Dotted rhythms


In the last lesson we talked a lot about syncopated rhythms and their relation to ties. Today we are going to look at another component of rhythm and syncopation: dots.

If composers were restricted only to straight notes – minims, crotchets, quavers, and so on – it would allow only a very limited number of rhythmic combinations. Just as bar lines can restrict rhythmic options, so note values can also be restrictive. So, to get around this problem, dots are used.

Dots function by increasing the length of a note by half again, essentially doubling the note values available.

For example, adding a dot to a crotchet note means that the note played is held for the equivalent of a crotchet + a quaver. Likewise, a minim followed by a dot becomes the equivalent of a minim + a crotchet, and a quaver followed by a dot is held for the equivalent of a quaver + a semiquaver.

Let's break down the steps and take a look at how we work this out for a dotted crotchet:

  • The dot means we add half of the original value.
  • The original value is 1. Half of 1 is ½.
  • Add them together: 1 + ½ = 1½ .

Therefore a dotted crotchet note is 1½ beats long. If it helps, use this formula to work out any dotted rhythms you are unsure of.

Dotted rhythms are much more common in modern that traditional folk music. Think of old folk songs and hymns for instance. If you try singing Amazing Grace or Three Blind Mice, for example, while clapping the beats, you will find that they stick fairly firmly to the onbeat. Dotted rhythms, on the other hand, have a different feel altogether. Try tapping the beat while humming or singing Summertime by George Gershwin, or We Are The Champions by Queen, and hear the difference.

Before you begin playing the exercises and pieces that follow, clap out the rhythm first and then play them slowly with separate hands, building up the tempo gradually. You’ll find that this is the best way to learn to play these more complicated rhythms - even though it seems slower initially.

Now try this familiar tune…you can hear in the audio that the dotted rhythm gives it a pleasing lilt. Imagine how boring it would sound if it was all crotchets beats!

Next, try this exercise:

To finish off today’s lesson, here is a short ballad to play in the key of E minor. E minor is the relative minor of G major, so it has the same key signature. A relative minor is a minor key that shares the same key signature as a major key. Relative minors can be found by going down 3 semitones from the major key. See the E minor scale below.

Don’t be put off by the amount of ties and dots in this piece. It makes the piece look complicated, but by listening to the audio you should get a feel for it first before you try it. Remember that ballads are songs you can sing. Ties and dots just give a more natural singing sound rather than ‘straight’ rhythms. Think of the earlier example of Mary Had a Little Lamb, for instance. It sounds a bit unnatural and stilted to sing each syllable equally: ‘ma - ry had a li - ttle lamb, li - ttle lamb, li - ttle lamb...’, and so on.

In the past, I have sometimes found it helpful to add my own lyrics to a piece – it is often a lot easier to remember the rhythm this way.

I have added note names to this piece so that you can just concentrate on the rhythm.

Finally, don't get discouraged by syncopation. Everyone finds syncopation really difficult in the beginning as it goes against our natural perception of the ‘beat’. In fact, apart from playing really fast, complicated pieces that require enormous agility, syncopation is probably one of the most difficult things to master. But, on the bright side, as you play more and more, you will quickly find that there are really only a few different rhythmic combinations and after a time you will be able to recognize them straight off.

Glossary of Terms

Dotted rhythm: An uneven rhythm (usually ‘long-short’) produced when a note with a dot is followed by another of one third the value of the first note.

Gershwin, George: (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) an American composer born in New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Gershwin wrote most of his works together with his elder brother lyricist Ira Gershwin. He composed both for Broadway and for the classical concert hall and also wrote popular songs with success. Many of his compositions have been used in cinema and many are recognized jazz standards.

Queen: A British rock band popular during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Relative minor: A minor key that shares the same key signature with a major key. Found by going down 3 half steps from the major key name.