Why Are Dotted Rhythms Such A Problem?

2011 Symposium2

One of the most frequently made searches I see on this site is teaching dotted rhythms. Most music teachers run into difficulty teaching them, and many of us can remember a time when dotted rhythms presented a particular challenge to us as music students. Overall, notes lasting longer than a beat, which are called elongations of the beat, generate the greatest frequency of rhythmic errors among musicians of all skill levels. Every dotted rhythm involves an elongation of a beat at some level of the rhythmic structural hierarchy. Among the most troublesome dotted rhythms are the dotted quarter and eighth combination, and the dotted eighth and sixteenth. I submit that these are especially challenging because they include not only an elongation of the beat, but also a division of the beat in the note following the dotted one. In other words, the musician must process an elongation and a division all within the same rhythm pattern. What is the best way to go about handling this hybrid kind of pattern?

For the ensemble player or singer, a conductor can be of great help. Frank Battisti, the renowned wind ensemble conductor, was fond of telling his conducting students that the conductor is responsible for what happens on the beat and the players are responsible for what happens between the beat. Put another way, a player in an ensemble must delegate keeping the tempo beat to the conductor while the player assumes responsibility for keeping the meter beat, also known as the subdivisions. If the musician must execute a dotted quarter and eighth note, he or she looks for two tempo beats, and then plays the eighth note on the first meter beat after the second tempo beat. In other words, the player holds the note while watching the conductor conduct “1, 2,” then plays the eighth note on “&” following the conductor’s “2.” The player will not see “&,” but will audiate it and play it according to what is audiated.

This theory is straight forward enough, but there is often another complication that enters in. Many students, inspire of their training, when asked to clap a rhythm pattern that includes a pair or pairs of eighth notes, will clap twice quickly without regard to a tempo beat. They are focused on clapping twice within one beat, but have no sense of clapping evenly, distributing the two notes evenly across the span of time that is one beat. This happens even though if in the next moment they are asked to chant the same rhythm theyrecite-e6wab2 will chant it perfectly. Whether on a neutral syllable on with rhythm syllables, the students will perform division patterns correctly when doing them aurally, but incorrectly when clapping them, and also when playing them on an instrument. This indicates to me that they have learned to chant by rote, but have not internalized the concept of beat divisions or yet acquired the ability to audiate division rhythm patterns. The teacher can explain the math, teach rhythms by rote, or do what they may, it will not help the students’ understanding or ability to independently perform these rhythms. According to Dalby (2005, p. 54) “Rhythm audiation and mathematical thinking are very different cognitive processes. Intellectual understanding of the arithmetic behind rhythm durations is no guarantee of the ability to perform rhythms correctly.” The students need more training on beat divisions, not more practice with dotted rhythms. Only once they have mastered division patterns can they hope to correctly and independently perform dotted rhythms.

This needed training should not be in the form of verbal instruction, but of practical application. If a conductor says “that note should be sung on the and of three,” that direction might be helpful, but it does little if anything to grow students’ ability to accurately audiate and perform that or similar rhythms. Instead, the director might sing the pattern of which that eighth note is a part, and then have the student sing the same pattern back. Doing so requires that the student audiate the rhythm pattern in order to know what to chant, places the note in question in context so that it can be musically understood, and does not leave the entire transferral from intellectual (place on and of three) to practical (correctly performing the note.) If the students is not able to audiate the entire pattern, which includes audiating both tempo and meter beats, then he or she has absolutely no way of knowing when “and of three” occurs.

To accomplish the desired learning, it is best to teach students a repertoire of rhythm patterns that include divisions of the beat. Begin with the easiest divisions, which are eighth note divisions of the quarter note in usual duple meter. The easiest pattern is one that is comprised solely of eighth notes. The student must sing four pairs of eighth notes, thereby aurally reciting all tempo beats and meter beats. From there, one or two eighth note pairs are replaced with a quarter note. With the quarter notes, the meter beats are already fresh in the student’s memory, and will be cognitively superimposed on the quarter notes, giving the student practice at audiating the meter beats while chanting the tempo beats. From there, another eighth note pair can be replaced with an eighth note, and then all eighth note pairs can be replaced with all eighth notes. By now, each chanted eighth note will be accompanied by audiated eighth note pairs, and the duration and tempo of each quarter note will be precise. Conversely, if the student is not audiating eighth note pairs while chanting quarter notes, he or she will do so with imprecision of duration, tempo, or both. In this case, one must go back and have the student chant more of the easier patterns, until his or her audiation of meter beats is proficient.

Throughout this teaching phase, it is preferable to use the human voice to using an instrument. Playing instruments require executive skills that necessarily add a layer of complexity not necessary or helpful at this stage. Chanting the rhythms solidifies the audiation skill so that it will be operational while the student plays an instrument. If the instrument is added too soon, the student will be unable to audiate while playing, and will be forced to resort to the ineffective intellectual approach, thereby bypassing the method that is needed for success.


Dalby, B. (September 01, 2005). Toward an Effective Pedagogy for Teaching Rhythm: Gordon and Beyond. Music Educators Journal, 92, 1, 54.


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