Dividing the Beat: Playing Eighth Notes

image of a classic drum machine TR-808
Now that we have a sense of how basic durational symbols work in music, and how to clap and count whole, half, and quarter notes (and a few dotted rhythms), it's time to move on to playing slightly more complex musical rhythms by breaking up our beats into smaller parts called subdivisions. The common subdivisions of a quarter note beat are eighth and sixteenth notes. In this lesson we will focus on clapping basic eighth note rhythms in two of the most common meters, 4/4 and 3/4, both of which use a quarter note beat unit. 

Clapping and Speaking Eighth Notes

We will begin by learning a traditional way to speak eighth notes in common meters like 4/4 and 3/4. Since there are two eighth notes per quarter note, eighth notes in 4/4 and 3/4 (any meter with a quarter note beat) can fall in only two places: directly on the beat or exactly in-between two beats. Therefore, in order to speak eighth notes, we typically say the beat number for those eighth notes that fall on the beat, and we use the word "and" (usually written with a plus sign) for those eighths that fall in-between. For example, in 4/4, we would speak eighths by saying "one and two and three and four and" (written: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +). Similarly in 3/4, we would speak eighths by saying "one and two and three and" (written: 1 + 2 + 3 +).

One of the main skills we need to perform musical rhythm is to keep the beat steady, but frequently students have difficulty finding the two different speeds necessary to switch back and forth between quarter notes and eighth notes without adversely affecting the beat. One method for staying steady is to continually, and steadily, speak at the speed of the fastest notes you will need to play (in this case that's speaking constant eighth notes). In the example you see below, there are two measures of quarter notes and two measures of eighth notes in 4/4 meter. See if you can count "one and two and three and four and" during the entire four measures, but clap only where a note vertically lines up with the syllable you are speaking. We often refer to this method as thinking the subdivision. Since written rhythms can be performed at various speeds, we have provided audio of this rhythm at two different tempos. Pick either tempo, then clap and speak along with the audio until you feel confident you can perform the rhythm alone, then try the other tempo. Each audio example will loop (with a slight pause) so that you can practice the same example again and again.

70 BPM

96 BPM

Now try this same concept in this 3/4 example:

70 BPM

96 BPM

Now that you are likely gaining a sense of how eighth notes feel in comparison to quarter notes, let's try some more varied rhythms in 4/4. In each example, continue speaking eighth notes the entire time (thinking and counting the subdivision) but only clap when a note lines up with the syllable you are speaking. The audio for each example will have a full measure of beats before the actual written rhythm begins so that you can find the tempo. The audio will loop after a short pause so that you can practice the example repeatedly.

Example 1 at 70 BPM

Example 1 at 96 BPM

Example 2 at 70 BPM

Example 2 at 96 BPM

Example 3 at 70 BPM

Example 3 at 96 BPM

Now let's try some more varied rhythms in 3/4. As in the 4/4 examples, continue speaking eighth notes the entire time but only clap when a note lines up with the syllable you are speaking. The audio for each example will have a full measure of beats before the actual written rhythm begins so that you can find the tempo.

Example 1 at 70 BPM

Example 1 at 96 BPM

Example 2 at 70 BPM

Example 2 at 96 BPM

Example 3 at 70 BPM

Example 3 at 96 BPM

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