Omar Shehata

Cync — a web app to explore non-quantized music

From Omar's notebook.

Cync ( is a web app I built in college with Jon Tiburzi and Terrane. It lets you create music by arranging drum samples in cyclic orbits.

The video below shows how it works. Here I create a simple rhythm that would be difficult to represent using traditional western musical notation (sheet music). Make sure to unmute!

Terrane has a fantastic 2 minute video explaining how this setup makes it possible to study & create non-quantized grooves which are common in African, Indian, and Indonesian musical traditions.

This article is my attempt to explain all this to someone who doesn't know much about music (like me), and provide a few examples you can try yourself.

What are non-quantized grooves?

And what makes them so hard to represent in sheet music?

In most western music (or anything that can be written down in sheet music), notes are always played at fixed intervals. There's a unit that defines the minimum length of time between any two notes, and every length of time must be some multiple of that. It's all very nice and structured.

That's what it means for the music to be "quantized" - the notes have to fit into these fixed intervals. But of course there's nothing preventing you from changing this up when playing or creating music, and musical traditions from other parts of the world do that.

The other main musical feature of Cync is making it easy to explore polyrhythms. This is what the multiple orbits are for. In Western/sheet music, it needs to be possible to write down the song/rhythm linearly. Another way to do it is instead define multiple rhythms that all play independently, like if each performer in an orchestra had their own sheet music that was shorter, longer, or had a different time scale than the others.

The result is that these different rhythms when played together will sync in and out over time, aligning to a beat, and playing a few more times before aligning back again. This creates really rich music out of simple individual parts. To someone trained in western music, it can be hard to understand these rhythms if your brain is trying to situate it into the fixed grid of sheet music.

An example from western music

Let's look at an example of how a western song would look like in Cync. Doing this makes it visually clear in what way sheet music is constrained.

Below is a short snippet from The Way You Make me Feel by Michael Jackson. I got a MIDI file of this song from, then I put it into MuseScore where I could highlight and play any part of it.

Here is the short loop I picked:

Below is what it looks like recreated in Cync. Link to open this loop in the app.

It doesn't sound exactly the same because (1) I don't have the same drum samples that MuseScore uses (2) I didn't get the timing between notes exactly right.

If we take any sheet music song and recreate it in Cync like this you will always notice:

An example from Ghana

Let's take a look at an example from an African musical tradition. This "Ghana Postal Workers Work Music" was an example given by my college textbook Worlds of Music of both polyrhythms and non-quantized notes.

This song was actually my original motivation for working on this project. We spent a while in class listening to this and learning to dissect the polyrhythms and how they connect to one another. Most of the musically talented folks in the class seemed to make progress. Meanwhile, I felt completely lost.

Here is my attempt at recreating this rhythm in Cync. Link to open loop in app.

Seeing it like this makes it much easier to think about it. You have 3 beats very close together in the innermost loop. You have the three large beats, the yellow ones.

Sometimes the 3rd beat in the yellow will align with the first beat in the innermost. We can see this because visually they are aligned. But most of the time it will not! Because each orbit repeats at different speeds.

This next one is more subtle, and I only picked it up in the recording because my professor pointed it out: There's a smaller beat that seems to always precede a larger (yellow) beat. This is represented here as the purple in the middle orbit (an example of non-quantized note), as well as the purple in the outermost. This creates a sense of anticipation of the upcoming beat(s). I think.

What's really interesting here is that there isn't necessarily one way to play or record this music! Below is another possible way you could play this. Link to open loop in app.

The main difference here is the middle orbit no longer has the 3 yellow beats in a row. We know that 3 of such beats do play, you can hear that in the original song, but they may not necessarily be played by the same person/in a single rhythm. Instead the 3 beats come from joining the outer and middle orbits. This makes it happen only ever other time (I think?) and results in different interacts with the innermost orbit as well.

To me this sounds super fun to perform, this idea that no one person is playing a recognizable melody, but when played together, a new structure emerges.