More Advanced Note Lengths: Beyond Twos and Fours

You may have noticed that all the rhythms I’ve shown you so far have been based on multiplying and dividing by two (two, four, eight, and sixteen). This is not the only option, but it is the most common in western music. The Second most common is playing with groups of three. There are a couple of ways to do this.

Note Length Exercise 4: Dotted Notes

One way to play with groups of three is to use dotted notes. A dotted quarter note is equal in length to three 8th notes, rather than the usual two. A dotted 8th note is equal in length to three 16th notes. In other words, When you add a dot to a note, it makes the note one and a half times as long. Below are an examples of dotted notes. Try playing these rhythms as you did for previous note length exercises. If you have trouble, don’t worry. The exercises in chapter 5 will help you develop rhythmic skill.

Dotted Quarter Notes

Dotted Half Notes

Dotted 8th Notes

Note Length Exercise 5: Triplets

Another way to use the number “three” when building rhythms is with triplets. Triplets divide the beat into three evenly spaced notes, rather than the usual two or four. Normally there are two 8th notes per beat, but the “3” on top of the notes tells you there are three 8th notes per beat. The same thing applies to 16th notes, where normally there would be two 16th notes, now there are three. To play 8th note triplets, it might be helpful to count to three repeatedly. Your hands tap every number, but your foot only taps on "One". Listen to the examples below to see how this sounds.

8th Note Triplets

16th Note Triplets

Quarter Note Triplets

Quarter note triplets are harder because they don’t line up with every beat (feel free to skip to Swing for now). If you begin a quarter note triplet on the first beat, there won’t be a note that lines up with the second beat. The other two notes in the quarter note triplet are played before and after the second beat.

If you are having trouble with the precise timing of quarter note triplets, it is useful to think about them in terms of 8th note triplets. Quarter note triplets sound the same as playing every other 8th note triplet. Below I’ve written 8th note triplets with every other note accented. If you play only the accented notes, it will sound the same as quarter note triplets. When playing difficult rhythms with rests, it is helpful to not only think about the notes you are playing, but also think about the notes you're not playing, and play them silently in your head.

Half Note Triplets

Half note triplets are even harder, for the same reason. If you start on the first beat, the half note triplet won’t line up with the second, third, or fourth beat. Half note triplets are the same as playing every other quarter note triplet.

Note Length Exercise 6: Swing

I mentioned earlier that when playing consecutive 8th notes, one 8th note will line up with the beat (if we consider the beat to be quarter notes), and the next note will fall exactly halfway between two beats. This is not always true. The first 8th note will always line up with the beat, but in some songs, all the 8th notes that fall between the beat are delayed slightly. How much it is delayed depends on the song, but two consecutive 8th notes can often sound like the first and third notes in an 8th note triplet. Instead of writing every sequence of 8th notes as 8th note triplets with a rest in the middle, musicians write this as normal 8th notes, but they tell everyone in the band to “swing” the 8th notes. Swing originated with popular jazz in the 1920s and 1930s where 8th notes were “swung” in most of the songs. If a song uses evenly spaced 8th notes, they are referred to as “straight” 8th notes. The two lines written below should sound the same. The first line uses triplets, the second line tells you to “swing” the 8th notes.

To learn how to “swing” your 8th notes, it is best to listen to swing music and copy the way swing bands play their 8th notes. Even though swung 8th notes started in a specific genre, almost all modern genres use swung 8th notes every once in a while. It is useful to be able to switch between straight and swing 8th notes.

Note Length Exercise 7: Advanced Beat Divisions

Of course, it is possible to divide the beat using numbers other than two or three. Numbers like five, seven, nine, eleven, and thirteen (and more) are possible. Dividing a beat into five evenly spaced notes would result in quintuplets, for example. These are not common. They occur in experimental music, made by musicians who have an extremely high fluency in rhythm, or the folk music of some non-western cultures. Even if you don’t want to play rhythms like this, learning these obscure beat divisions builds fluency. You can then decide whether you like the sounds. I won’t explain all of the beat divisions in detail. I will just leave you with an exercise I used to play daily.

For this exercise, I set the metronome to tap once every four beats, so the metronome is tapping out whole notes. I then play a scale using every possible division of that whole note, from one to sixteen. Dividing by one is just playing whole notes. Dividing by sixteen is playing 16th notes. It gets hard when you get to numbers like five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, and fifteen. Again, this is unnecessary for the vast majority of music.