Subdividing the Beat

After you’ve developed your ability to maintain a steady pulse, the next step in your rhythmic development is learning to subdivide the beat.

Subdividing the beat means to play at the rhythmic points in-between the beats. This is an essential skill for all musicians and a critical one for rhythm section players like bassists. If you can't correctly play the subdivisions of the beat, you will cause unending problems for everyone in the band.

Where the Groove Is

One day you may realize all of the good-feeling rhythm stuff falls between the beats not on them. The beat serves as a reference point around which other rhythms dance.

Nearly all good basslines, regardless of style, contain rhythms falling in-between the beats. If you want to groove, you need to develop a strong sense of where these divisions of the beat fall. This will take practice, time, and experience. It’s frustrating for many in the beginning. Be patient and practice. Eventually you will feel these subdivisions without a thought.

How Beats Are Commonly Subdivided

A beat can be subdivided in numerous ways. Most commonly beats are evenly divided in two, in four, or in three.

Most music is played in 4/4 time, or Common Time. (See time signatures.) [Note: I will use this time signature of 4/4 for the coming examples even though these subdivisions apply to all time signatures in the same way.]

Each beat is a quarter note and there are 4 quarter notes in a whole measure, or bar, of 4/4 music.

When you evenly divide the quarter note beat in two, you get two eighth notes.

The Eighth Note Subdivision

When you evenly divide the quarter note beat in four, you get four sixteenth notes.

The Sixteenth Note Subdivision

Another common way to divide the beat is into three evenly spaced notes. These are called eighth note triplets. Triplets are grouped together with a beam or bracket and have the number 3 written over or under them.

The Eighth Note Triplet Subdivision

You can hear examples of these beat subdivisions on the subdividing the beat example page.

This lesson is a preview of where we are going. In the next coming lesson I will explain how to count rhythms. Then we’ll go through the above subdivisions and learning how to play them, practice them, and get a feel for them.