What are time, counter-time and syncopation?

The beat or pulse is a measure of regular time. To be understood, it is what you do when you follow the rhythm of the music with your foot and your beat matches the natural rhythm of whatever you are playing or listening to.

In music we differentiate between strong and weak beats and we order these beats within each measure. Let’s look at the most used measures in music to understand which beats are the strong and weak beats:

Сompás de 2/4

here the pulse is 1, 2, 1, 2… That is to say, strong, weak, strong, weak…

3/4 time signature

   here the pulse is 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3… That is, strong, semi-strong, weak, strong, semi-strong, weak…

4/4 time signature

   here the pulse is 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…That is, strong, weak, strong, strong, weak, strong, weak, strong, strong, weak…

Let’s see it now with some little melodies:

  • In this 2/4 time signature we see that we have a regular melody, in which each note falls on a beat.
  • In this measure, as in the previous one, we have 3 beats and 3 notes in each measure.

  • Finally, in the time signature4/4  also happens the same as in the two previous ones. If you listen to the melody you will notice how the rhythm is regular.

But what would happen if we were to play the same thing by altering the natural accents of each measure, that is, turning beats that should be weak into strong ones? This will be taken care of by the syncopation and the counterpoint:

Syncopation vs. counterpoint

What the syncopation and the contratiempo have in common is that both reinforce the weak beat of the bar, what differentiates them: the syncopation is extended until the following beat and the contratiempo rests on the weak beat and replaces the strong beats with rests. Example:


Notice the arrows pointing to the syncopated note and how on the next beat there is no note. In the second to last bar we also have a syncopation with slur. Listen to the audio to see the effect.


In the contratiempo, as explained above, we have rests on the strong beats, achieving a different sound.

The different types of syncopation and counterpoint:

Long syncopation:

The syncopated sound lasts 2 beats and starts on the weak beat of the bar and extends to the strong beat, now let’s use the same example as before. If you look at the first two notes marked, you will see that they start on beat 2 (weak beat) and extend to beat 3 (strong beat), that’s why they are syncopated.

Short syncopation:

It usually lasts 1 beat and like the long one, it starts on the weak beat of the bar and is prolonged on the strong part of the next beat.

Long note to setback:

It occurs on the weak beat of the bar, while the weak beats contain a silence.

A brief note against time:

It occurs in the weak part of a beat, for example when we have two eighth notes in a row, the second note is preceded and followed by rests:


By means of a slur we can accentuate the weak beats of a bar and extend it to the other bar and fall on a strong beat. In short, the offbeat notes can be of many types as well as the syncopation, what you have to keep in mind is that one occurs in the weak part of the bar and can be followed or preceded by a silence and the other occurs in weak time but is extended to a strong time.

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