Music with changes or accents that fall on something other than the most predictable beats is said to be syncopated (Guitar Rhythm and Techniques For Dummies page 29).
For example, the verse in the song “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young is not syncopated. The chord changes, and strum pattern emphasize the most predictable beats. But the intro and chorus sections in “Heart of Gold” accent the “and” or “upbeat” of beat 2. This disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm is called syncopation in music. There’s a placement of rhythmic stress where it wouldn’t usually occur.
Syncopation creates a sense of groove or funkiness. You hear this in “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” by KT Tunstall. This song has a lot of 16th-note accents that fall on the “a” before the downbeats.
Compare the songs “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by Georgia Satellites and “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes, and you’ll see that the latter features syncopation while the former does not. “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” features a straightforward drum beat and strum pattern emphasizing predictable beats. You can tell that “Hard to Handle” is syncopated because the off-beats are emphasized as much as the beats.
The jazz-funk fusion song “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock features a variety of syncopated rhythms that intentionally make the music feel off-beat.
James Brown’s use of syncopation was a crucial element in shaping the sound of his music. In “I Got You (I Feel Good),” you can hear the deliberate placement of accents on offbeats, giving the music a dynamic feel.
“Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry is driven by a syncopated guitar emphasizing offbeats.
Not all songs that use syncopation are considered funky. We saw that with “Heart of Gold.” AC/DC’s “Moneytalks” uses syncopation by accenting beat 4 in the chorus. “Believer” by Imagine Dragons uses syncopation with a surprising accent on beat 3 to begin the chorus.
No discussion of syncoption would be complete without talking about pushes and hesitations. A push (or anticipation) is when a chord change happens a half-beat earlier than expected. You hear this in “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles. The D and G chords fall on the beats, while the A chord falls on the “and” of beat 4 before the downbeat of the next bar.
The opposite of a push is a hesitation. This is when a change happens a half-beat later than expected. You hear a hesitation in the verses to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” plus the song features a push before you return to the tonic chord to repeat the chord progression.
In summary, syncopation is when accents fall on beats you don’t expect. Syncopation adds interest, variety, groove, funk, and sometimes an element of surprise to music.