Printer Friendly

Rhythmic suspension: balancing off the beat.

Many musicians, whether beginners or already working, struggle with syncopated rhythms and melodies. In part, this is because they are not trained to understand syncopation physically--by playing patterns while tapping their foot, for example, or while walking or dancing. But the problem is also conceptual. "Syncopation" is a vague word--anything with notes played strongly off the beat. Learning to play off the beat accurately, comfortably and creatively is easier with a mental framework on which to hang your notes. (1)

We teach students the concept of rhythmic suspension. Rhythmic suspension is like harmonic suspension: notes that stretch across or avoid beats, and leave you hanging longer than expected. It looks like a suspension bridge:

The image of suspension also suggests its opposite, grounding. Notes of a given note value can feel either grounded or suspended in relation to one another and in relation to underlying main beats. Let's look at a string of eighth notes in 4/4 time:

Compare the eighth notes on the main beats to the eighth notes between the beats (the "and" s). One set feels grounded, the other suspended.

The same relationship between grounded and suspended notes works for a string of sixteenth notes. Now all the beats and "and"s are grounded in comparison to the off-sixteenths ("e"s and "a"s).

The above examples illustrate another concept, degrees of suspension. Suspended sixteenth notes are at a higher degree of suspension than suspended eighth notes. An off-beat eighth note ("and") can be either suspended, if you're relating it to the quarter note main beats, or grounded, if you're relating it to the faster off-sixteenths.

Even the solid quarter notes of 4/4 differ in feel. Beats 1 and 3 are grounded, beats 2 and 4 suspended.

You now know the secret of the backbeat, ubiquitous in American popular styles since the 1960s. Beats 2 and 4 are more lively and exciting than beats 1 and 3, but they're still main beats, so they're still pretty grounded. They provide the strong yet suspended framework on which popular dance styles build their polyrhythms.

Degrees of suspension are theoretically infinite, but in most music working musicians in the United States encounter, only three degrees are needed: quarter notes, eighths and sixteenths. Musicians are less likely to encounter scores based on half notes or with a lot of thirty-second notes. From classical music to rock, marching band to jazz, country to Broadway, most American styles fit comfortably into the frame of three degrees of suspension. (2)

Third degree suspension is particularly important in musical styles such as funk, ska, salsa, samba and hundreds of others, where multiple layers of rhythm are built on a steady foundation of main beats. We call the flow of offbeat sixteenths in third degree suspension the up plane, because it is like a geometric plane floating above the eighth notes of third degree grounding.

These concepts--rhythmic suspension, degrees of suspension, the up plane--help to systematize the vague world suggested by the word "syncopation." You build the suspension bridge with larger note values grounding you at the bottom. As you climb, each level contains both notes attached to the structure, and notes hung between. As the notes get smaller and faster you can climb to dizzying heights, but you always know where you are.

To sum up this introduction, here are the three degrees of suspension in one illustration:

Suspension In Melody

The purpose of these concepts is not just to study rhythm. Rhythmic suspension is essential in melody as well; it helps melodies come alive. Again, it is not enough just to say a melody is syncopated; you can learn a lot more by looking at the degree of suspension involved.

Take the introductory bass line to the Temptations' "My Girl":

At a comfortable tempo of about 108 beats per minute, each G functions as a suspended pick-up leading into a solidly grounded C, only to be whisked back into suspension by the second C of each group. This is a great example of second degree suspension creating a steady, relaxed, yet compelling rhythm perfect for the confident happiness of this song.

The main guitar riff to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is also based on second degree suspension, yet has a much tenser feel. The riff begins with four eighth notes that end on second degree suspension, and it stays suspended until nearly the end. The guitar stays mainly on the tonic, E-flat, for the first, grounded part of the riff. It then descends during the suspended section, which includes the harmonically tense flatted fifth (A natural), a blue note. When the rhythmic suspension finally resolves, it is to another blue note, G-flat, making that note extremely strong. In short, this riff is a great example of harmonic tension and rhythmic suspension working together.

For an example of third degree grounding and suspension, look at the rhythm guitar accompaniment in James Brown's "Hot Pants":

The only grounded notes are on beats 1 and 4, and even the note on beat 4 gets pulled off immediately by the note that follows. Everything else (except the "and" of beat 2) is off-beat sixteenth notes.

The above illustration of "Hot Pants" brings up a word of caution. For ease of reading, you might want to write it like "Sunshine of Your Love": two measures, using eighth notes rather than sixteenths. But main beats--which in 4/4 we assume to be quarter notes--are determined by bassists and drummers. In "Hot Pants" the rhythm guitarist is clearly subdividing four times per main beat as laid down by the bass and drums; therefore, his notes are sixteenth notes.

