This is the rhythmic graph paper behind everything we play—the inner workings of the machinery. While the overall pulse of a piece is constant, we play faster or slower in relation to it. The rate at which we play over a pulse is called the subdivision of the beat.
- When we divide the beat into two hits, or play two hits for every quarter note pulse, we are playing 8th notes. (2:1)
- Three hits per pulse are 8th note triplets. (3:1)
- Four hits per pulse are 16th notes. (4:1)
- Six hits per pulse are 16th note triplets. (6:1)
- Eight hits per pulse are 32nd notes. (8:1)
We can fine tune our sense of time by going up and down the table of time—testing for accurate transitions.
Try this exercise with a metronome at 60 beats per minute. Begin with 8th notes, 2 hits per click, then 3, 4, 6, 8—up and back down the table of time 6, 4, 3, 2 hits per click.
At first you may need to take some time to get to know each rhythm without switching between them. Counting the number of hits per click will help you line up with the metronome. If this is a challenge, which it usually is even for experienced drummers who haven’t isolated and tested the transitions, the drum set exercise below will help develop accuracy.
In this exercise we apply the table of time on the drum set, assigning each drum one quarter note pulse. If you are new to reading music, it might look intimidating. It is actually relatively simple—yet amazingly effective. If your background is playing by ear, listen to the play-along track below before learning to read the notation above.
The hi-hat foot pedal plays at 60 beats per minute(BPM). Each quarter note worth of time is assigned to one drum. This helps engrain a spacial and physical relationship to the pulse.
- Snare drum gets the notes on beat 1.
- High tom on beat 2.
- Middle tom on beat 3.
- Low tom on beat 4.
- Stop on beat 4 every second measure to define the pulse before jumping to the next rhythm.
Beginning with 8th notes, we will have two hits on snare, two on middle tom and two on the low tom. Then as we shift up to triplets or three hits per pulse, we will have three on the snare, three on the high tom, three on the middle tom and three on the low tom.
Notice the stop on the last beat before shifting to next subdivision. This allows us to jump to the next rhythm without feeling like we are bending one subdivision to fit the next.
When students warm up with this exercise, often the first time they play it at the beginning of a lesson, the transitions are rough and there is an adjustment period required to smooth out the rhythms. The difference in rhythmic accuracy before and after dialing in the transitions is like night and day.
After they’ve learned the exercise, I have them return to it periodically or use it as a warm up—as I myself do. We notice the transitions have become slightly out of tune, run the table up and down two or three times and quickly come into focus.