Syncopation: Alien to the German Spirit

One thing foreigners notice about ordinary German pop music is its march-like (oom-pa) character and lack of syncopation. Invariably, the thought springs to the foreigner's mind that the music practically invites you to goose-step.

But that's not the response among Germans, at least not the ones you're likely to be hanging out with. Their pop sings are designed to allow simple, salt-of-the-earth people to sing along, lock arms, and rhythmically sway to the music — a process called schunkeln. Schunkeln is fun after 7 or so beers, but like most German amusements it can last a very long time and involves strict social control and coordination. If you added syncopation to the mix, nobody would know exactly when to sway, and before long there will be howls of 'Scheiße Negermusik!' and perhaps some good-natured bloodshed.

And it seems that Germans have always distrusted syncopated pop music (classical is another story, of course). From Open Culture, a list of rules imposed on a Czech saxophonist under Nazi occupation:

An aspiring tenor saxophone player living in Third Reich-occupied Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky had ample opportunity to experience the Nazis’ “control-freak hatred of jazz.” In the intro to his short novel The Bass Saxophone, he recounts from memory a set of ten bizarre regulations issued by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, that bound local dance orchestras during the Czech occupation.

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

17 thoughts on “Syncopation: Alien to the German Spirit

  1. What a load of BS.
    You should try and understand the difference between Schlager (which is the crap on this video and is mainly the stuff for the 55+ beige brigade) and German pop, which you clearly haven’t discovered yet. More’s the pity. Start with Peter Fox, Seeed, Clueso, Silbermond, Die Ärzte, Fanta 4….


  2. Point taken, Sabine, but the original post was carefully limited to ‘ordinary’ German pop for ‘simple’ people. I have discovered most of those bands, but you have to admit, if you went into an ordinary neighborhood bar in Dibbersen or Stauchitz you wouldn’t run into many people who had heard of them (except for die Aerzte, perhaps). And don’t get me started on the German love affair with heavy metal…


  3. Agreed. German popular music traditionally lacks syncopation and is set in 4/4 measure. If you visit a random rural German discotheque, you will notice that many of the songs played are disco compatible versions of German schlager in 4/4 measure, with heavy stress on beats one and three. Syncopation and offbeat had to be imported to Germany.

    @Sabine: Ever heard of Michael Wendler, self-proclaimed “König des Deutschen Pop-Schlagers”? His fan base deosn’t look 55+ to me.

    What Andrew described, simple pop music you can schunkel to after seven beers, is still popular with many people. I wish I knew why.


  4. Mrs. Sabine,

    as heart-warming your passion for what you consider German pop music may be, you shouldn’t spit out a rant about a writer whose musical background you obviously aren’t aware of (though you could change your lack of knowledge by simply browse his blog).
    Unfortunately that also means, that I am rather certain, Mr. Hammel won’t be interested in the forms of Schlager you deliver him as listening suggestions (and he will most probably be experienced enough to have successfully avoided those bands most of the time — unless he felt like listening to Schlager, a weakness everybody may experience here and there).

    However, it is obvious to listeners with some sort of ability to distinguish things, that the line of names you dropped contain almost exclusively bands who do nothing else but Schlager: Schlager im Fun-Punk-Gewand (Ärzte), Schlager im Dancehall-Gewand (Seeed) etc. One could add: Schlager im SPD-Punk-Gewand (Tote Hosen), Schlager im Schlagergewand (Rosenstolz) etc. etc.

    Finally, since you are obviously not 55, yet (neither am I), I hope for you, that you are very young, because that would give you a decent excuse for not having realised, yet, that taste is far less a question of “generation, but of the ownership (or lack of) serious curiousity and the ability to obstain the brainwashing of a German culture industry fundamentally desinterested in talking about music itself.

    To sum it up: Germans of all ages love to listen to Schlager.
    The list of truly unique German pop music far away from the Schlager disease should, of course, be rather different from yours. And Mr. Hammel has mentioned a number of examples for that in his blog over the years. Here he was talking about exactly the phenomenon you emphasized with your list.

