Why I made friends with sixteenth notes

Whether you need to learn an aria on short notice, or you just don’t want to pay for endless lessons and coachings, everyone wants to learn music efficiently. Not only can slow progress hurt you financially, it is also really, super boring. Which is kind of the opposite of the reason most of us went into music in the first place. I’m not discouraging slow, careful inspection of the score here, I’m talking about the “#$@&%*! I can never find that entrance!” kind of slow progress.

So in the spirit of fast and fun progress, I want to talk about one of my favourite rhythms: a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth. It may be a small and very common rhythm, but it’s actually an incredibly efficient tool for refining character. And because it’s so ubiquitous, you can apply what I’m talking about here to a ton of your repertoire.

Now before you decide that I’m a major nerd (I may be) and that this is some kind of trivial theoretical nonsense (it isn’t), hear me out. This dotted rhythm a defining characteristic of a huge number of classical styles, including the French overture, the march, and many dances like the mazurka, sicilienne, and habanera (I’ve already written a long post on that here).

But if you look at the lengths of the sixteenth notes in these styles, you’ll see that are not at all sixteenths are created equal. And that’s the essence of my whole idea about this rhythm. It’s expressive potential comes from the huge number of rhythmic gestures that are represented on paper by the same pair of notes.

I’m going to give two examples of this rhythm in different genres to demonstrate how much fun these small sixteenths can be. The first example comes from


Here are four bars from the recitative of Smanie implacabili. The first and third bars have text, and the second and fourth reflect what was just said in the orchestra.

The text of the first bar translates to “who mocks my pain”, and the third to “who will console me”. If we take a look at the harmony, it’s also more mocking (or at least jarring) in the second bar, and more calming (or more consonant) in the fourth.

In bar two of our example, the sixteenths are non chord tones. But more than that, the B natural is outside the key of B-flat major that we’re hanging around in (don’t be fooled by the key signature). It’s actually the raised 4th of the dominant chord, which means that it is a tritone away from the root (F). I don’t know a way to be more mocking in one note. And then it’s repeated twice more just to drive the point in. In fact, this note is so important that Mozart added a natural sign in front of the B even though there is no B-flat in the key signature. This seems like a pretty explicit invitation to make this bar as mocking as possible, and to me that includes shortening the sixteenths.

In total contrast, the fourth bar is as smooth and easy as you could ask for. Tonic chords on every strong beat, alternating with dominant chords on the weak ones. The most common and straightforward progression you could find. And not a single non chord tone. Much, much more comforting. So I always play this bar with long sixteenths. Not full triplets—though I’m not convinced that triplets would have been unacceptable in Mozart’s day as I’ll explain in a second—but noticeably longer than a mathematical correct subdivision into four.

Maybe you’re wondering to what degree this kind of rhythmic modulation is kosher. Consider this next example then,

Military music.

In his book “The Secret Life of Musical Notation”, Roberto Poli makes a very compelling argument that a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth can be, though it doesn’t have to be, a shorthand for a quarter followed by an eighth under a triplet bracket. In other words, it was just easier for both hand writers and publishers to write the dotted rhythm than triplets with the first two tied together. According to Poli, this holds true categorically all the way up to 1852 when Brahms (of course) became the first composer to consistently distinguish the triplet rhythm from the dotted one. It continues with decreasing regularity well into the last century.

But actually this tradition is still alive and well today. Let's take a look at the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The long short rhythm is generally notated as a dotted eighth sixteenth in 4/4, though tellingly it is also sometimes notated as quarter eighth in 6/8. 

Here’s a recording of Battle Hymn. Notice that the sixteenths are only very slightly shorter than mathematically perfect triplets. In this recording by the U.S. Marines band (which inexplicably features guitar) the short notes are about mathematically correct in the verse, then even shorter in the chorus. So obviously there’s not any consensus on exactly how this rhythm should sound (or be written), but it’s clear that mathematical precision of the sixteenth notes is not an important factor.

I’ll also point out that if you’re actually singing the words, you’re probably going to sing the short notes as triplets, not sixteenths. Try it for yourself, and see how artificial singing sixteenths sounds. (Full discolsure: I've played for years for a black congregation that loves this tune, and sings the short note as essentially perfect triplets.)

Now you might be concerned that the Battle Hymn falls outside the genre of classical music and might not be relevant to a discussion of opera. But, remember that military traditions are very old and have been frequently imitated by innumerable composers throughout history. For example Bizet does it all over Carmen. The chorus Avec la garde montante even switches between 6/8 in the trumpet fanfare and 2/4 in the main music, perfectly exemplifying the duplicity we’ve already seen between duple and compound duple meter in the Battle Hymn. The shift is purely notational; there’s no perceived change of meter to the audience.

If you’re still not convinced of the potential flexibility of these sixteenths, there are examples of mathematically imprecise sixteenths littered through music history up to the first World War. There’s also a direct assertion that this is not only allowed but required in C.P.E. Bach’s influential Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. And  it’s all clearly laid out in Poli’s book.

In short,

I’ve written about the temporal imprecisions of our notational system before. To me, the dotted eighth sixteenth is particularly poorly served. It’s like trying to get detailed information from a very low resolution picture. But it you’re like me, you get annoyed when composers start being overly rhythmically precise. Who wants to subdivide into 9 one beat and 7 the next at quarter note = 71?

So there’s probably a good reason that our notation is as low definition as it is. But if you’re not going to give a low def performance, you have figure out—based on context, the composer’s clues, and your musical intuition—how you can add a little more rhythmic precision to what you read. And luckily, doing this reasonably quick work is a fantastic way to make sure that you’re strongly projecting the character you want to project.

We didn’t even talk here about text setting, and how the length of your sixteenths can characterize either individual words or different languages. That adds a whole new layer of possibility to the expressive power of your sixteenths. But it's a different discussion for another time.

So for now, if you’re staring down a particularly challenging quick study, or just trying to prepare as well as possible for your next lesson or coaching, I’d encourage you to stop and spend two minutes just thinking about these little notes. They may take you further than you’d imagine on your journey of artistic discovery.