Syncopating Bach, part 1: the basics

Most of the time, we take so-called classical music, like the music of Bach, at face value, and play the notes and rhythms as they were written down. In this post and accompanying video, I’ll show you some of the basic principles I use in changing Bach’s music, in particular the rhythm, and how this process opens up a vast new landscape of musical possibilities for exploration, one that, once you experience it, cause you think about rhythm differently. Rhythm becomes more a process of finding the space between beats, to find greater surprise and greater depth of expression.

For me, the end result is not only more musically satisfying for our modern ears that are more attuned to complex rhythms and syncopation from pop and dance music, but also more suited to the piano in particular, since Bach didn’t write music for the piano, per se. As we’ll see this process has a lot to teach us about rhythm and about articulation, and these are just really important things to understand not only in Bach’s music, but in any music, whether you’re a composer, a performer, or just an interested listener. This post only covers the basics, since there's a lot more to say about the how's and why's. I’m going to use the example of the C minor prelude from the WTC, book 1 as a first example. Here's the first two measures.


You can listen to each example in this post by pressing the "play" button in the upper left (sometimes the examples take a little while to load). If that mechanical sound is grating though (and I know it is), I invite you to listen to my recording of this prelude "as written" on my album Post | Bach. And don't worry, there's a fully syncopated version coming at the end of the post.

On one level, the rhythm is very simple, it’s just a constant stream of equally spaced notes:

Importantly, though, it's better to think of the music as an amalgamation of layers; now this process can get unwieldy, so we’re not going to go too deep into it, but let's start by organizing the music into beats, which you naturally did when you were listening, whether you were aware of it or not. The music is organized so that four notes occur per beat, and there are four beats in each measure. The four beats alternate feeling strong and weak, for reasons that are explained in more detail here.

To really understand the beat, though, you have to think about it on several different levels at once, each level alternating strong and weak. This is the "beat hierarchy," and again, it is covered more thoroughly in the post linked above. For now, the most important to see, hear and feel is that beats 1&3 are the strongest parts of the hierarchy, and beats 2&4 are slightly weaker, but still stronger than the notes in between the beats.

Perhaps a little bit easier to see this way:

Okay, let's set aside the beats for one moment and think about another way to break the music into layers, that is, into voices.

Let's imagine we have four singers singing this piece (the examples play with slightly less ridiculous sounding string instruments). Can you hear that the soprano and bass singers parts have more natural emphasis than the tenor and alto? (Or, at least, they would if the players were not mechanical.) The bass and soprano have some level of primacy over the inner voices in this case. (The reason is a bit more tricky to explain, and has to do with these voices being separated by leaps from the inner voice notes, and lasting longer, that is, persisting for half a measure before the next note in that voice, unlike the inner voices, which move quickly.)

Now we get to our first interesting observation! Can you see that the soprano and bass voices match up or align with the the top two levels of the beat hierarchy (the strong beats)? Can you see that the inner voices, alto and tenor, align with or match up with the two lower levels of the beat hierarchy?

The way this music was written, there is a close association between the notes’ strength or emphasis by virtue of where they are in different layers of abstraction, the beat (metric) layer, and the voice layer, one that has metric emphasis and the other that has melodic and rhythmic emphasis. This point is almost so obvious when listening to the music that it is easily overlooked, glossed over, or deemed unimportant. Some people, in fact, missing this point entirely would say "the soprano and bass voices have special emphasis because they are on the strong beats," but this is not actually correct, as we'll see in a moment!

However, this alignment between emphasis and beat is common in music; it is, in many ways, the natural order of things. Strong beats attract moments of natural musical emphasis, that is in one sense why they are strong beats, after all.

But what happens if we purposely move certain moments of emphasis so that they no longer align with the strong beats, or stronger moments of the metrical emphasis? This misalignment is what we generally call syncopation. Listen carefully and see if you can hear which beat “moved.”


Did you feel the slight “surprise” anticipation of the third beat, almost like it came too soon? How does that look in our hierarchy? Well, we moved the rhythmic and melodic emphasis of the soprano and bass voices before the beat. If we operate strategically, we can create a tension and interplay now between beat emphasis and other forms of emphasis, and we can create a strong desire for the emphasis to “return” to the beat. (It's not necessarily 100% clear why syncopation can be satisfying to our ears and brains, but that, to me, is part of the fun. At any rate, this is all a fancy way of saying we can make something that sounds cool.)

So we’ve made our first syncopation by moving the emphasis before the third beat, but truly we’re just getting started. Let’s try that syncopation a slightly different way.

Did you notice the difference? Now we’ve created a difference not only at the level of the emphasis, but at our first level, that of the basic surface rhythm, which now looks like this:

Let’s try that technique now on a different beat other than the third. 

What if we start combining different syncopations on different beats?

Can you see, can you glimpse the vast world of possibilities we’ve unlocked, simply by opening up the possibility of adding syncopations? And we’re still on the first two measures of one single piece! The possibilities are (for all practical purposes) endless.

For me, the ability now to change the syncopations as the piece unfolds is absolutely tantalizing. It allows for a whole new mode of expression and possibilities for surprise, for emphasis, for highlighting different moments in the music, and for grabbing the listener's attention in different ways.

Here is one amongst those endless possibilities. Compare with the original. What do you think?

For those interested, here are many, many more ways to syncopate the beginning of this piece:

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