How to Play Beautiful Tied Notes and Syncopations

Tied notes and syncopations (definitions below) give us the opportunity to create compelling musical moments. When we take these opportunities, we can bring more forward momentum to our music.

This creates more rhythmic vitality. Listeners better understand the music. And so everything we play sounds more musical and expressive.

NOTE: Some of the strategies below are fairly advanced, and require some skill. If you are a beginner, feel free to postpone this article until later.

What are Tied Notes and Syncopations?

A “tie” extends the duration of a given note. We can “tie” notes together to form longer notes. When we see a tie, we continue to hold the note for the combined duration of all the notes tied together.

What is a syncopation in music? Wikipedia defines a syncopation as “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm”.

For more on syncopations, the Wikipedia article is well done.

We can also think of syncopated notes as “offbeat”. For example, imagine we tap our foot along to music. If the notes are sounding when our foot is up, rather than when it taps the floor, the notes are syncopated. In this example, the notes play on the weak beats, rather than the strong.

“Set Off” Tied Notes and Syncopations

From a listeners perspective, there is no way to know a note is tied until we get to the next beat and realize that the note is still holding. This can be surprising, and, at worst, confusing.

To demonstrate the upcoming tie to listeners, we can “set off” ties. This means we separate them from the notes that come before.

We can do this in a few ways.

Option #1: Stop the sound

We can mute the note just before the tie or syncopation. This gives the illusion that the tied note is part of something yet to come. And it also can give the illusion that tied note is slightly late. This is akin to an agogic accent (discussed below).

Option #2: Accent the note

Another way to set off the tie or syncopation is to make it louder. The added volume brings attention to the note, and tells listeners that something is happening.

Option #3: Both stop the sound and accent the note

When appropriate, we can do both the above. This is most useful for notes that will be held a rather long time.

Option #4: An Agogic accent

An agogic accent helps listeners to know immediately that the note will be held longer, or is intentionally syncopated.

What is an Agogic Accent?

A “normal” accent brings attention to a note by merit of the volume. This normally accented note is noticeably louder or softer than the notes around it.

An agogic accent also brings attention to a note. But agogic accents do this using time – length of note or rhythmic placement.

Rhythm placement is where we play each note within the underlying beat (tempo, pulse) of the music.

We can get to notes early, a moment before the beat.

We can play them exactly in time, as in with a metronome.

Or we can play notes late, just after the beat.

For more on agogic accents in general, click here.

What does an Agogic Accent Do?

An agogic accent is an expressive tool. It can make a note spring forward (as in with an upbeat.)

Agogic accents can also create a sense of urgency, by getting to notes early.

And they can also tell the listener right away how long the note will last. This is important for tied notes and syncoptations…

Use Agogic Accents on Tied Notes

When a note is tied, it lasts longer than a single note value. As a listener, we may not know how long the note will last until the next note is played. We do not even know that the note will last longer until the next note does not arrive as expected. This can be confusing to listeners.

But, we can play the tied note slightly late, using an agogic accent. This way, the listener will recoginize that something is happening in the rhythm.

When we hear a note placed just after the beat, we expect it to last longer than it otherwise would.

This makes agogic accents the perfect tool for tied notes. They allow players to clearly demonstrate the rhythm to listeners (instead of just hoping they understand).

In this same role, we can also use agogic accents for syncopations.

Use Agogic Accents on Syncopations

Syncopations often use tied notes in written music. So we can treat them very much like we do tied notes. We can use agogic accents.

When we use an agogic accent on a syncopated note, the listener will not be surprised when the next note does not play on the main beat. Instead, the listener will recognize immediately that the rhythm is syncopated.

The Dose Determines Whether It’s Medicine or Poison

It is important that we use an appropriate rhythmic placement. Each musical moment has its unique needs.

The goal is to demonstrate the musical rhythm to the listener. This means that they understand it.

If we play notes too late, if we alter the underlying pulse of the music, we have failed.

We must place each note according to its role and function. In the end, whatever we do has to work “in sound”. It has to make sense. If it doesn’t, we would be better off playing the note in a steady rhythm.

Agogic accents can be a fun and musical way to play tied notes and syncopations. When done well, they bring music to a new level. So it’s well worth our time to practice them.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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