Shortcuts to Complex Rhythms

One of the most challenging aspects of reading music is not just figuring out which notes to play, but when to play them – in other words, reading the rhythm. In intermediate to advanced music, there will be many different note and rest values. How to count them correctly?

I have developed a system that, when used correctly, always works. After checking and understanding the time signature, analyze the rhythm by first identifying the strong beats. Look for the largest note and rest values first, even if it means starting at the end of the measure and going backwards.

You can use numbers to identify the beats, but you may end up confusing them with the finger numbers, so I find it best to just draw a vertical line through both staves (for piano music) at the beginning of each beat. Remember that notes that are beamed together, such as four 16th notes, a triplet, or any combination of 8ths, 16ths, and 32nd notes, usually start at the beginning of a beat, and generally last for a whole beat.

Don’t ignore the rests! They have the same time value as their corresponding notes, and must be given their full value. Multiple voices in one staff must also include any rests that line up vertically with the other voice.

As you all know, you can’t do this without counting, and the more complex the rhythm is, the more important it is to count out loud. After you have marked all the counting in the score, start by clapping the rhythm as you count out loud. When you can actually hear yourself counting the beats (1e&a, etc.), you can keep track of what beat you are on and what part of the beat each note or rest falls on.

Analyzing the rhythm in this way is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together – one piece at a time. It can be fun to discover the music hidden within the score.