It’s as if they’re different planets orbiting the sun at different speeds.

Tempo Changes

Tempo, as we discussed earlier, is the speed of the beat. Let’s say we’re writing a song that starts slow and gets faster, or that starts fast and gets slower – how do we do it? The most obvious solution is to gradually get faster (which classical musicians call an accelerando) or slower (which they call a ritardando, or ritard). Pulp’s “Common People,” for example, features a gradual accelerando throughout nearly its entire six-minute duration.

But what if we want to immediately jump from one tempo to another? Perhaps the possibility likely to lead to the cleanest results is to base the new tempo off an element of the old one. As a simple example, in classical music scores, you’ll frequently see tempo changes like this:


This indication tells us that the quarter note in the initial tempo becomes the eighth note in the new one, which means we are to play twice as slow. This particular tempo change happens fairly frequently in pop music and is sometimes referred to as “half time.” A good example occurs in Blink 182’s “Dammit,” in which a very fast verse gives way to a chorus that’s twice as slow. In the bridge of “All for You,” Sister Hazel does the same thing. Pay particular attention to the snare drum, which suddenly drops to half speed.

We can also do the reverse and make the tempo twice as fast with an indication like this.


This phenomenon is called “double time” and is also fairly common. No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” for example, is in a slower tempo for the verse before switching to double time for the chorus.

A double-time tempo change should be fairly easy to perform, since all you need to do is subdivide the beat into eighth notes (essentially, think about eighth notes in your head) and then make those eighth notes the beat when the time comes.

Subdividing is a great skill to work on when preparing to record. Recording pop music frequently requires playing along with a metronome, and you might find that subdividing helps you match the metronome more precisely.

Subdivision can help you change tempos as well. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing a song and you want the song to get faster after the second chorus.

The problem is, how much faster? And if you have bandmates, how should you convey that information to them?

Well, one possibility is to use different subdivisions of the beat to determine the new tempo. For example, let’s say we’re in 3/4 time at a moderate tempo of 96 beats per minute. Turn on a metronome and feel the beat in groups of three. Now think of four evenly spaced notes over every three beats, creating the four-against-three polyrhythm we discussed earlier in this chapter.


Now, as a final step, remove the underlying quarter note and treat the rhythm in the upper voice as the beat.


Now we’ve completed our transition from 96 per minute to the brisker tempo of 128 per minute – and, best of all, we’ve done so in a way that we should be able to sync perfectly with our bandmates, provided they understand the concept as well. There’s no guesswork involved.

We can also do this with other divisions of the beat. For example, in a song with a triplet feel (that is, in a song in which at least some of the beats are divided into three parts, rather than two or four), we can use subdivisions of triplets to transition to a faster tempo. (A set of three grouped notes with a “3” above or beneath them indicates that they are triplets, and that they should be performed with three notes in the space in which two notes of that duration would usually fit. For a more thorough explanation, see Appendix B.)

In the following example, let’s again imagine that we’re in a tempo of 96 beats per minute. Here, we’re thinking first about the triplet eighth notes in the first measure. The subdivisions of those notes allow us to properly place the triplet quarter notes in the second measure, because the triplet eighths are easier to perform precisely and are half the value of the triplet quarters.

In the third measure, our triplet quarter notes will become regular quarter notes, resulting in a faster tempo. As a result, we’ll have transitioned seamlessly from 96 beats per minute to 144.


We can also use this sort of device to transition to a slower tempo. In the following example, let’s imagine we’re at a tempo of 120 beats per minute. We begin with quarter notes and then subdivide into eighth notes. In the third measure, the dotted quarter note of the old tempo becomes the quarter note. A dotted quarter is the same duration as three eighth notes. Therefore, the eighth notes in the second measure will be the same duration as the triplet eighth notes in the third. As a result, our tempo will drop from 120 beats per minute to 80.


Songwriting Exercise

Write a line of a song in a tempo of 84 beats per minute. Then compose a transition to 112 beats per minute and write a line in that tempo. Make sure your performance is accurate. This one’s hard! Here’s a hint:


Next Chapter: Irregular Meters And Phrases