How to Play the Most Fundamental Rhythm Patterns on the Piano

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There are certain challenges in learning rhythm that every piano student has to deal with and several of those have to do with counting specific rhythmic patterns that are more complicated than the basic quarter note gets one count type of thing.

This lesson is going to show you what are the most common rhythms that students seem to have trouble with counting correctly. We're going to look at 5 different rhythm patterns and once you master how to count them in this lesson you will have no trouble playing them in your piano pieces.

Before starting this lesson make sure you review any questions that you still have about basic counting; such as how many beats whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes get.

Let's take a look at the first rhythm pattern that trips up most piano students - Straight Rhythms.

Step 1: Straight Rhythms

Straight rhythms include what you need to know before being able to really grasp this lesson.

To review:

  • Quarter notes are counted by saying: 1, 2, 3, 4 for each note.
  • Eighth notes are counted by saying: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + for each note.
  • Sixteenth notes are counted by saying: 1 e + a, 2 e + a, 3 e + a, 4 e + a, for each note.

Although straight rhythms don't usually present too much of a challenge for most students, they are important here because they are the groundwork for all of the other rhythms that we'll be going over in this lesson.

Next, we're going to look at one of the challenging patterns - the Dotted Quarter Eighth Rhythm

Step 2: Dotted Quarter Eighth Rhythm

First, remember how many beats that a dotted quarter note gets - 1 & 1/2.

It can be hard to actually understand the whole + a half concept in counting, so I suggest that you instead break each quarter note down into halves, and then determine how many halves are in each note.

The dotted quarter note gets 3 halves and the following eighth note gets only one half.

You can see in the image that the dotted quarter note is counted with 1+2 <----that's 3 halves; and the next eighth note is counted with +, which is the second 1/2 of beat 2.

The key to this rhythm pattern is to break it down into halves instead of trying to count just quarter beats.

Now let's look at the next challenging rhythm which is the Eighth - Two Sixteenth pattern.

Step 3: Eighth - Two Sixteenth

We know already that an eighth note gets 1/2 of a beat and that a sixteenth note gets 1/4 of a beat.

When they are combined, just like in the last step, we have to break them down into the easiest segments to count equally. Remember how we count sixteenths? 1 e + a?

Apply that same thing here...except take out the "e" next to 1. That looks like this: 1 +a 2 +a 3 +a 4 +a. In the image above, the counts are shown under the corresponding notes.

Note: you can count this rhythm either way...but leaving out the "e" of the first beat allows you to hear and say the longer note, which is represented by the eighth note which helps to reinforce the difference between the two types of notes here.

The next rhythm is the reverse of this one so let's see how to correctly count it when it is turned around.

Step 4: Two Sixteenth - Eighth

Just like with our last rhythm we know that an eighth note gets 1/2 of a beat and a sixteenth note gets 1/4 of a beat. This time though we are reversing how they are played and counted.

Since the eighth note comes last, the longer syllable will be last instead of first this time.

If we count it by verbalizing all of the sixteenth beats it will be just like the last rhythm:

1 e + a, and so on. But if we only count the actual beats that we are playing in our notes, we will count instead:

1e + 2e + 3e + 4e +.

Again, you can count this rhythm either way but using the way noted in the image above will correspond exactly with what you are playing on the piano.

Our next rhythm involves triplets and quarter notes, instead of eighths and sixteenths. Ready to learn our last rhythm pattern?

Step 5: Triplets Followed by Quarters

This pattern which includes triplets followed by a quarter note is really challenging for most students when they first look at it. It's important to understand how to count triplets first.

We count triplets by saying; 1 trip - let, 2 trip - let, 3 trip - let, 4 trip - let. There's one verbal syllable for each note.

It can be hard to go back and forth between counting the 3 notes to just one note per beat like this.

The easiest way to do it is to say in your mind the other syllables of the triplet when you play each quarter note - just like it shows in the image above. Just make sure you hold the quarter note while you are saying the other syllables in your head. You'll feel the swing of this rhythmic pattern really easily once you play this a few times. Beethoven loved using this pattern in a lot of his music!

Now let's take a quick review of these rhythms before we start playing them on the piano together.

Step 6: Fundamentals Review

One of the most important things to notice in these challenging patterns is that they are a combination of two different rhythms.

Make sure you know how to count each different type of rhythm before playing a pattern where you are combining 2 or more of them.

The rhythmic patterns we've learned here are:

Straight Rhythms - basic counting for a whole, half, quarter, eighth, & sixteenth notes.

Dotted Quarter and One Eighth: divide your quarter beats and count eighths for them...give each dotted quarter beat 3 half beats and then just one half - beat to the following eighth note.

Eighth and Two Sixteenths: break down your eighth notes into sixteenth beats in your head to learn this rhythm and then end up by counting 1 +a, 2 +a, 3 +a, 4 +a - matching each syllable with the corresponding notes.

Two Sixteenths and One Eighth: this is simply a reverse of the previous rhythm. Do the same as before, but this time count by saying: 1e +, 2e +, 3e +, 4e +. Again, match the verbal syllables with the corresponding notes.

Triplet and One Quarter: This rhythm is best counted by adding in the words "trip let" to each of your quarter notes along with the number of the beat. These syllables will match what you are saying and playing for each of the triplet beats.

There are lots of more challenging rhythms that you will encounter in your piano playing as you advance to more difficult music. These are the most common ones that students struggle with, however, when they first start moving into more difficult patterns. Mastering these will make the even harder rhythms easier to learn in the long run.

Now it's time to get your keyboard and play through each of these rhythm patterns with me together.

Step 7: Come Practice With Me

This lesson wouldn't be complete without a video section that you can watch. Hearing each of these rhythms on the piano is important to help you learn to count them correctly and playing them with me on your own piano will reinforce it a lot. It's like having your own teacher right here!

Go through this video as much as you need to until you feel comfortable with each of these rhythms. You'll find that they really aren't that hard once you get used to combining them and knowing how to break them down into syllables that correspond to each one.

The next time you see one of these in your music you'll be surprised at how much easier you can play them!

Are you ready to practice with me?

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