Introduction: How to Count Rhythms Better by Using Subdivision

Rhythm in piano playing is one of those things that can sometimes make us just stop in our tracks because we don't understand how to count it...and when we can't count something, we can't play it either!

There is a well-known tool used by all musicians that literally cuts rhythm down into smaller, more digestible parts so we learn how to count without even thinking about it.

This tool is what we call Subdivision. All that means is that we break down the rhythms into parts that we can make sense of and play the correct beats with the appropriate notes.

Wondering what we really mean when we use the term Subdivision? Let's take a closer look at how you may already use it in your life and then we'll apply that to some actual rhythms on the piano.

Step 1: What Is Subdivision?

Subdivision divides whatever we're working on.

  • When's the last time you cut an apple in half? Cutting an apple in half is subdividing it into 2 equal parts.
  • Ever hard boil an egg and then cut in half to eat it? It's the same thing.

In music or more specifically counting and playing rhythms...we break larger valued notes down into smaller values so we can play the notes at a steady tempo.

  • Have you ever been playing quarter notes and then move into playing eighth notes and realize that you're playing the eighth notes at a faster tempo than you were the quarter notes? We have all done don't feel bad!

If we learn how to count notes by subdividing the beats of each note we will be able to play any kind of note within that same beat without changing our tempo when the rhythm changes. This is why it's so helpful to learn how to subdivide.

Now let's look at a couple of real-time examples of this in piano music.

Step 2: Subdividing Quarter Notes

Let's look at a measure of 4 quarter notes in 4/4 time. (Meaning we're going to count 4 quarter beats in each measure - 1st image). We normally count this measure by saying 1, 2, 3, 4. (2nd image).

Now, we're going to subdivide those 4 quarter notes in our counting - and what we're actually doing is counting the quarter beats as though they were 8th note beats instead. (3rd image). Notice the "+" sign beside each count this time? The "+" sign stands for "and" in our counting.

Now count by saying: 1+, 2+, 3+, 4+, or 1and, 2and, 3and, 4and. Each quarter note gets 2 verbal syllables instead of just 1 when we were counting only the quarter beats. (4th image)

You might wonder why in the world we need to do this...especially if we're just playing quarter notes!

Remember that not every measure is going to be the same - you will have a mix of different types of rhythms in each measure. The goal is to play each measure at the same tempo no matter how many different rhythms we have.

Let's say that the next measure is filled with 8th notes. How are you going to play those 8th notes at the same tempo as the quarter notes in the previous measure? By subdividing the beats from the beginning.

When you count 1+, 2+, 3+, 4+, you are establishing the tempo for your 8th notes already and won't have to guess at how fast to play them. (5th image)

See how much it helps you to start counting those 8th beats when you are just playing quarter notes? All you're doing is cutting them in half which is perfect because an 8th beat is 1/2 of a quarter beat.

Let's look at another example of subdividing a very common rhythm that we encounter a lot and then we'll practice these together at the piano in the final step.

Step 3: Subdividing Dotted Quarter Notes

Dotted quarter notes are 1/2 longer than a regular quarter note. Why is that?

  • A dot after a note always adds 1/2 the value of the note itself.

This means that a dotted quarter note is 1 1/2 beats or 3 half beats.

  • Half beats are 8th notes - so there are three 8th notes in a dotted quarter note.

That is important to know because we are going to be counting the half beats when we subdivide this, just like we did when we subdivided the regular quarter notes.

Notice in the 2nd image how we count first the regular 8th beats and then for the dotted quarter note we give that note 1+2, and the "+/and" of beat 2 falls on the 8th note that comes right after the dotted quarter note.

If we go back and start with our first measure of regular quarter beats and then put these together with that one - you can see how much subdividing the quarter beats into 1/2 or 8th beats allows you play all of these different rhythms in the same tempo.

Now let's go to our pianos and practice this together...once you hear it you'll understand all of this even better.

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

I'm going to take you through each of these steps at the keyboard so you can practice them with me.

A lot of times we end up understanding rhythm by first feeling it...but then we have to understand it intellectually so we can do it with any types of rhythmic patterns that we run into in more advanced music.

Once you understand the general concept of subdividing, you'll find that you can do it with any type of note, not just quarter notes. We subdivide 8th notes, 16th notes, dotted half notes, and more.

Subdividing helps us understand and play different rhythms so we can play everything at the same tempo. It's a wonderful tool that will enable you to really move forward in your piano playing. Ready to practice with me?