ReFrame Adventist Worship 4: Rhythm & God's Time

Syncopation is not evil and never has been. Many speakers have misled countless people on this issue and it's time to reverse course and undo the damage.

Because this video is already 40 minutes long, this post will simply be a list of key sources, quotes, and verses for you to look up as further study.

Wikipedia article on Syncopation

A helpful introduction to basic concepts. Please see the "References" section for more reliable sources. I typically would not recommend Wikipedia as a "reliable" source, but it can be helpful with introductory-level information. And, as you'll see, some of the more scholarly sources on this topic can be ... almost prohibitively dense and inaccessible to the average reader.

But if you would like a more in-depth and credible look at Syncopation, here are some sources:

"Syncopation is an objective quality, but metric dissonance is subjective. If you repeat a syncopated groove long enough, it starts sounding “consonant”–you come to expect those accented weak beats. In fact, once you’ve established your syncopated feel, you can create rhythmic dissonance by unexpectedly accenting strong beats instead. [Duke] Ellington and [Thelonious] Monk are particularly good at this. In rhythm as well as in harmony, dissonance is a function of context and expectation, like food spiciness. Instead of dissonance vs consonance, we’d do better to think in terms of predictable vs surprising."

"Nicole Biamonte wrote a fascinating paper, Formal Functions of Metric Dissonance in Rock Music. In it, she describes two different kinds of metric dissonance. Displacement dissonance is a shift of the beginning of a rhythmic phrase a slot earlier or later than expected. Rock uses this technique in just about every song. There’s also grouping dissonance, where events are grouped together in unexpected ways that destabilizes your sense of the meter. The classic example of grouping dissonance is  hemiola, which is ubiquitous in both Afro-Cuban drumming and jazz."

"Biamonte also has a useful term for devices like the backbeat, syncopations that are such a central part of the groove as to become completely expected.

"Because it is an essential component of the meter, functioning as a timeline—a rhythmic ostinato around which the other parts are organized—I consider the backbeat in rock music to be an instance of displacement consonance rather than dissonance…

[T]he backbeat is contextually consonant because it is a basic rhythmic unit that typically continues throughout the song, with no expectation of a resolution to a consonant pattern. A pitch-based analogy is the consonant status of the dominant 7th chord in the context of the blues: it is the basic harmonic unit, which does not resolve. Just as the tension of the dominant function in blues is often expressed through alterations or extensions of a dominant 7th chord such as raised or lowered chord fifths or ninths, temporal dissonance in rock music is typically expressed by patterns that create tensions against the underlying backbeat." (Source: Ethan Hein)

Scriptures referred to in the video

Judges 12 gives us the story of Jephthah and the Ephraimites. This story is only used in our video to introduce the concept of the "Shibboleth." This is a sociological concept that has been inspired by the Biblical story, and our use of this concept is not exegetical. The story in Judges 12 is not inherently about the rightness or wrongness of a "Shibboleth" determining the difference between different cultural groups. If you would like a biblical example of a Shibboleth being used as a bad thing, consider reading through the book of Galatians, where certain church members wanted to use circumcision as the determining marker of those who truly belonged to the Jesus movement.

Daniel 7:25 is an important verse in the grand scheme of Seventh-day Adventist prophetic interpretation. You can learn more about Daniel 7 and the book of Daniel in general in our series on Daniel & Revelation.

With regard to Daniel 7, the use of this chapter in Ivor Myers' sermon "Sonic Warfare" is full of logical and exegetical fallacies. We believe it is very important for students of scripture, theology, and other fields of inquiry to be able to identify logical fallacies. Here are some fallacies that you should be aware of when listening to preachers talking about music. The definitions here will be drawn from Wikipedia, but any good dictionary or textbook of Philosophy or Logic will have examples of these:

Logical Fallacies (bad reasoning):

  • Fallacy of Equivocation: "In logic, equivocation ('calling two different things by the same name') is an informal fallacy resulting from the use of a particular word/expression in multiple senses within an argument."
  • Genetic Fallacy: "The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue)[1] is a fallacy of irrelevance that is based solely on someone's or something's history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context. In other words, a claim is ignored in favor of attacking or championing its source."
    • Etymological Fallacy: "The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. This is a linguistic misconception, and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology."
  • Definist Fallacy: "A persuasive definition is a form of stipulative definition which purports to describe the true or commonly accepted meaning of a term, while in reality stipulating an uncommon or altered use, usually to support an argument for some view, or to create or alter rights, duties or crimes. The terms thus defined will often involve emotionally charged but imprecise notions, such as "freedom", "terrorism", "democracy", etc."
  • Post-hoc Fallacy: "This fallacy gets its name from the Latin phrase "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", which translates as "after this, therefore because of this". Definition: Assuming that because B comes after A, A caused B. [...] For example, if I ate a sandwich and then I got food poisoning, that does not necessarily mean the sandwich gave me food poisoning. It is possible that I could have eaten something else earlier that caused the food poisoning.
  • False Dilemma: "A false dilemma (sometimes called false dichotomy) is a type of informal, correlative-based fallacy in which a statement falsely claims or assumes an "either/or" situation, when in fact there is at least one additional logically valid option."
  • Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence: "Cherry picking, suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. Cherry picking may be committed intentionally or unintentionally. This fallacy is a major problem in public debate."
  • False Analogy: "Argument from analogy is a special type of inductive argument, whereby perceived similarities are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed. Analogical reasoning is one of the most common methods by which human beings attempt to understand the world and make decisions. [...] A false analogy is a faulty instance of the argument from analogy."

