Complex Rhythms Demystified by Joe Bigham

Part 1: Reading Rhythms

Many beginning and intermediate musicians can be intimidated by written music. Rhythmic values and time signatures can be two particularly difficult aspects of reading from a score. Still, one can use some very basic concepts to help decipher these rhythms, and in turn gain a greater understanding of rhythm in general, be it a highly syncopated melody or a 10/8 time signature.

It all comes down to counting. This may sound oversimplified, but counting will proves to be the easiest way to learn new rhythms. In grade school, children are taught to count by quarter notes: quarter note is 1 beat, a half note 2 beats, a whole note 4 beats. This proves to be inefficient once eighth, sixteenths, or thirty-second notes are encountered. Instead of counting the beats, use the smallest value as your counting source.

Example: if you are playing a melody which has a smallest rhythmic value of an eighth note, each eighth note gets 1 count, quarter notes get 2 counts and so on.

Another example: If a thirty-second note is your smallest value (rarely ever in folk music) then it would get 1 count, sixteenth notes would get 2 counts and so on.

Remember that dotted notes are equal to their value plus another half. Therefor a dotted quarter note is equal to a quarter note plus an eighth note. If our smallest rhythmic value is an eighth, we would then say the dotted quarter would receive 3 counts.

dotted quarter = quarter+eighth = 3 counts (eighth note base)

dotted eighth = eighth+sixteenth = 3 counts (sixteenth note base)

You may have noticed from the insert above that both examples receive 3 counts, but remember the base value is the key to counting. If you are using a sixteenth note base, then the top example would read as such:

dotted quarter = quarter+eighth = 6 counts (sixteenth note base)

Using this counting method, anyone should be able to decipher even the trickiest of rhythms.

Part 2: Complex Time Signatures

Now that we have simplified reading rhythms, we can apply this same process to difficult time signatures, such as 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, and find new ways of interpreting basic rhythms such as 3/4 and 4/4

When beginning and intermediate students attempt to learn an unusual rhythm (such as 7/8), they assume that every beat is counted equally (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). While one can use this method, it does not instill a sense of “groove” or beat that is easily felt or performed. Instead, we shall again count the smallest division to help us decipher these rhythms.

Let us use the 5/8 feel as our first example. Rather than count this evenly, we shall break each section into shorter phrases. Typically, one can reduce a rhythm down to combinations of 2 and 3 beat sections to create a greater sense of groove. In the case of 5/8, we can think in a combination of 3+2 beats (1-2-3 1-2). By accenting our new “1’s” we create a measure with one long and one short section.

1-2-3 1-2

This same groove is the essence of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. The melody plays directly to this rhythm. One must take care not to reverse the count as the feel of the groove becomes markedly different.

1-2 1-2-3

One exercise to learn these rhythms involve counting these phrases and clapping on the one. At slow speeds, the feel may not be apparent, but as you become more comfortable with the counting, speed will increase and the feel will become associated with the time signature.

We can apply this same method 7/8 and create multiple interpretations of the meter

1-2-3 1-2 1-2

1-2 1-2-3 1-2

1-2 1-2 1-2-3

Now let us apply this same process to common time, 4/4 meter. One would might say there isn’t much to do with 4, but by using a smaller division (eighth or sixteenth notes) new interpretations arise.

1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2

In this example the 4 beats of the time signature lie in the following order:

1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2

but by accenting our “new” subdivision we create a very different feel over the 4/4.

Hindustani musicians (see March ’05 feature) use these methods to play 7,13, 16, and 31 beat rhythms, and even more complex rhythms such as 7 1/4 beats. This may seem difficult, but by counting the smallest division, all are quite possible and enjoyable to play.

If you have further questions about this rhythmic method, email us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.