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Rhythm Series: Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing

Rhythmic Accuracy

Last time we talked about one of the major physical components rhythm: feeling the beat internally. However, for the performer there are two components to rhythm, physical and mental. Accurate execution of musical rhythm requires the cultivation of both aspects. One important mental element needed to precisely perform rhythms is active subdivision.

Subdividing

Most of us understand that the musical beat can be divided into smaller parts (i.e. subdivided). While theoretically a beat can be subdivided into any number of equal or non-equal parts, in practice it is generally subdivided into 9 or fewer equal parts. Most common are subdivisions of 2, 3 or 4. Few people have trouble understanding this concept intellectually.

For the performing musician, however, subdivision must go beyond theoretical understanding. Although it is certainly necessary to, at any given moment, comprehend how a beat is subdivided, this is not enough to ensure proper rhythmic execution. We must actively subdivide the beat mentally while we are playing, if we are to achieve precision.

If we do not actively subdivide, we are likely to present rhythmic inaccuracies in our performance. This can present a problem regardless of the musical situation, but it becomes particularly troublesome when playing with other musicians. Most of us don’t need to imagine the cacophony of several people all inaccurately playing the same rhythm…we only need remember it….we have heard it already. Often, the memories are of our own playing.

Let’s investigate a common rhythmic mistake, which can be remedied through active subdivision by the performer. One of the most elementary errors that people make is with the dotted eighth sixteenth rhythm. This rhythm can easily be executed incorrectly if the performer is not actively subdividing.

For example, the passage to be executed may be properly played like this:

Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing - figure 1

In order to execute this precisely, we need to mentally subdivide the beat in four equal parts (i.e. 16th notes) while we play. If we hear four equal sixteenths notes mentally while playing this passage, each note we play can be lined up exactly with what we are hearing mentally. When we subdivide in this manner, we can ensure our performance is rhythmically accurate. Notated, our performance would look like this:

Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing - figure 2

However, when people are not actively subdividing, the rhythm above can easily begin to sound “lazy.” Often it gets so “lazy” and sloppy that it becomes “tripletized.”

What should sound like this:

Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing - figure 3

Ends up sounding more like this:

Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing - figure 4

One way we can help to solidify a passage, as well as our general ability to mentally subdivide, is to practice playing the subdivisions we want to hear mentally. Using the above example, we would super-impose continuous sixteenth notes:

Improving Rhythmic Accuracy by Subdividing - figure 5

We should repeat this until it is accurate and easy. Practicing in this manner helps us feel the rhythm in our fingering hand (generally the left), and can help ensure proper rhythmic placement when we play the rhythm as originally notated (subdividing mentally, of course).

Rhythmic accuracy is improved if we subdivide constantly, not just when a “tricky” rhythm comes up. Subdividing even helps reduce the tendency to rush and drag. The bottom line is that if we want to perform with rhythmic precision, we can’t rely on how a rhythm “feels” or “sounds” in the abstract, we need to quantify things by actively subdividing the beat in our head while playing.

To be exceptionally accurate we should count and subdivide, while feeling the beat internally. We will talk about counting in a later session. Watch for more Rhythm Series in future weeks.