Syncopation, Dancehall & Coldplay: The rhythm that underlies pop music

Part 1: The Tresillo


Recognise that rhythm at the beginning of the song? That familiar sound:

Da — Da — Da-Da — Da — Da-Da — Da — Da-?

Here, what about in Clocks?

Pre-milliennial banger.

Sound familiar now? It should be. That rhythm, known as the Tresillo forms the basis of many of today’s pop song. It’s so catchy, so easy to grasp, it’s almost harder to hear a song and not recognise it.

It can be written multiple ways; the two main of which are below. The only real difference between them is that the blue Tresillo goes for a whole bar of 4/4, where as the red Tresillo only goes for half a bar of 4/4. So if both were played at the same tempo, the red Tresillo would be exactly twice as fast as the blue.

Math! Brilliant.

Scrolling through my personal Spotify account, it wasn’t difficult to pull a bunch of songs all based around this rhythm:

The Cat Empire: The Darkness
Fallout Boy: Hold Me Tight or Don’t
Sia: Cheap Thrills
Muse: Something Human
The Meters: Hey Pocky-a-Way

Aside from my questionable music preferences, what does this say? This rhythm is everywhere. Seriously, put on any song you like, the Tresillo may not be as pronounced as it is in Shape of You; but listen closely to the interlocking rhythms of the instruments and vocals, it’ll probably be hidden there somewhere.

To understand how the Tresillo tessellates with other rhythms, we need to understand the concept of Syncopation.

Part 2: Syncopation

Syncopation involves:

“a shifting of the normal accent, usually by stressing the normally unaccented beats.”

Too wordy. I like Hal Galper’s definition better.


Boo-dap, ba-dee-dup, ba-dee-ga-dee-ga-dee-dup.

Syncopation comes from New Orleans’ Second Line marching parades. The horns and drums would bounce rhythms off each other, interlocking in different ways, but giving and overall feeling of lightness, making people want to dance.

Syncopation is light. Syncopation is bouncy. Syncopation gives rhythm movement and gives a song energy. Syncopation isn’t a plodding “1. 2. 3. 4” like in Seven Nation Army.

Where does the Tresillo come into this? Well, the Tresillo could be considered syncopation: the 2nd note, an offbeat, is accented. But more than that, it’s simple enough to allow a lay person with no musical education or knowledge to understand and comprehend it, but it’s syncopated enough to feel bouncy and dance-able. We’ll come back to this point later on.

Part 3: History

Cuban Banger

So where did the Tresillo come from? It has its origin in traditional music of Sub-Saharan Africa. When these people were brought to Cuba on the Atlantic Slave Trade, they brought this rhythm with them. Around the 18th century, the Tresillo became fused with a music and dance known as the Cuban Contradanza. The exact origin of the Contradanza is unknown, it’s a big mish-mash of Spanish, French, African, English and Cuban. Probably all of them.

Anyway, during the 18th and 19th century the Contradanza morphed with a Cuban dance style which would gain international recognition: The Habanera. These two names would often be used together, as the Contradanza would refer to the dance, and the Habanera would refer to the rhythm that accompanies the dance. The aria “Habanera” from Carmen is probably the most recognizable.

Opera banger. Sorry, I’ll stop that now

Now, we have to make our first distinction: between the original Tresillo rhythm and the new Habanera rhythm. These are the two rhythms in their basic form:

Tresillo (4 beat version)

See the difference? Where as the Tresillo accents the upbeat on 2+, the Habanera accents the downbeat on 3, similar to many modern backbeats. It still contains the Tresillo, but it’s started to transform.

I don’t have a joke for this one

Moving on, the beginning of the 19th century saw the rise of Ragtime and early Jazz. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleans composer, travelled to Cuba and brought the Tresillo back with him. The Tresillo & Habanera soon began appearing in works by other ragtime composers like Jelly Roll Morton, James Johnston and Scott Joplin. Here’s the Habanera in one of Joplin’s pieces

Hear it? It’s a bit more pronounced now.

