Subdivision: The Easy Trick for Reading Rhythms Right

sheet music

As you’re learning to read music, you’ll come across complex rhythms at some point. Here, Saint Augustine, FL music teacher Heather L. offers some helpful tips to help you get through the tricky parts…


Have you ever found yourself sitting in a big concert hall, or in your room, listening to a soloist play a practically perfect rhythm? Almost all of us have, and almost all of us have asked ourselves, “How do they do that?” Their secret is subdivision.

You might be just beginning with learning to read music, or you might have been reading for decades. Either way, chances are that you agree with many musicians that reading pitches is one thing, but reading rhythms is quite another. Rhythm can be what separates some of us from believing in our sight reading abilities.

Learning Your Note Value Family Tree

As you learn to read music, subdivision is the key to understanding what every note means, rhythmically. You could think of subdivision as a sort of X-ray vision for rhythm, allowing you to see the inner structure of each note. You see, every single note is made up of smaller, or shorter notes.

Note Value Family TreeWhat you see here is a simple drawing of the hierarchy of notes, if you will. In a way, it’s kind of a note value family tree. At the top, you see a whole note. A whole note is made up of two half notes. Each half note is made up of two quarter notes. Every quarter note is made up of two eighth notes. Each of those eighth notes is made up of two sixteenth notes. If you were to count all of the sixteenth notes at the bottom, then you’d find sixteen of them. There are sixteen sixteenth notes in a whole note. Got that?

Writing Counts Into Your Music

Okay, below is first line of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, only underneath each note you’ll see that I’ve written a combination of numbers and plus signs. Each number and each plus sign represents an eighth note. Count out loud, saying, “One and two and three and four and…” If I were to sing this, then I’d sing the same thing on the appropriate pitches.

Ode to JoyBy steadily counting every eighth note as you read the music, you’re instantly more accurate. You’ll no longer be guessing at how long to hold each note. This is especially important when it comes to something like what you see in measure four above. Instead of thinking to yourself, “That dotted quarter note is one and a half beats,” you’ll think to yourself, “That dotted quarter note is three eighth notes.” Instead of thinking to yourself, “That half note is two beats long,” you’ll think to yourself, “That half note is four eighth notes long.”

When I have a really tough song to learn, I’ll write the counts underneath, just like I did in “Ode to Joy” above. What’s really cool about subdivision is that it can be used in music that has even sixteenth and thirty-second notes! Counting sixteenth notes means saying, “ONE-ee-and-uh-TWO-ee-and-uh…” Every note has a specific number of sixteenth notes “inside” it. Just count as many as you need.

Though all this may sound tedious, it actually makes learning to read music so much easier. Instead of a vague feeling or intuition about how long or short notes are, you’ve got a solid understanding of how every single note is constructed. The mystery of rhythm unravels, and suddenly, you’re no longer intimidated by it. You can see right through it.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!



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