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You can read part one of this post HERE, which includes movement activities for feeling and identifying syncopation. Today’s post will focus on the sight portion of teaching syncopation.
As you prepare to show students what syncopation looks like in printed music, try not to be tempted to show them entire scores of music immediately. Syncopation is complex, but we can use simple visuals that will build on each other. Take for example the following:
This is a page out of one of my interactive notebooks and shows a visual for strong and weak beats in 4/4. This analogy of a bouncing ball is one I employ often when thinking about strong/weak beat and down/upbeats. I’ll be referencing this analogy as I discuss some ideas for presenting syncopation.
1. Let’s start with a simple piece of paper. Have your students fold it into four sections. Attempt to keep them from turning it into a paper airplane (despite the temptation to do so yourself). Then, tell the students that each section represents a beat.

2. Use stickers to represent the downbeat, reminding students to continue to visualize the bouncing ball. At this point, you may want to rephrase the term “bouncing ball”, especially if you’re teaching middle school. We all know where students’ minds go at that age, as evidenced by the stories of a former colleague of mine who was an elementary P.E. teacher. The last thing you want to do is use the term “balls” when addressing a room full of middle school students.

3. Continue to use this analogy as they add the upbeats. In the example below, I used mailing seals as stickers, which were perforated in the center. This made it easy to create upbeats at the beginning and end (they would also work great when explaining pick-ups).
4. Lastly, you can ask students to draw the direction of the bouncing ball, as it moves from downbeat to upbeat.
5. Now that we’ve introduced this simple visual, the transition to the music staff will be smooth. You can ask students to mark the downbeats through folding, as shown in the example below. Or they could choose to make tick marks to indicate the downbeats; a trick I employed in high school when figuring out difficult rhythms.
From there you can guide students in writing a syncopated rhythm from the repertoire you’ve chosen. Then, color-block the beats to emphasize the syncopation. The visual below really helps to make the connection.
I hope you’re able to use some of these ideas for your own classroom. Please share your own syncopation ideas in the comments section!
Also, a shout-out is due to my friend Elizabeth from Organized Chaos, who mentioned two more movement activities for syncopation that I felt should be added to the list. The first is To Stop the Train, which is shown in the video below. Sadly, I couldn’t find a video example of the second one, but maybe Elizabeth will help us out in the comments section.