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Piano Lesson Knowledge for Students – What’s Syncopation?

Piano students need to have knowledge and understanding of musical concepts in a way that they can apply to their playing. For example, students often have difficulty understanding the musical term syncopation. They can memorize the definition, but don’t know what it sounds like or how to do it. Here’s an easy way to explain this to kids taking piano lessons.

Rock music follows a strict 4/4 tempo, or four beats to every measure. The first beat of the measure is emphasized. Similarly, cheerleaders follow a 4/4 beat to scream their cheers. Try this count a steady 4 beats and keep repeating.

1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 4…

Clap on each beat emphasizing the first beats. This is a steady rock beat or an “Indian” beat that cheerleaders and the marching band might use during half-time at a football game. It doesn’t have a rhythm really, just a steady single beats.

Now create a syncopated rhythm. Clap the beats out, but hold out beat 4 and don’t clap on the next, or first, beat. Instead emphasize the 2nd beats. Like this:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4…hold – 2 – 3 – 4….hold – 2 – 3 – 4….hold 2 – 3 – 4….hold – 2 – 3 – 4….

Syncopation means to emphasize what would normally be a “weak” beat. Not playing on the first beat creates a sense of anticipation gives music a jazzy feeling that makes your want to tap your toe.

The Entertainer, by Scott Joplin, which was popularized by the 1973 movie, The Sting, has a syncopated rhythm common to ragtime music. Ragtime music has a steady 4/4 bass beat that supports a “ragged,” syncopated melody that keeps trying to interrupt the bass.

Have your child in piano lessons try the exercise above. Then get a CD or the sheet music of The Entertainer. You can find a simplified arrangement for children taking piano lessons online or at your local music store. It would make a nice Birthday or Christmas gift and you’ll love hearing them play this syncopated, ragtime music written by Scott Joplin (1868-1917).

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