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Rock-Solid Rhythm

Have you ever felt lost when it comes to rhythms? Have you found yourself listening to recordings or other members of your section as a crutch to learn your music, instead of being able to read and understand what's written on the page for yourself?

Let's unpack this rhythmic puzzle!


  • Time Signature: The convention used to indicate meter in sheet music. The top number indicates the number of beats per measure and the bottom number indicates the type of note that gets the beat.

  • Meter: The way the beats are organized into groups.

  • Rhythm: The pattern of notes and rests.

examples of time signatures, how to read a time signature, meter

#1: Understand the time signature.

The first step to breaking down a rhythm is understanding the meter (the way the notes are grouped) based on the given time signature. The top number of the time signature will give you the number of beats per measure and the bottom number will give you the note value of those beats. When in doubt, you can often better understand the meter based on the notation and the way the notes are already grouped. For example, eighth notes and sixteenth notes are normally already barred by divisions of two or three in correspondence with the meter.

how to subdivide simple meter notes, whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note
how to subdivide simple meter rests, whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, eighth rest, sixteenth rest

#2: Know where the "big beats" are in each measure.

Now that you know how many beats there are per measure and what the note value of each beat is, you can write in your "big beats" (1, 2, 3, 4...).

#3: Break down each beat into the smallest subdivisions.

If sixteenth notes are the smallest note value in the piece, make sure you know the sixteenth note subdivisions (1e+a, 2e+a, 3e+a...) for each measure. Take into account the duration of both notes and rests as you write the subdivisions.

Subdivision example: In a simple quadruple meter (4/4), the whole note is the largest note value in a measure, and it can be subdivided into 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, 8 eighth notes, and 16 sixteenth notes.

Some pieces are in simple meter and others are in compound meter. This will help you further understand the subdivision of note values as well.

  • Simple Meter: Meters that subdivide most of the beats into divisions two.

  • Compound Meter: Meters that subdivide most of the beats into divisions of three.

how to subdivide compound meter notes, dotted whole note, dotted half note, dotted quarter note, dotted eighth note, dotted sixteenth note

#4: Use your metronome to subdivide in real time.

Set your metronome to the smallest subdivision and practice from there. Pay attention how many subdivisions or clicks you should hear for each note/rest. You may find that the long notes and rests need extra attention at this slower tempo because we often think of them as "easy", but their duration matters just as much as the smaller note values. Sometimes articulating each subdivision during practice can also help. Once you've practiced the passage at a slow enough tempo to build muscle memory and understanding, you may slowly increase the tempo with repetitions. The goal is to still have the subdivisions in your head when you eventually play without the metronome.

Now you can have confidence in knowing exactly where to place each note, which will free you to focus on musical expression and what you'd like to say with those notes!

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