The Western musical notation system has developed over a period of several hundred years. While this system works pretty well most of the time, it's heavily biased towards rhythms that increase or decrease in duration by the power of two. The idea that two thirty-seconds equal a sixteenth, two sixteenths equal an eighth, two eighths equal a quarter, two quarters equal a half, and two half notes equal a whole is one of the basic building blocks and fundamental rules of our notation system.
With everything neatly dividing into "two's", it only seems logical that the system runs into some notational problems whenever a composer wants to divide a given amount of time into three, five, six, seven or nine equal parts. Don't let these problems scare you! You already know how to deal with a few of the most common obstacles. During the last several WebRhythm lessons, we've covered triplets and duplets.
One of the most notable features of duplets and triplets is the additional number that is required above (or sometimes below) the notes. These numbers tell the performer something like "I know there aren't three eighth notes in the value of a quarter, but let's just pretend that there are." The number is an addition to the "normal" notation, and for that reason, duplets, triplets and other similar note values are sometimes called "false notation". The performer is being asked to play a division that is "false" to our basic notational system. In this lesson, we'll be taking a look at the "false" values of quintuplets (five divisions), septuplets (seven divisions) and nine divisions (a committee!).
The trick to performing these rhythms comes in two parts. The first is to know the rules that determine how many "false" values equal a "true" value. Take a look at the chart below, and we'll discuss how it works. Let's say that you're playing a piece of music in common time and you see five sixteenth notes, all beamed together with the number "5" above them. How many counts will those five notes take up? Simple...according to the chart, "five equals four". To say this another way, five sixteenths are going to take the same amount of time as four sixteenths - the value of a quarter note or the same as one full count.
What would happen if the five notes in the false grouping weren't sixteenths, but eighths instead? Well, the formula in the chart would still apply, but now five eighth notes will take up the same amount of time as four eighth notes - the value of a half note or the same as two full counts in 4-4 time.
The asterisks in the chart show the note values that are used only when dealing with music in compound time. Since it's easy to divide any value into two, four or eight equal parts without false notation (quarters to sixteenths, eighths or thirty-seconds), it's very rare to see these numbers above a group of notes unless the music is written in a compound meter. You might run across a false grouping of eight eighths notes during a measure of 9-8 time or a grouping of two in 6-8 meter.
Now for the second and most important part of the trick: dividing a certain amount of time into five, seven or nine equal parts is not verifiably more difficult than dividing that same amount of time into two or four divisions. From the time you heard your first nursery rhyme, you've been hearing music that is conceived on even duration divisions (perhaps because this is the way our notation works?). From the time you started playing your first backbeat, you've been playing music that operates on this same basic premise.
Playing even divisions is definitely more traditional and comfortable, more familiar and everyday, but not easier than quintuplets or septuplets. You just need to get your ears and hands used to hearing and playing them.
Example 1 is one of the most valuable exercises that you can practice as a contemporary drummer. Notice that the meter in this example is 1-4. The meter isn't really critical, but the idea that each notational grouping takes the same amount of time is critical.
Set your metronome to quarter note equals 60 bpm and repeat the first figure (a single quarter note) until you get comfortable with it. Then move on to the two eighth notes, eighth triplets, sixteenths, quintuplets, etc. Remember to continue playing each figure until it feels relaxed and you get a firm handle on the timing.
Once you can play each of the figures easily, start combining the figures into phrases of two or three units. A good way to begin working these combinations is by increasing the number of attacks per beat. In other words, play the pattern of 4, 5, 6 or 5, 6, 7 before trying patterns of 4, 9, 5 or 3, 7, 5. If you want to have some fun, try playing your social security number, your phone number, random numbers generated by the Rand Corporation or anything else that you can think of.
Once you're "home free" with these rhythms, set your metronome to quarter equals 120 bpm and play each measure in the time of two metronome clicks. You will notice that you're playing at the same speed and rhythms as before, but now the metronome is playing twice as fast - you're relating the quintuplets (for example) against two beats instead of one.
Before getting into this WebRhythms exercise, it might be a good idea to take a look at some "broken" rhythms. Broken rhythms occur whenever these figures are broken up between notes of different values.
In Example 2, the first measure consists of a grouping of quintuplet eighth notes. Of these five eighths, the second and fourth are divided into two sixteenths each. Because there are always "five in the time of four", this figure takes up two full counts. The second group of quintuplets is made up of sixteenth notes. How can you tell? Well, this figure can't be a group of quintuplet eighths because it doesn't have the value of five eighth notes. It does have the value of five sixteenths. Again, since there are always five in the time of four, this broken figure takes up one full count.
The second measure of the example uses a base rhythm of nine eighths in the time of eight eighths (the entire measure). The third measure is created from two broken groupings of seven eighths in the time of four.
Before getting started with this exercise, spend some quality time with example 1. If you're not comfortable with placing these rhythms over one or two beat's time, you're never going to get through the exercise. Remember, this really isn't difficult, it's just not as familiar to you as simple quarters and eighths. It's going to take a good deal of practice until you feel at home with these rhythms. But, as they say - "No pain, no gain."