From here, the Tresillo worked its way into traditional New Orleans second line and parade bands, becoming the musics ‘clave’ (the rhythm that underlies the entire song). Now, it’s important that we make a second distinction, between the Tresillo & the Second Line. Here are the two in their basic form:

Tresillo (4 beat version)
New Orleans’ Second Line ‘clave’

See the difference? The Second Line clave contains the Tresillo in the second bar, but there’s some extra rhythms added before it, making it a cross-rhythm (a rhythm that crosses the barline). See if you can spot it in this clip, listen for the guy playing the snare on the left.

The one that looks like Stephen Mangan

Alright, back to South America now. Whilst this was going on in New Orleans, people in the Northeast of Brazil were playing their own traditional music: Baião. Brazil is generally known for its traditional Samba music, but the Baião existed quietly alongside. Bobby Sanabria explains it so:

Can’t wait to hear this in the new Pitbull track

Now, we have to make our third distinction; between the Tresillo & the Baião.

Tresillo (2 beat version)

The Baiao uses the exact same rhythm as the Tresillo, but because of the way it’s played on the traditional ‘Zabumba’ drum, the last note is muffled, quietened. The accents are the on the first two notes whereas the last one is sort of forgotten about.

So at this point, we have 3 separate ‘timelines’ of the Tresillo.

Brought to Cuba from Europe; mixed with the Cuban Contradanza
Brought to New Orleans from Cuba; mixed with Ragtime and Jazz
Existed locally in Northeast Brazil as part of Baiao

This all came to a head around the 40’s and 50’s, when American audiences suddenly decided they loved Latin music. They became exposed to a wide variety of ‘world’ music like Salsa, Samba and Afro-Cuban, as Jazz began merging with Latin music and musicians began incorporating as many of these influences as they possibly could into their works. The American public was now well aware of the Tresillo, and were surrounded by it in all the music they listened to.

What happened next?

Let’s head up to the Caribbean.

In the 70’s, Dancehall was born in Jamaica, and along with it came the dancehall rhythm. Try and spot the Tresillo in Shabba Ranks’ notorious track “Dem bow”. It’s kinda unavoidable.

Okay, genuine banger

Told you.

So Dancehall is the beginning of the modernisation of the Tresillo. But, we have to make one final distinction. Compare the original Tresillo with the Dancehall rhythm.

Tresillo (4 beat version)

But we’ve seen this before, right? That extra downbeat added in. This time compare the Habanera rhythm with Dancehall.


And that’s it. That tiny change of swapping the notes around completely revolutionised the Tresillo, and how audiences would come to hear it in music.

Seriously, that’s all it took.

So we now have the modern Tresillo rhythm. After Dancehall took off it inspired the creation of Reggaeton in the 90’s in Puerto Rico. Whilst the underlying rhythm is the same; the attitude is different. Reggaeton was built off hip hop, underground nightclubs and explicit lyrics. Reggaeton eventually gained notoriety in the U.S and Europe in the mid 2000’s and the rest is history from there.

Singers and bands from all walks of life began incorporating this rhythm into their songs, packing out stadiums, arenas and concerts as they know audiences just won’t get sick of hearing that rhythm. As mentioned in Part 1, the Dancehall beat, built off the Tresillo just hit that perfect sweet spot between being simple enough for the average person to grasp, but complex enough to be syncopated. But most of all, it makes people want to dance.

So, what’s the outcome of all of this? This rhythm, which has been recorded for over two centuries, travelled across continents from the simple Cuban Tresillo, to the European Habanera, to the Brazilian Baião, to the New Orleans Second Line, to the Jamaican Reggaeton and finally to mainstream American pop. What’s the use for such a simple rhythm that can drive audiences wild? What’s the ultimate, final outcome of the Tresillo?

Come on, you knew it was going to be Despacito.