Our focus in most of this chapter will be on memorizing/internalizing some of the most common rhythmic cells used in music. But what do we do when presented with something unfamiliar and complicated? The answer: “subdividing,” or using additional reference points within (shorter than) the beat to figure out what’s going on.

Subdividing is useful in both reading and listening to music. (It may also be useful in improvisation, but because improvisation is typically done spontaneously, there may not be enough time to stop and ponder subdivisions.) When listening, we can replay the music in our heads, perhaps slowing it down, while subdividing to figure out what’s going on. When reading music, we can use subdivisions to figure out exactly where to place certain notes in time.

The most common approach to subdivision is to use the main divisions of the beat as reference points. We can do this in a few ways, but especially at first, we encourage you to use physical motion to track these points in time. For example, you might tap two fingers in succession to keep track of the beat divisions of a simple meter, or three fingers in succession to keep track of the beat divisions of a compound meter. Tapping a surface, with a little more emphasis on the beat than on its other divisions, may also be effective. See what works for you. Just make sure, as you think in divisions of the beat, that you don’t lose track of the beat itself.

Some people also track subdivision through a system of syllables called “rhythmic solmization.” There are quite a few different systems of rhythmic solmization, and each of works differently: some focus on note values, others track where things happen within the meter. Because the approach of this chapter is primarily oriented towards relating to meter, we will give takadimi syllables as well as a hybrid system that uses “1 ee and a” for simple meter and “1 la li” for compound meter; we’ll call this latter system simply “Counting Numbers.”

If this doesn’t make sense, an internet search for “counting rhythms through subdivision” will bring up some helpful advice, both videos and websites.

Once you’re able to locate the divisions of the beat, we then pay attention to exactly when notes happen with reference to these points in time.

Activity: Listening for subdivisions

Goal: Practice slowing down music in your head and keeping track of subdivisions.


  1. Listen to a song from the playlist below and determine its meter, focusing particularly on the relationship between beat and division.
  2. Once you’ve figured out the meter, return to the first phrase and listen through, keeping track of the beat. If you can, memorize that first phrase.
  3. Listen through the first phrase again, either aloud or playing it back in your head, now keeping track of the subdivisions. (Hearing it in your head allows you to slow it down, which can help with subdividing.)
  4. Work through the melody and determine, within each beat, which subdivisions have new note attacks/onsets.
  5. Optionally, notate the appropriate rhythm in staff notation, protonotation, notation shorthand, or some other system.

Suggest a song for this playlist!

Activity: Reading complex rhythms with subdivision

Goal: Use subdivision to accurately perform complex rhythms.

Before you start: You’ll need a notated musical excerpt that features rhythms that you find difficult to read. Difficult-to-read rhythms might include lots of ties, dots, beams, and inconsistency. It is helpful to use excerpts from a sight-reading anthology, as these often have chapters devoted to complex rhythms, quick subdivisions, syncopation, and other difficult-to-read rhythms. However, you may use music for your primary instrument or something else.


  1. Note the meter of the excerpt, including how the beat will divide.
  2. Look through the excerpt’s rhythmic notation, visually locating where the beats occur. If the rhythm is particularly dense, you may wish to mark these above the score with a vertical line. If possible, however, see if you can do this without needing to add markings.
  3. Then, look through each beat, visually noticing where each subdivision falls within the notation and how the notes will relate to these subdivisions. Again, if necessary, use some kind of marking to indicate visually where the subdivisions occur, making sure they are less prominent than the beat markings so you can clearly distinguish them.
  4. Set up the meter internally, making sure you feel not just the beat and measure but also the beat division before starting. Make sure you do this at a tempo that will allow you to perform the shortest note values.
  5. Going as slowly as necessary, read through the excerpt, either with both pitch and rhythm or just reading the rhythms on the vocal syllable “ta” or tapping a surface. Anytime you have difficulty, make sure you are feeling the subdivision internally, and refer to the subdivisions in the notation to help you place the notes correctly.
  6. When we focus our attention on beat divisions, we often find our tempo slowing way down. That’s great for working on accuracy, but it may mean we lose track of the beat—an important feature of the music. Make sure you are performing the music at an appropriate speed; if not, then repeat the rhythm a few times while you try speeding up and transferring your attention back to the beat.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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