I have practically no music notation experience, so please consider me a dummie when answering.

I am reading this Wikipedia article, about the clave rhythm. They use a text only notation looking like this:

1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a ||
X . X . X . . X . X . . ||


1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a ||
X . . X . . X . . . X . X . . . ||

Is this a standardized notation? Does it have a name? Where can I read more about it?

I believe that the first line specifies 'points in time' and the second specifies which of those times should have a beat. But what points in time are specified? What do the 'e', 'a' and '&' mean?

  • This is really interesting. I hadn't seen this kind of notation before. I didn't want to read the answer below so I could figure it out bymyyself and I did. I agree with the comment by Dave below. Thats how I figured it out too.
    – xray1986
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 13:50

3 Answers 3


You are correct in your interpretation of the two lines.

In the 1 & a example, you can see that the numbered beat is being divided up into three equal parts, and that there are four total beats per measure. This means we are in 12/8, and that each symbol corresponds to the value of an eighth note.

In the 1 e & a example, the numbered beat is being divided up into four equal parts, and there are four beats per measure. This means we are in 4/4, and each symbol corresponds to the value of a 16th note.

The Wikipedia page you referenced has this image: Clave Rhythms

Your first example is equivalent to the second line (son clave in 12/8) and the second example is equivalent to the first line (son clave in 4/4)

Ultimately, this notation is a type of rhythm counting system that can be used to verbally describe different rhythms. It works by assigning a number to each primary beat in a measure, and then subdividing that beat with various syllables like e, &, a -- some variations exist from place to place, but the basics of & being a duple subdivision and e, a being the next level down are fairly standard with western classical and jazz musicians.

  • 10
    Many english speakers mentally (or literally) say "one eee and aaa, two eee and aaa ..." when counting 16th notes, hence the symbols.
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 13:35

I would be leery of stating that 1 & a is breaking a beat into three -- I've been taught that for triplets one should use 1 la li 2 la li and 1 & a would be 8th note 16th note 16th note (in 4/4 time). It does appear that this example uses that, but that is non-standard. (Because there often is differences in tuples, it's important to pick one and be consistent -- and then make sure to explain it. I use la-lis because they aren't used elsewhere :-P)

  • That's nice. I usually use "bippity-boppity". But it doesn't extend as well. Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 7:43
  • Pretty much every musician you ask is going to have a different syllable for triplet subdivisions. I prefer 1 ta ma 2 ta ma, though I've heard la li from a few people before.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 15:13

One interesting note on this kind of notation (no pun intended) is that it only works with monospace fonts. It is similar in this to the guitar tab you see on sites like ultimateguitar.com. This makes it a pain if you accidentally paste it into, say, Times New Roman font, but the great advantage is that the spacing on the screen is the same as the spacing in time, like in a "piano roll" editor for a drum machine: enter image description here

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