Shapes of Time, Syncopation, and Clusters

In one of the examples from “‘Structure and Content” I reference rhythmic shapes and discuss different ways in which the underlying structure of a rhythmic phrase can affect the way in which it is played or perceived.

To elaborate on this concept, I would like to address two ways in particular in which content can be organized – Shapes and Syncopation. These two approaches to thinking about rhythmic material can offer interesting perspectives on how rhythmic material functions. Shapes can be thought of as repetitions and variations of rhythmic structures inside of a phrase. Syncopation is simply the way in which emphasis changes the way we hear music as it relates to a pulse.

Shapes are a way of looking at rhythmic material in such a way that it is suspended over a metric structure. In order to apply the idea of shapes to a phrase, it is necessary that there be repetition of a sequence or voices or note lengths, and there be an asymmetry to the overall phrase. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . T . . X . T . . X . T . . .

Here we see 3 repetitions of a sequence of 5 note subdivisions: (“Bass rest Tone rest rest” or 8th note dotted 8th note in western thinking).  You will notice that there is an extra pulse subdivision at the end (due to the phrase being placed over a structure of 4×4):

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . . T . . T . . T . . X . . .

And here we see a collection of 4 (or 5 depending on how you think of it) repetitions of a 3 pulse subdivision  long shape. Notice how in each of these examples, the shape crosses the pulse. This is what creates the sense of suspension over the metric structure. By creating multiple repetitions of the same length across the pulse, the listener begins to expect repetitions of the shape (content) as much or more than a resolution to the “1”.  In this way, we now have multiple layers in our sense of time; the first being the pulse, and the second being the shape, which serves as an implied pulse and has the feeling of rotating around the pulse addressing different moments of the underlying structure at each rotation.

Let’s look at another example:

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . T . T . . X . T . T . T . .

In this example, we can see one or two shapes – the first being 7 pulse subdivisions in length (Bass,rest,Tone,rest,Tone,rest,rest or 2 2 3) and the second shape containing the first but extending the shape by 2 pulse subdivisions (Bass,rest,Tone,rest,Tone,rest,Tone, rest, rest or 2 2 2 3) creating a shape that takes 9 pulse subdivisions. Let’s look at the same content over a different structure:

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 5 e & a 6 e & a 7 e & a 8 e & a
X . . . T . . . T . . . . . X . . . T . . . T . . . T . . . . .

Here we see the same 7 + 9 configuration in the time but across twice as many pulses/pulse subdivisions  (4,4,6 and 4,4,4,6). An important difference here is how the time pulse is related to each of these. In the first example, there are  4 pulses and the phrase accents 2 downbeats, 1 upbeat, and 4 secondary upbeats. In the second example, the accents are on 3 downbeats, 4 upbeats and 0 secondary upbeats. The shapes are the same but the way they affect the gravity of the music is different.


The above example is also good for describing a concept of syncopation. Syncopation is simply the application of accents that depart from standard strong beat/weak beat conventions in the European classical model of rhythmic thinking. Because we already differentiate between structure and content (and strong/weak beat conception is more of an undifferentiated approach to considering rhythmic material) syncopation can have another application here. This would relate to what I consider “levels of syncopation”  In the second of the above examples we see that the content only addresses the downbeats and upbeats – whereas the first example addresses all three levels (downbeats upbeats and secondary upbeats) If the same phrase were placed over twice again as many pulses and pulse subdivisions (16 pulses),
we see that only downbeats are played (1,3,5,8,10,12, and 14 ). We can call this syncopating to the down. The second example would be considered syncopating to the up, and the first example would be syncopating to the secondary up. Thinking in this way gives us another set of tools when exploring dynamics. Syncopating to the down would be less dense than syncopating to the up which would be less dense than syncopating to the secondary up. Modulating levels of density can have a dramatic impact on the dynamic energy in music. Thinking about levels of syncopation also gives us a content oriented approach to using the perception of pulse subdivision to affect tension.

If we take the second example and add even a single note on a secondary up (say on the “3a”), we increase the level of syncopation. Doing so can have the effect of doubling the tempo (if the pulse isn’t explicit). By adding more notes to secondary ups we intensify this effect.

Syncopation levels and note clusters

It should be noted that note density can have a different effect – as differentiated from the perception of change provided by increasing syncopation levels. Using our last example:

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 5 e & a 6 e & a 7 e & a 8 e & a
X . . . T . . . T . . T . . X . . . T . . . T . . . T . . T . .

Here we see the introduction of syncopating to the secondary up by adding a stroke to the “3a” and the “8e”. By adding these two notes, it is easier to hear the potential for other secondary ups. We explicitly define a 4 beat pulse subdivision where without them, we could be listening to a 2 beat pulse subdivision at half the tempo.

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 5 e & a 6 e & a 7 e & a 8 e & a
X . . . T t t . T t t . . . X . . . T t t . T t t . T . . . . .

In this example, we have used clusters of notes that are related to the pulse: the 2, 2e, and 2& is the first cluster the next would be at the 3, 3e and 3& – and so on. Because these notes are clearly related to the pillars of the phrase (the 2,3 ,5&, and 6&), they have a different effect. Certainly, we are syncopating to the secondary, up but the effect of doubling the tempo is less intense. The clusters starting at the pillar and following with 2 additional pulse subdivisions, especially when repeated, creates a “thickening” of the pillar rather than standing on its own. This effect can be used in notes surrounding the pillar (one on each side) preceding the pillar, or as in our example proceeding from the pillar, each with slightly different qualities. What matters is that the thickening is done the same way across the phrase.

As a side note, one of the reasons one might select different orientations for the effect would be related to how one part relates to another part in a vertical structure.  Another motive for choosing an orientation of a cluster would have to do with the direction the music is “leaning” – does the music pull back, or fall forward, for example.

Above, we have briefly discussed shapes, syncopation, and clusters as different ways to think about material. Whether you are developing your own material, or simply trying to analyze material someone else has developed (or something traditional), having several models for understanding the music as it relates to itself, its underlying structure, and other material (either vertical or horizontal) in the piece pays dividends in your ability to learn, understand, and express yourself creatively. These models may not apply to all material, and because they are only models, they only apply where they apply (in terms of helping you to play or compose material). But where they do apply, I hope you will find them to be powerful tools in developing your vocabulary and your rhythmic understanding.

For great examples of the application of shape listen to South Indian classical music. This music makes extensive use of shapes to produce dramatic extended synchronized moments, typically most obvious at the end of pieces or solos

For great examples of syncopation in a groove-oriented structure, check out Latin jazz; and for great examples of syncopation as a tool for subtly producing tension, listen to Cuban bata music.