Watch out for these kinds of fallacies when listening to preachers, especially when they venture outside of directly commenting on the Bible and into other fields like musicology, psychology, natural sciences, etc.

"In Tune With God" by Lilianne Doukhan

We highly recommend that any Adventists who are concerned about issues of music and worship pick up this very well-researched book by Adventist musicologist Lilianne Doukhan. The book manages to be both scholarly and readable, which is a very enviable combination. Here are some key quotations regarding rhythm and syncopation:

“Syncopation is generally explained as a musical feature that was first brought from Africa by slaves and later became a major ingredient of jazz and rock music. Because of this perspective syncopation has been understood as intricately tied to heathen/animistic practices and interpreted as an instrument of evil. [...] An objective and historical study of the practice of syncopation, on one hand, and the traditional rhythmic practices characteristic of African music, on the other hand, reveal that the situation is not this simplistic and that such an explanation of syncopation is outright erroneous.”


“The most characteristic element in African music is not syncopation, but its use of cross-rhythms."


“Syncopation, on the other hand, has been a basic rhythmic feature of Western (European) music since the dawn of polyphonic music in the Middle Ages. To come closer to our times, the rhythmic principle of sacred or secular Renaissance music from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - [...] is strongly governed by the practice of syncopation. [...] We find a wealth of syncopation in the sacred works by composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, and G.F. Handel. Often, the final sections of choral works of these great composers end with choral fugues, rhythmically animated polyphonic sections brimming with syncopation that create an effect of exhilaration and a triumphant climax to the whole work. [...]”


“The Western style of music making, including the technique of syncopation, was imported into the colony of Louisiana by early French settlers. [...] the colonial city of New Orleans, around the year 1800, was brimming with music bringing together European and African traditions. It was then that the practice of syncopation mixed with African musical practices. The resultant combination later came to characterize the world of jazz.”

Doukhan on the Effects of Rhythm

Many people are concerned about the mental and physiological effects of rhythm. Here is an important excerpt from Doukhan's book:

"Illustrations taken from the popular religious scene, such as Pentecostal celebrations or scenes of possession, testify to the mechanism just described. In a first stage the dancing excites. Then the dancer becomes "insensible to the excitation" (getting entirely absorbed in and concentrating totally on the pursuit of the physical activity per se), "oblivious to intellectual pursuits" (giving up rational control), and ends up in a sort of ecstasy (receiving Spirit/possession). Anybody watching a trance or possession dance can observe these different stages." (pg. 31)

"It is essential, however, to point out that this process does not happen in a mechanical or automatic way. Seashore himself took care to make this very clear. As he speaks about the gratifying experience of "auto-intoxication" and "successful self-expression," he explains how the two happen through the combined effects of both music and its context and associations. In other words, at the base of such experiences (be it dance, war, or religion), there lies a deliberate investment, an intent and readiness, in participation. Getting into a trance does not happen automatically, as a result of the effects of music, etc., but requires a voluntary letting go and surrender to the experience. This explains why musicians providing the music for events related to possession do not automatically enter the state of trance themselves." (pg. 32)

A Forgotten Musical Lineage:

“Syncopation, this curious rhythmic accent on the short beat, is found in its most highly developed forms in the music of the folk who have been held for years in political subjection. It is, therefore, an expression in music of the desire for that freedom which has been denied to its interpreter. It is found in its most intense forms among the folk of all the Slavic countries, especially in certain districts of Poland and Russia, and also among the Hungarian [Roma people] gypsies.”  (Ladies Home Journal, August 1921, pp. 16-34.)

This source just quoted above demonstrates not only that people in the 1920s knew that syncopated rhythms had a European history, but also serves as an example of how racist their ideas about rhythm were:

"Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists." (Same source as the last quote.)


This is for sure an unusual post for us, but this was perhaps an unusual video for us. Please feel free to follow up on some of the video sources below, and make sure you keep tracking with us as we complete the rest of this series. If you have any questions, please submit those to us via our various social media platforms.

Sources about Music:

Adam Neely on Polyrhythms, Harmony, and perception:

7 Must Know Gospel Drum Beats - to help us understand drums in Gospel music:

An exploration of the nature of Funk:

The History of Gospel music:

The Clave, for a broader cultural perspective on Rhythm:

Indian Rhythms - with Sarah Thawer:

We hope that these resources prove helpful in your own understanding of how music really works. May it also be helpful in resolving conflicts in your church.


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