Syncopation: What if You Can’t Hear It?


Robert Palmer

SKF NOTE: Robert Palmer was a writer I could always count on for insightful interviews with musicians. Mr. Palmer knew his subjects, asked great questions, and always — from where I stood — treated his interviews as peer-to-peer musician conversations.

So last week, while revisiting a Down Beat magazine I’ve had for 40 years, I read — for the first time, I think — Palmer’s interview with New England Conservatory President Gunther Schuller. A musician, writes Palmer, whose biography has “too many honors and accomplishments listed.”

I knew of Gunther Schuller as a proponent of fusing jazz and classical musics to create Third Stream music, and of Mr. Schuller’s collaborations with the Modern Jazz Quartet, his early praise of Ornette Coleman‘s music, his Symphony For Brass And Percussion, and as the author of Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development.

Today, I find in this interview many, many interesting points — especially discussions on how musicians from different countries have unique ways of hearing rhythm. For example, Schuller tells Palmer, “I practically grew up in the New York Philharmonic, and I learned very early that for Mengelberg and Toscanni and all those great conductors of the ’30s, one of their main jobs was taking all these national traits, say within the string section, and try to bring them all into one common denominator. It was a heck of a job.”

Which, in my life experience, is the same “heck of a job” team builders of all stripes experience.

Robert Palmer, at one point, moves the topic to Gunther Schuller’s book, Early Jazz. Palmer says of Schuller’s theory on the African origin of syncopation he, Palmer, wishes Schuller had used more examples in reaching his conclusion. Schuller replies, he used the examples available to him at the time, and even with more examples, Schuller thinks his African/syncopation theory would hold true.


early_jazz_schullerGunther Schuller: I think the main point of my chapter was the explanation of what we call syncopation, which, I am convinced, comes out of the polyrhythmic structuring of African ensemble music.

Look, if I face students who are classically trained and I want to get them to play a swinging syncopation, what do I do? I write it down. Of course I can’t write it down exactly. If I write it the way jazz musicians write it, they’ll play it like this. (Schuller sings a choppy, stiff version of a swing riff.)

If I try to write it more or less exactly, it will be terribly complex, sextuplets over quintuplets, all this sort of thing — irrational rhythms — and they still won’t be able to play it.

The obvious answer is that all they have to do is hear it. But, and this is the fantastic thing, they often cannot hear it! My father, who is a German trained musician, cannot play jazz rhythms.

So I asked myself, “Where did that particular type of syncopation, which you do not find in Brahms, in Wagner, where did it come from?”

Source: Gunther Schuller: On the American Musical Melting Pot, by Robert Palmer, Down Beat, February 12, 1976

Robert Palmer Photo Credit


About Scott K Fish
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