The practice of writing charts with eighths rather than sixteenths is one of the main reasons American students struggle with funky rhythms like the "Hot Pants" guitar riff. To play styles like funk, salsa and samba, as well as hundreds of others from around the world, students must learn to feel four subdivisions per beat, not just two: "e"s and "a"s, not just beats and "and"s. Guitarists, horn players and vocalists must layer their parts on top of bassists and percussionists who are playing four subdivisions per beat. If they have only learned to deal with two subdivisions per beat, they will play or sing sloppily. Third degree suspension is essential. (3)

Here is another example of third degree suspension in melody: a typical salsa piano montuno (ostinato). The up plane of "e"s and "a"s dominates this pattern; only the note on beat 1, the tonic C, is fully grounded.

As with "Hot Pants," in most salsa charts this would be written in two measures, using eighth notes rather than sixteenths. But salsa musicians know to feel it with sixteenths. Ultimately, it is the dancers who determine main beats. Salsa dancers' main movements are on quarter notes; they add secondary movements in between, but that does not make eighths into main beats.

Switching Planes With Doubles

To introduce students to playing "on the up," here is a useful trick: At any of the three levels, playing two notes in a row switches you from grounding to suspension, or suspension to grounding.

For easier reading, in the following practice examples we have written grounded eighth notes as quarter notes and grounded sixteenths as eighths.

For all the above, make sure students tap their foot on quarter notes. It is the only way to be certain they are distinguishing between two subdivisions per beat in the examples with second degree suspension, and four subdivisions per beat for third degree suspension--and that they are practicing "e"s and "a"s in the latter examples.

Melodic Improvisation Using Suspension

Good melodic improvisation builds on rhythm as well as pitch and harmony. By focusing on second and third degree suspension, students can learn to "live off the beat," acquiring greater rhythmic accuracy and building a vocabulary of creative rhythmic ideas.

A good first step for adding melody is the two-pitch exercise. Have your students work with third degree grounding and suspension, using doubles to switch, with a lower note on the grounded notes and a higher note on the suspended. They can keep the same two notes throughout for consistency, as we have shown here, or change notes for variety.

You can gradually introduce more melodic variety into the above exercise, for instance by using two high notes in the suspended portion of each example, then three. But we will move on to the next step: third degree grounding and suspension with greater melodic freedom. The exercises below use a basic blues scale and incorporate a variety of rhythmic ideas focused on the up plane. Most of the exercises are written staccato to encourage rhythmic accuracy, but some have longer notes. Make sure your students tap their feet on the quarter note main beats.

If this set of exercises is too difficult for your students, you can rewrite it using second degree grounding and suspension--simply double all the note values.

Using doubles to switch from grounding to suspension and back:

Freer switching:

More Practice Ideas

Normally, students practice scales on the beat or on an even flow of eighth notes. This allows them to concentrate on remembering the right pitches and on intonation. However, it also leads to improvisations based on monotonous scale runs. By practicing scales off the beat, students increase their comfort with rhythmic suspension and build skills they can draw on when improvising. Have them try scales in second and third degree suspension:

The same applies to arpeggios and intervals:


In many years of working with students we have found the ideas of rhythmic suspension and degrees of suspension give students a clear and quick entry to the world of syncopation. Having a conceptual understanding of this world is as important as learning to read off-beat rhythms, or to master them physically on the instruments and in their bodies--which, of course, are also essential.


(1.) Our approach to rhythmic suspension is developed at greater length, with plenty of practice exercises, and with many other concepts about rhythm in addition to suspension, in The Musician's Guide to Rhythm by Julian Gerstin and Ken Dalluge,

(2.) This article only treats 4/4, but its concepts work for other time signatures as well. In addition to 4/4, our book The Musician's Guide to Rhythm by Julian Gerstin and Ken Dalluge,, looks extensively at swing, 6/8, 12/8, odd meters and polymeter.

(3.) Music teachers often dodge the eighth note/sixteenth note issue by instructing students to feel half notes as the main beats, in charts for songs with four subdivisions per main beat. This can help, but it is conceptually unclear.

Julian Gerstin, PhD, is a percussionist and composer specializing in the traditional music of Cuba, Martinique and Ghana, as well as jazz. Gerstin performs with many groups and teaches at Keene State College and the Vermont Jazz Center.

Ken Dalluge is an independent music teacher in Santa Cruz, California. A specialist in Brazilian music, Dalluge leads the samba group Batucada Nana. In the world of jazz, he has worked with Diane Schuur and toured extensively throughout Europe.
COPYRIGHT 2014 Music Teachers National Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gerstin, Julian; Dalluge, Ken
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2014
Previous Article:Motivating through creative play: empowering young students to practice successfully.
Next Article:Student recruitment ideas: for private and college music instructors.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters