I play in a local brass quintet, and we were sent some new music by a local composer. When we played it through, my part contained this rhythmic pattern which stopped me dead.

I realised that when I sight read, I'm relying mostly on memory and experience to know how a rhythm goes without having to mentally calculate where beats fall.

But I had never seen this pattern before. I see the nested tuplets, and in my head I can see how it's supposed to work. But I just can't switch from the four quarter notes in the first bar to the tuplet pattern in the second. I tried to practice by setting a metronome ticking quarter notes and then clapping nine against four. But that was really hard too.

So my question is - are there any tips for playing this sort of pattern and staying in time? Or exercises?

Tricky Rhythm

  • I bet it would be helpful to look at the score. Try to understand why the composer made these choices. Presumably this figure makes sense in relation to the other voices. – aparente001 Oct 14 '15 at 3:51
  • A triplet within a triplet corresponds to exactly 1/9 of a bar (0.111...). Since an eighth note is 1/8 of a bar (0.125), and the difference is only 1% of a bar, you won't go far wrong by playing the first three notes as if they were normal eighth notes and eventually speeding them up very slightly. – Kilian Foth Jul 25 '18 at 6:09
  • I think the easiest way to think of it is to subdivide 4/4 into 9 equal parts. You will have to tongue beats 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 within the measure. I would personally set 1 metronome to 4/4 with a clap on the 1st downbeat and another one - to 9/8 with a clap on beats 1, 4 and 7. If the 1st metronome is set to 120bpm, the 2nd one would have to be set to 135bpm exactly if my arithmetics are correct. – Pyromonk Jan 15 '19 at 13:25

For practicing purposes, you can think of it as this in 9/8 which then it would reduce to:

enter image description here

It's very easy to play, but another tricky thing is as you mentioned is playing a normal 4/4 bar then fitting this into a measure of 4/4. Practice them separately at first and once you are comfortable with both split the measure of 4/4 into 3 sections then split the first note into 3 again. This won't be easy, but if you practice the rhythm first it should come easier.

  • Yes, the rhythm is easy if you in fact modulate it to 9/8, but it's written / phrased in 4/4. It would have been much clearer to notate it as Dom has done but also include a metric modulation to clarify the unit pulse. This composer's notation is fussy and could have been written more clearly. – jjmusicnotes Oct 13 '15 at 5:12
  • Well OK, but the notation really isn't the problem - I know what it's meant to convey - the problem is that I don't know how to perform the tuplet bar so that I arrive at its right-hand barline at the same moment as the other players, who are playing 4/4 non-tuplet parts. I was hoping for some feature of the polyrhythm generated by the 9 against 4 that I can use to tell whereabouts I am in the bar, or some other trick. Or maybe a suggestion telling me how I can mentally construct the tempo of the nine subdivisions in the bar... – Brian THOMAS Oct 13 '15 at 12:12

9 against 4 is tricky. Take a drum loop program like Hydrogen and program the pattern, using one standard loop for the 4/4 (namely having not just a bass drum on the beat but also a bit of a fill-in) and then adding your problematic rhythm with a distinctive instrument turned up suitably.

Listen to it in order to get a feel for that kind of relation/pattern. Play along at some point of time. At some point of time, try to get into "free flow" where your own line makes sense of its own on the backdrop of 4/4 and has a soul and internal sense of its own, yet reaches the finishing line together with 4/4.


It might help if you can work out where the middle of the bar is. Then you can count in minims (half-notes), which is going to make life easier.

You would end up re-writing the rhythm like this - it's not much clearer at first glance, but it does at least show you clearly where the middle of the bar is, and once you can see that, you can see that it's a fairly straightforward syncopation if you feel the bar in minims (half-notes) rather than crotchets (quarter-notes):

enter image description here

(I have drawn a dotted line on the half-bar)

  • This is the approach I take to passages like this. – Josiah Oct 14 '15 at 14:55

A consideration that no one else has mentioned is that this type of figure is often used around tempo changes. If that is the case, it will be hard to coordinate everyone (depending on proficiency) and is counterproductive to spend a lot of time working on getting the rhythm exactly accurate (since it will be in flux anyway). Rehearsal time is better spent "feeling" the rhythm together.

Assuming that this is a spot where the tempo remains steady and it's not a rubato/soloistic passage:

The rhythms we encounter can often be simplified conceptually in another meter - 3/2 = dotted notes in 3/4, etc. A hemiola like this that is split into a triplet really can't be simplified; no matter what you're going to have at least two layers of cross rhythm going on, which is too much for my brain to decode.

In case it helps you, 9/4 can be "simplified" as 32nd notes in 9/8. The 9 can be thought of as 8th notes and the 4 can be thought of as groups of nine 32nds, like this:

Too complex to be helpful.

This rhythm is quite complex and going to be hard to think of in those terms. If that doesn't work for you, try another approach.

My general guidelines are:

  1. Find a spot for your internal metronome where you can feel the base rhythms. Start it clicking a few measures before the trouble passage, and keep it going a few measures after to make sure you hold on to the tempo.

  2. Break the rhythm down into simpler patterns ("check patterns"), then rebuild it.

In this case, I'd choose to set my internal metronome to half notes. For practice, I'd use an external (real) metronome also set to half notes.

For the first simplified rhythm, I'd do the three half note triplet. 3/2 is not too hard, so it shouldn't take you too long to be able to play G C B in the right rhythm in context.

Next, I'd take the inner triplet and the C, so you play G A B C, and hold the C. Learn to do this in context, and alternate between the previous pattern and this pattern to ensure that the key notes sound the same relative to the metronome (still on half notes).

After that, the whole rhythm should come together pretty well. Always practicing with the metronome on half notes will keep you firmly in duple-land, and is easy to switch between 4 and 9. Depending on tempo, you might even think in 1 (metronome to whole notes), but the fact that it's notated in 4 makes me think it won't be that fast.


Mostly playing these is a matter of practice. If you think of it hierarchically, there are 9 notes played in the space of 8. The 9 happen to b notated as quarters whereas the 8 were eights. Or you could think of it as 3 half notes in the space of two, the first being a triplet.

You could draw it out on a diagram: a 4/4 measure marked in eighth notes and a 4/4 measure with 3 half note triplets, the first of which is itself a triplet. This would give you a visual indication of where each note begins.


For this piece (specific to 9-against-4)

First approach

My first attempt would be to learn to feel the preceding measures in 1. That way, my pulse (i.e., measure length) remains constant, and I'm just switching from a 4-subdivision to a 3-subdivision. Switching from sixteenth-notes to triplets is familiar enough, that I would try this approach first. It does mean making two near-simultaneous subdivisions into three and then immediately to a "smaller" three. I would have to trust my triplet feel for that.

Second approach

Another possibility would be to feel the preceding measures in 2. In that case, I think I'd practice to feel 9-against-2, which isn't so bad. (As opposed to 3-against-2 and then subdividing the 3 into a further 3.)

General approach

I like to map out these rhythms least-common-multiple style. For 9-against-4, my map would involve 36 mini-pulses, like this:

Main pulse:   1                 2                 3                 4
9-division    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
4-division    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Tuplet pulse: 1       &       a       2       &       a       3       &       a

Obviously, this is only going to work at a slow-enough speed that I can actually count each subdivision. But it lets me know the relative placement is 9 against the 4.

I practice initially by tapping one hand or foot to the main 4/4 beat, another hand or foot to the 9 subdivision, and alternate speaking the 9-counts or 4-counts.

When I have an initial feel for it, I use the metronome to gradually speed up the primary 4/4 pulse, and drop the speaking when it gets too fast.

Final comment

The approach chosen will be influenced by the tempo of the piece. The first two approaches are likely to work better at a relatively faster tempo, since one's internal pulse has to slow down. The general approach works for getting an initial feel, but in performance requires a slow enough tempo that there's time to feel all the subdivisions.

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