Concept vs Feel – Understanding Advanced Sub-Divisions

Most kids who took geometry in secondary school would remember the standard compass and ruler method of dividing a line into equal parts. Dividing a line into 2 and 4 equal portions was always easy. What wasn’t as easy however, was dividing it into 3, 5 and 7 equal parts. The reason here is that numbers (or anything for that matter) can’t be perfectly broken into odd portions. There will always be the need for greater and greater accuracy when scrutinizing the distribution.

In this analogy, if you were to think of the line as a bar of music, and the divisions as musical notes, you would land up with tuplets. Tuplets in music have the same problem, but since it’s music and not geometry, accuracy loses some of its value and feel becomes more prevalent. You can experiment with a very simple example. Try playing quarter notes or eight notes inside every alternate bar of a 50 or 60 bpm whole-note click (the slower, the better). You will notice that it is relatively easy and you won’t rush or drag too much. Now try the same scenario with quarter note or eight note triplets. You can play it if you know how triplets feel, but unless you have a seasoned amount of practice, you will rush or drag far more often than the even subdivisions. Triplets however are far easier for the lay man or budding musician to master since all of us have been exposed fairly frequently to triplet-based rhythms like the waltz.

Coming to the more advanced tuplets like quintuplets, septuplets and beyond, we lack the most important biological sense needed to play it – the feel. This is because most of us aren’t regularly exposed to music or any rhythms that incorporate a 5-note or 7-note bar. So even if we understand how they work, actually performing them with our hands and moving cleanly between even and odd tuplets becomes extremely challenging.

There are two common solutions to this. The first and most obvious one, is listening to more of these rhythms regularly. A very good starting point would be a drummer called Anika Niles. Arguably one of the few drummers to make quintuplets a mainstream phenomenon, she incorporates these concepts so fluidly and minimally in simple, pop/rock contexts that they become both easy to comprehend and a pleasure to enjoy.

The second would be internalizing the feel and positioning of every note in a tuplet. For example, a quintuplet is unnaturally faster than a quarter note pulse, but slower than an eight-note triplet. This is because 5 falls between 4 and 6. So to begin with, you could try to forcefully rush your quarter notes inside a bar or drag your eight-note triplets, as long as every note is uniformly spaced and they all fit snugly inside the bar. All of this must be done at a particular tempo, over and over until you’ve internalized what the quintuplet feels like and you’ve embraced its unnatural feel. Then you try to play two bars each of a 4, 5 and 6 note division. Finally, you try to bounce between different tuplets at random without losing the feel. If you want to take it a step further, you can try playing rudiments in quintuplets and septuplets, by going over the bar-line in most cases since a majority of rudiments are even phrases. The possibilities and textures become endless once your muscles and mind memorize the feel of these sub-divisions. Then it all comes down to practice.