Effects of polyphonic context, instrumentation, and metrical location on syncopation in music

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Maria Witek
  • Eric F. Clarke
  • Morten L Kringelbach
  • Peter Vuust

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Faculty of Music, University of Oxford
  • The Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus/Aalborg


In music, the rhythms of different instruments are often syncopated against each other to create tension. Existing perceptual theories of syncopation cannot adequately model such kinds of syncopation since they assume monophony. This study investigates the effects of polyphonic context, instrumentation and metrical location on the salience of syncopations. Musicians and nonmusicians were asked to tap along to rhythmic patterns of a drum kit and rate their stability; in these patterns, syncopations occurred among different numbers of streams, with different instrumentation and at different metrical locations. The results revealed that the stability of syncopations depends on all these factors and music training, in variously interacting ways. It is proposed that listeners’ experiences of syncopations are shaped by polyphonic and instrumental configuration, metrical structure, and individual music training, and a number of possible mechanisms are considered, including the rhythms’ acoustic properties, ecological associations, statistical learning, and timbral differentiation.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-217
Number of pages17
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014


  • syncopation, rhythm, meter, polyphony, instrumentation