Piano Ties

In this lesson we are going to take a look at another facet of rhythm – ties.

When you first come across them, ties can seem really difficult. I know that as a music student, one of my particular fears was being presented with an examination piece to sight read that was full of ties! There is something about the sight of them that immediately makes your brain think: ‘too complicated!’ Fortunately, once I became more confident in my understanding of them, they ceased to be so fearsome.

So what are ties exactly? I have given a brief explanation in a previous lesson, but now I will go into a bit more detail.

Music notation uses bar lines to make it easier to read and easier to count. But sometimes they can present a bit of a problem because they are inherently limiting to the rhythm. It means that if, for example, a composer is writing a piece in 4/4, and writes a bar that goes 1+2+3+…, then he or she is limited to only a few options for the fourth beat. The composer has the choice of either: 1 crotchet, 2 quavers, 1 dotted quaver and a semiquaver, 2 semiquavers and 1 quaver, or, 4 semiquavers. And because all these options involve short notes, this means they will only be suitable for a fast piece.

So what does a composer do if he wants this fourth beat to be a long, slower note?

He or she can use a tie. Ties literally bind two (or more) notes together into one: and when a musician sees this, they know to only play the note once, but hold it for the total of the tied notes added together. In this way, composers can get around the limitations imposed by bar lines, thereby opening a great deal more rhythmic possibilities.

Try clapping this tied rhythm:


Playing tied rhythms can give an offbeat effect, which gives the rhythm a more complex sound. This is called SYNCOPATION. You may have heard the word ‘syncopation’ bandied about by people talking about jazz and ragtime (have you heard the famous syncopated piece The Entertainer by Scott Joplin?). This is because it is most common in these styles – indeed, ragtime popularized it. However, it can also feature more subtly in classical music.

By emphasizing the offbeat – the beats in the bar you wouldn’t normally emphasize -syncopation gives rhythm an almost unpredictable feel. For example, usually in a 4/4 time signature you would clap:

…with the ‘clap’ falling on the 1 2 3 4. This is the ‘onbeat’ – or where the emphasis naturally lies.

But if you clap on the offbeat, then you clap ‘between’ the beats. Or where you would count ‘and’.


Much harder isn’t it? At first, this can seem really difficult to get your head around, but with practice, you will find it gradually becomes more natural.

Now, as another exercise, try just ‘thinking’ the counts (represented by flat lines) while continuing to clap on the offbeat (the plus sign).

_ + _ + _ + _ + / _ + _ + _ + _ + /

Syncopations are often written with a tie. As the second note of the tie is not actually played, this means that the next note to be played will often be the offbeat, so a syncopated effect is produced.

To finish this lesson, here is a piece to play using ties, however it is not syncopated. The key of this piece is G major, which has one sharp, F sharp. See the scale of G below.

Write the counts underneath the notes and tap the rhythm out first before you try playing it. By listening to the audio several times, you should be able to get a feel for it.


Glossary of Terms

Bar lines: The vertical line placed on the stave to divide music into measures.

Jazz: A music genre that developed in the southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Elements of music from western Africa, American gospel singing and European harmony all went into forming the various types of jazz, which include ragtime, blues, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, and cool. Jazz relies heavily on improvisation, and is characterized by frequent use of syncopated rhythms.

Offbeat: The unaccented beat of a musical measure.

Onbeat: The beat on which the accent naturally falls in a musical measure.

Ragtime: A non-improvised, late 19 th to early 20th century style of piano-based music characterized by its syncopated, distinctive so-called "ragged" right hand movement on the keyboard; an influence on and direct precursor of early jazz; a piano style with stride left hand and highly syncopated right hand; ragtime was composed music.

Syncopation: Accent on an unexpected beat.