Beat Divisions

While measures are longer than a beat, time signatures also track events that are shorter than a beat. We will call these “divisions of the beat” or “beat divisions” (sometimes “subdivisions“). (In the example below, these are shown as notes connected by a horizontal line.)

Two notated examples of beat divisions. One is in four-four meter and alternates quarter notes (beats) with pairs of eighth notes (beat divisions). The other is in twelve-eight meter and alternates dotted quarter notes (beats) with trios of eighth notes (beat divisions).

Most of the time, the beats of a given meter will seem to contain either 3 or 2 divisions. Beats with 3 divisions are called compound, while beats of 2 divisions are called simple. (We know this is confusing, since the intuitive opposite of “simple” is “complex,” which sounds a lot like “compound.”)

Notably, beat divisions are not usually indicated in conducting patterns, which just show beats and cycles. This means if you want to keep track of a beat, its cycle, and its division, you will either need to add information to the conducting pattern or use a different method.

We’ve been tracking meter with our bodies: arm waves, head nods, or foot taps for beats, and conducting downbeats or whole-body sways for the beginnings of measures. Because beat divisions are often rather quick, it’ll be helpful to use small-muscle motions here. Tap two fingers in succession to feel the two parts of a simple beat, or three fingers in succession to feel the three parts of a compound beat. Make sure that one of your fingers (usually the pointer finger) consistently aligns with the beat (your head nods, arm waves, or foot taps) to make sure you’re actually tracking something faster than the beat and not just counting the beats themselves.

People also use vocal counting patterns to track beats, measures, and divisions. There are many such systems, including “1-lah-lee-2-lah-lee” for compound and “1-and-2-and” for simple, where the numbers represent the beats of the measure, the number 1 represents the downbeats of the measure, and the other syllables represent the other division of each beat.


Activity: Simple or Compound?

Goal: Practice identifying beats as simple (having two equal divisions) or compound (having three equal divisions).

Instructions: Listen to the following songs. Start by finding the beat; then determine if it breaks down into two or three equal parts. Optionally, find the measure length as well and try counting along, using numbers to track the beats of the measure and either “lah-lee” (compound) or “and” (simple) to track the remaining divisions of each beat.


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