The Psychology of Jazz Band Syncopation

Okay, so let me ramble on a bit now about the musical form of the music played by a jazz band, which is radically different to a string quartet player when Irish ceilidh band musician be used to. If we regard rhythm as the short time related pattern of small groups of notes and musical form as the relationship between large groups of notes, phrases, themes movements are so on then in hot jazz, as in other types of music, "musical form" has certain relationships to "rhythm"; and just as its rhythmic structure differs in some respects from European rhythmic structure, so its "musical form" differs in certain respects from European "musical form."


As said above, Afro American music uses syncopation of various sorts (including polyrhythm, melodic displacement and so on) as its basic structure which applies not only to small rhythmic patterns, but often has an effect on the formation of large phrases, and so influences the musical form. Some of the results are quite different from the European musical tradition, with completely different approach to the art from that of the European musician. Syncopation, even in its simplest forms, has a very special effect on the listener. The interruption, by syncopation, of rhythmic regularity produces a feeling of unrest. The listener's rhythmic faculties are thrown off balance. In trying to steady themselves mentally and emotionally, it creates certain sense of excitement. A resumption of regularity is greeted with a feeling of relief. This is exploited in mass drumming, from African religious drumming to Chinese wall drumming, is also an integral part of disco music and the frenzy that can be built up through the evening to modern day disco.


This is the same as the psychology of brainwashing interrogation. Unrest followed by relief, in one form or another, is fundamental to a great deal of art, and in its extreme form of the interrogation – should I say the art of interrogation – the nice guy who offers the cup of tea of cigarettes is followed by the nasty guy who beats you with the transition, only to be followed by the nice guy again. It has also been an essential element of storytelling from the Greek drama to the detective story. It is found in music in many forms. The "dacapo" section the piece of music, with the return of a familiar theme following a passage of unfamiliar material, is an example of this. Symphonic form, with its "recapitulation" of original themes following an adventurous "development section," is another and more elaborate one. The tendency to end a composition in its original key, despite intervening modulations that have wandered all over the place, is still another example of this. Another example, common in Western European music, is consonance and dissonance. A discord produces a feeling of unrest and asks for a "resolution" to a concordance which relieves that feeling. When all these examples put together, when get a complex piece of music that can produce feelings of disquiet and/or comfort, changing as the music proceeds. This is the very thing that is achieved by film music. A film without background music can seem very sterile. The production of similar psychological results by purely rhythmic means—as in syncopation—is only rarely found in European music, and then only as a device involving short patterns of sequence. In other words, syncopation in Western music is an occasionally employed device belonging to the category of "rhythm." It rarely comes into "musical form."

In jazz it is quite different the creation of the feelings of unrest and relief are in the first instance achieved by purely rhythmic, and this is a fundamental of jazz. In jazz, syncopation has similar role consonance and dissonance in Western music; but the syncopation in jazz becomes so elaborated that it becomes part of the "musical form" of the music as well as being pure "rhythm." The syncopation used in some forms of jazz is not only a note-against-note phenomenon, but may involve the distortion of phraseological as well as "rhythmic" regularity.


An example of this technique is the "break." The jazz break is something that was introduced to commercial jazz of via the "blues" influence, and is a sort of bridging passage that is tacked on to the end of a melodic phrase, filling out the dead interval that elapses between the final cadence of this phrase and the beginning of the following phrase. "Breaks" are short interludes and are rarely more than two or four bars in length. In the more sophisticated forms of jazz they are usually played by a single solo instrument while the rest of the orchestra remains silent. In less sophisticated black American derived music—particularly in "blues"—they often fill up the long intervals between vocal phrases where the singer pauses for breath. The Bessie Smith recordings of You've Been a Good Ole Wagon and the St. Louis and Cold in Hand Blues, contain very interesting piano and cornet breaks.


The break in jazz is rather like the cadenza in a classical concerto (except in some concertos the cadenza can go on for an awfully long time, but it is a similar opportunity for the musician to show off their technical skills and swagger around a bit). As was originally the intention of the cadenza (that is in the baroque period music, but not in romantic classical music, whether cadenza is a carefully crafted and structured composition that is there to demonstrate advanced technical skills), the break jazz, is usually improvised. The jazz composer and orchestrator do not write it out. It is left to the ingenuity, imagination, and inspiration of the moment of the solo performer. Like the cadenza, it appears at the close of a more substantial and regular musical section, and immediately precedes a continuation of the call musical elements. The cadenza accentuates the "restless" dominant harmony, delaying its resolution to the "reposeful" final tonic chord by the flashy and brilliant interjection. The jazz cadenza is usually a "restless" series of unaccompanied syncopations which "resolve" with a "reposeful" resumption of the accompaniment.

The jazz cadenza or break, forms a temporary deviation from the main tune musical form, in which logic is momentarily suspended and improvisatory chaos is king. Its effect is to increase the suspense and unrest of the piece of music. The audience is confused for the moment. The basic rhythm no longer follows its familiar pulse. The solo hangs dangerously without support, and then, just as the listener is about to give up in confusion, the fundamental rhythm resumes giving a feeling of relief.

The break, or jazz cadenza doesn't destroy fundamental rhythm though. The listener has had the fundamental rhythm so repetitively drummed into them, but a shadow of it continues automatically in their mind, rather like if you look at the bright light and then turn to look at the scene in a darkened room, the light will continue to appear on the retina of the eye for a number of seconds. So it is with jazz. When the orchestra joins on again it re-establishes the mentally sustained rhythm, its entrance being timed to coincide precisely with one of them. The situation during the silent pulses is one that challenges the listener to maintain their course. If the listener has any sort of rhythmic sense they can manage to do this. The jazz soloist playing the break is throwing out a challenge to the listener, doing everything possible to confuse the listener. The break syncopates; it accents everything but the normal pulse of the fundamental rhythm; it attempts to distract the listener in every conceivable manner from the series of regular pulses they are attempting to hold in his mind. The listener feels all the excitement of battle. This isn't just a mental challenge though, it is a physical challenge to and the challenge will produce physical reactions-stamping their feet or bobbing their head in order to maintain their sense of orientation. The power of such devices over the motor neuron impulses extremely strong. A similar effect is achieved with the music played by a ceilidh band or barn dance band, where emphases are from time to time changed, and blowing in the fiddle playing goes across the rhythm of the dancers.


This can be totally confusing to someone who is not used to jazz, but for someone who's listen to a reasonable amount of jazz in their lifetime normally managed to hang on to sanity and keep track of the fundamental rhythm, in spite of the influence of the break rhythms. What is actually happening is that the mind perceives, and maintains contact with, two simultaneous and conflicting rhythmic lines, one of which is heard, the other sustained in the imagination. In classical music, this kind of thing is with noting crafted by the composer, so that in a string quartet work everything might be going along swimmingly, then suddenly it seems to disintegrate as the violin is going one rhythmic direction, the viola in another, the cello and another. Then, several bars later, it all comes together again (or at least the musicians of the string quartet hope it comes back together again, and it can be really scary in a concert when one of these extreme events happen, and the relief felt by the audience by the resolution of this conflict is nothing compared with the relief felt by the positions of the string quartet, that they have actually got there together. There some places in Brahms string quartets that are rather like this. The Bartok 44 violin duets become interesting in the second book in particular, where intentionally each instrument is playing different rhythms, even different number of beats in a bar, and the whole piece of music goes from security, to chaotic insecurity, and back again, sometimes several times within the piece of music. Is great fun for the musicians to play but absolutely terrifying to perform.