    An important German composer you probably don’t know once said: Hören ist wehrlos — ohne Denken. (Helmut Lachenmann)


  5. I would add, though, that I find the headline a bit merciless.
    It would be, of course, more appropriate to write “alien to Nazi spirit (example given) — and maybe to the musical nature of most Germans”, but as I admit, that’s all but a catchy headline!
    There has been SOME tradition of German Jazz musicians and some of them have been quite good at sophisticated syncopations (should I give examples?).
    Still admitted: there is little sign of any complex sense for rhythm in German traditional folk music (I am not talking about the industrialised trash here), despite some very rare, regionally strongly limited excemptions. Therefore nobody should be surprised that Germans aren’t even able to clap on off-beats when suggested (as to be studied at countless trashy German — though that’s a tautology in itself— TV shows).
    On a side note, and interestingly enough, there isn’t much sign of a complex sense for rhythm in German contemporary art music, either.

    Still, it would be a bit like for me declaring all Americans incapable of having a developed taste for fine food (which is done by Germans all the time, I know) because of McD/KFC/BK — ignoring the fact that I have had some of the finest food I ever had in the United States. Still I assume, that’s part of the fun for the author to post the above: to counter clichés uttered by Germans about Americans.

    Last addition: the oom-pa thing is called Polka in German and not only typical for German Schlager, but for all sorts of “fun” music, as most punk music, ska, (more commercial) raggae etc.


  6. Please help me: what amount of syncopation would be appropriate and turn bad music into good? Obviously 10% is not enough, would 50% do it? Or even more – the more, the better? I mean, if we’re at 100% syncopation, we could take German Schlager and it’s hand clapping audience and just assume they’re doing off-beat, finally…
    Sorry for that little poke, this conversation just provoked me – I hate “Schunkeln”, but also, imo, a lot of (for example) Jazz Music is substantially as much as trash as German Schlager. But you probably know this 🙂


  7. There is nothing funny about this post, it is simply insulting and nothing more. And before some Anglo jackass brings up the Germans just don’t have a sense of humor issue may remind them that there sense of humor, when it comes to Germany, consists of repeating “Don’t mention the war!” over and over again every time Germany is mentioned somewhere on the internet.


  8. @Andrew:
    What about metal? 😀

    Anyhow. I understand that you take no small amount of glee in countering cultural generalizations of Americans by Germans with generalizations of your own – in fact, I applaud you for it.
    However, I can’t help but feel that you’re a bit off the mark on this one. What describe isn’t just endemic to German “simple pop”, but for “simple pop” of almost fucking everywhere. You won’t find much syncopation or polyrythms in dime-a-dozen europop dance songs or the streamlined, whitewashed Nashville country so successful in the US (and the best equivalence to German “Schlager”, imho).

    And it’s not like that’s a bad thing. Simple, catchy pop music you can schunkel (of all genres, including metal) can be rather nice once in a while, even when infused with the dreaded oompha.
    But maybe that’s the German in me talking 😉


  9. “Mann, hat der eine knarrige Stimme, nach wie vor!”

    Great post, especially in combination with the video.
    I would like to add that I have always felt indignation over the syncopation in “Wir lagen vor Madagaskar”. In a German folk song, and in such a prominent position! No way.

    What comes to my mind: In the 60s, Heidi Brühl sang an anti-war song to the melody of the “Green Berets” – which is weird in itself, the song not being a parody. Sure, it was a military song that was new and out there – but was is so attractive it had to be used? Was it just a reflex of imitation whatever was popular in America? Anyway, the only change applied to the music – you won’t guess – was straightening the one regularly recurring and foreseeable instance of syncopation …


  10. Is that list for real? Basically, it says “shut up or we’ll get you anyway”, doesn’t it.
    But in case I’ll ever get into one of those discussions about whether the Nazis also had some good ideas (I never have so far), I’ll be happy to quote the throw-your-saxophone-away-and-change-it-for-a-cello line.

    P.S.: Did you notice that Heino, by slip of tongue, sings “in einer klitzekleinen Hafen-Bra”?
    Life ist life, na na na na na …

    P.P.S.: Did you notice? Dieter Thomas Heck says “Whisky”, Heino sings “Visky” …


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