Rhythmic characteristics of popular music

Different styles of popular music can be characterised by distinctive rhythms.

General features of swing, jazz and blues

The features below can be found in jazz and blues styles. Not all features will be found in all pieces.

Swing rhythms

Jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch introduces the music of the swing era

Swing rhythms occur when straight quavers are relaxed into a more triplet feel:

Swing rhythms occur when straight quavers are relaxed into a more triplet feel.

A very famous example of the use of this rhythm is Glenn Miller’s In the Mood. The swing rhythm is found in many jazz styles, including the boogie woogie.


Syncopation is when the offbeats in a metre - eg beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time - are given a greater degree of emphasis than the main beats - eg beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time. Rhythms that fit in between the beats of a bar can be described as syncopated.

In many forms of jazz, syncopated rhythms in the melody and accompaniment create complex rhythms. This is particularly relevant in sections of jazz where musicians explore syncopation through improvisation. New melodies in jazz are often formed as a result of experimentation with syncopated rhythm.

Walking bass

A walking bass is when the bass player plays crotchets and ‘walks’ up and down either the blues scale or arpeggio.

Other popular styles


Ska is a type of fast dance music that emerged in the late 1950s. Ska music:

  • fuses American rhythm 'n' blues (R'n'B) with mento rhythms
  • uses electric guitars and a jazzy brass section - trumpets, saxophones and trombones
  • uses characteristic offbeat jumpy rhythms
  • has lyrics about local issues

Here is an example of a ska rhythm:

An example of a ska rhythm.

How would you describe syncopation?

Offbeat rhythms


Rocksteady is a type of dance music that emerged in the mid-1960s. It is characterised by:

  • rhythms more relaxed than ska
  • stresses on beats 2 and 4
  • loud bass guitar playing steady 4/4 beat
  • political themes in lyrics


Bob Marley and The Wailers perform ‘Stir it up’ written by Bob Markey in 1967

Reggae is a much slower form of music than ska and emerged in the 1960s. It is characterised by:

  • electric guitars and drums line-up
  • amplified bass guitar riffs - short repeated patterns
  • an association with Rastafarianism - a religious movement worshipping Haile Selassie
  • a rhythm in 4/4 with emphasis on the missing beat
  • use of repeated offbeat quavers
  • use of dub remixing techniques where effects such as delay are added
  • simple chord sequences
  • verse-chorus form
  • political themes in the lyrics