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Syncopation in Tango

Unless you have had advanced musical training, the road to understanding the term syncopation can be frustrating. After hearing the word used time and time again, the tango beginner is eventually forced to display their ignorance and ask someone its meaning; and the answer is quite often used in a way to imply that syncopation is synonymous with the double-time walk.

That definition is only half right and - to a musical theorist - is technically incorrect. This article shall examine the concept in more detail, hopefully to enlighten the syncopatically challenged.

Definition and Etymology

Dictionary definitions rarely give the full picture; but they are a good place to begin. So let's start with the definition of syncopation, as well as its etymology (which is the linguistic root).

The dictionary defines syncopation thus:
Syncopation      sing-kuh-pey-shun
A shift of accent in a passage or composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed.
To place the accents on beats that are normally unaccented.
The displacement of the usual rhythmic accent away from a strong beat onto a weak beat.

The etymology of the word is thus:
Syncopation      From Latin syncopāre, originally from Ancient Greek sinkoptein
Its use in English first began in 1532, to mean "contraction of a word by omission of middle sounds", "a shortening or contraction" or "to faint away, to swoon". The use of syncopation in music can be traced back to 1597.
Syncopāre: Medieval Latin "to omit a letter or syllable".
Sinkoptein: Ancient Greek sin (σύν) "with" + koptein (κόπτω) "to cut".


Before syncopation is examined in detail, it is perhaps worthwhile to provide a brief introduction into the various musical concepts, so that the uninitiated in music can have a foundation.

The following is a great little video clip by Howard Goodall on the concepts of rhythm, accent and syncopation within music, followed by a comparison of non-syncopated tango to syncopated tango.

Rhythm, accent and syncopation

A superb comparison of the same music played in non-syncopation with syncopation

From a simplistic perspective, syncopation can be classified into four separate genres:
  • Accenting a beat that would not normally be accented.
  • Resting on a beat that would normally be accented.
  • Playing the beat slightly before or after where it would normally be accented.
  • Playing on the subdivision of a beat.

In tango dancing the fourth genre described above - playing on the subdivision of a beat - has a name: quick-step or double-time. Generally when tangueros use the term syncopation, they almost always refer to dancing on the subdivision.

Ironically, musical purists do NOT consider this as a form of syncopation at all, which can lead to considerable conflict between musicians and dancers on the topic. The reason for that is that technically a beat of
1 2 3 4
can be subdivided into
where each AND represents an eighth note. This can be even further subdivided into
AND a 1 a AND a 2 a AND a 3 a AND a 4 a
where each a represents a sixteenth note. Playing an eighth or a sixteenth note is still on the 'beat' so is not technically syncopation. But as we are not musical theorists but lovers of tango, and given that the tango world has adopted this term in a near universal manner, this article shall use syncopation for all four genres.

To classify these genres further, the specific identifiable types of syncopation are defined below.

Missed beat syncopation

This is the simplest type of syncopation, involving a rest instead of a normal beat.

Instead of
1 2 3 4
you get
1 2 4
  • Music: the note would simply be missing where the accent is.
  • Dance: at the end of a step at beat 2, the lead would pause for an extra beat, before continuing.

Suspended syncopation

Here the note is suspended, or held over, from one beat to the next:

Instead of
1 2 3 4
you get
1 2 ... hold ... 4
  • Music: the note would continue playing for longer duration.
  • Dance: the step would be lengthened in duration to occur over 2 beats instead of 1 - for example a slow-time ocho.

Reversed syncopation

Normally in a 4/4 meter such as tango, or 3/4 meter such as vals, the stress normally falls on the odd beat (or the first beat in the case of vals). The syncopation reverses this so that the stress falls on the even beat:

Instead of
1 2 3 4
you get
1 2 3 4

and instead of
1 2 3
you get
1 2 3
  • Music: the audible stress in the music (where you would 'clap') would be reversed.
  • Dance: quite often this would done in vals, where instead of leading on the 1st beat (_1_ AND 2 AND 3), the lead syncopates to the 2nd beat.

Backbeat syncopation

This is very similar to reversed syncopation, except that the stress is reversed from one meter to the next:

Instead of
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
you get
1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
  • Music: meters are syncopated to create an interesting variation in the sound.
  • Dance: rare to see, sometimes in tango milonga dance steps.

Off-Beat syncopation

Here the note is played ever so slightly before or after the beat:

Instead of
1 2 3 4
you get
1 2     3 4
1     2 3 4
  • Music: note is played slightly before or after the beat.
  • Dance: the step is led slightly before or after the beat.

Splitting the Beat

Here the note is played in the middle of the beat. This is the subdivision of the beat examined above, which is not strictly speaking true syncopation. As far as tango goes, however, this is definitely regarded as syncopation and is the most common type:

Instead of
you get
AND 1 AND 2 3 4 AND 5
  • Music: note is played in the middle of the beat.
  • Dance: quick-time walk.

Syncopation Videos

Variations of syncopation within vals

Vals musicality and syncopation

Visual representation of music, with lower waveform highlighting two forms of syncopation

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