Dotted Notes - Reading Complicated Syncopation

Once you've got a handle on the simple straight beats (as they're often called) your challenge will be to understand and execute syncopated beats accurately. Modern music utilizes this type of rhythm much more than traditional music. For example, sing "Mary had a little lamb" quietly to yourself while you tap a toe on each beat. You'll see that the melody sticks to the counted beats 1-2-3-4 pretty closely.

So how is syncopated music different? Syncopated music puts accents on notes played between the beats. To demonstrate, count 1-2-3-4 to yourself like we did in chapter 1. Now while you are counting, clap your hands on the "off beats." Off beats is the name we use to describe the moment in time between each beat. You may understand this better by counting "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and". Now clap on the "ands."

These off-beats are the basis around which syncopated music is built.

I'm sorry, you need a plug-in to play MIDI files to play this song example.

Here's an example of a song which uses syncopation. If your computer can play MIDI files, then play this one so we can break it down.

Notice that the song begins with a simple "tick tick tick tick" to establish the beat. After the beat is clear, the melody begins very "straight." The melody is then repeated with a more syncopated version. Here's what the music would look like for this song.

free sheet music - make your own

So what is happening here? The first line is all quarter notes and half notes. You should feel comfortable with those by now. The second line has two new features: a "dot" and a "tie." Both of these features are usually necessary to describe syncopation.

A "dotted eighth note" is longer than a regular eighth note. The same goes for any other note you put a dot after. It lengthens the note by half of it's original value. This is one of the most complicated aspects of music reading and writing. It's difficult to describe well, but once you figure it out, it doesn't have to be difficult to play.

"free sheet music - make your own."
Let's use a whole note as our first example. In "four-four" time, a whole note is four beats long. So what happens when we place a dot after it?

Let's break it down:

  1. The dot means we add half of the original value.
  2. The original value is four.
  3. Half of four is two.
  4. Add four plus two and we have six.

Therefore a dotted whole note is six beats long.

"half note."

What about a dotted half note?

  1. The dot means we add half of the original value.
  2. The original value is two beats.
  3. Half of two is one.
  4. Add two plus one and we have three.

Therefore a dotted half note is three beats long.

"quarter note."

What about a dotted quarter note?

  1. The dot means we add half of the original value.
  2. The original value is one beat.
  3. Half of one is... a half!
  4. Add one plus half and we have one and a half!

GULP! That's disgusting! How do we play that? One and a half beats???

Remember how we learned in chapter one to split one beat into two. We called these one beats "quarter notes" and we called the smaller ones "eighth notes." Well, one and a half beats is really equal to three eighth notes. If you count eighth notes while you play, instead of quarters it becomes quite simple to play a note for one and a half beats. This is an easier way to handle syncopation, and is one of the signs of a professional musician: counting eighth or even sixteenth notes.

Count eighth notes like this "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and..." Counting this way is counting each word on the eighth beat.

free sheet music - make your own
The second part of this song contains dotted sixteenths. To play them, you must think sixteenths on each beat. If you're counting 1234,1234,1234,1234 in each measure this will help immensely! I'd count the above example like this:

123,123,123,123,12-12  |  1234,123,1-1234,(rest12),12  | 12,3412,3412,34,123,4  |  1234,123,1-12341234

As you can imagine, it doesn't get easier as the divisions get smaller. We can dot any note including sixteenths and thirty-seconds. Every time, half the value is added to the note. I won't get into it here, but study the example above if you're interested.

(As an aside, did you know you can also double and triple dot notes?! Every time you dot a note, half of the new value is added again to the total value. So a half note dot gets a 1 added to it, but an extra dot gets half of that last added value (.5). Then if there's yet another dot, then half of the last added value of .25 is added, and on like that. This makes for complicated music, and is not often done.)

Another important part of syncopation is the"tie." This is not something to put around your neck. Rather, it's a way of joining two notes together. This is especially useful if we need to join two eighth notes together across a bar line. Since each bar is limited to have only the right number of beats in it for that song (sometimes four beats in a bar, sometimes three, sometimes other amounts) when we need to hold the fourth note of a bar for five beats, we can use a tie!

This tie looks like a bracket "(" laying on it's side.
free sheet music - make your own
In the second line you see them joining notes together. If a tie joins two quarters together, then you play two beats. If it ties two eighth notes together that makes one beat. If it ties one quarter and one eighth note together that makes one and a half beats.

In conclusion, don't get discouraged by syncopation. In the beginning it is very difficult to read syncopation accurately the first time. You'll find as you practice that there are only so many combinations that are used frequently. After you get familiar with them, the rest is cake.