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Predictability: harmonic rhythm 2

The last post talked about conventions regarding chord placement on strong and weak beats. Taking chords that normally go in one place, and putting them in a different place is one way to be unpredictable.

Another way is to use syncopation.

You can put chords anywhere you want. The two most common ways to write chord progressions are:


  1. One chord per bar
  2. Two chords per bar (chord on beat 1 and chord on beat 3)


Why restrict yourself to beats 1 and 3? Instead of putting the chord on beat 1, try putting it on beat 4 and holding it into beat 1 (strictly speaking, this isn’t syncopation, which occurs off the beat; but it feels syncopated, given psychoacoustic reasons that I won’t go into here. Please trust me on this).


Here’s the common way…

chord on beat 1


…and here’s the way I’m talking about.

chord on beat 4 - 2


Set up the second example by playing the first example first. That way the listener thinks they’ll get the first example again.


More complexity

In this example we get a syncopated rhythmic profile that’s more complex.

syncopated chords


Here’s a pretty decent site for practicing eighth note syncopation.

And here’s one of my posts that explains how to count eighth notes.


Taking a considered approach to rhythm when you write chord progressions gives you almost limitless possibilities for expression. Simply strumming chords while you sing means that whatever you write will be based on habitual body movements that you’ve most likely used in other songs.

That’s fine if you want everything you write to sound the same…


Matching rhythm and emotion

It’s a lot more difficult to find rhythmic patterns that match the emotional life of your lyrics. I know this. But ultimately, it’s more satisfying as a process, and it eventually produces better work.

I say eventually because at first it may seem forced. But it doesn’t have to be ridiculously complex. One syncopation on the off-beat of any beat in the bar can sound perfect.

Experiment by placing chords on the off-beat of each beat (beat one only, then beat two only, etc.). Each syncopation produces a different emotional reaction.

The following example shows the same simple progression played four different ways using syncopation on each of the beats.

sync on each beat


Start this way and your ear will start to hear more interesting patterns.

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