Mastering Irregular Rhythmic Groups in Piano Playing

The special bete noire of the young piano student is the proper execution of the various and not infrequently irregular groups which it is his duty and should be his pleasure to disentangle and straighten out. If he has a mathematical turn of mind and has been taught to count aloud, the regular, or what we may call the geometrical division of notes, whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, sixty-fourth, will give him little difficulty, even without assistance of a teacher, and even the introduction of triplets will doubtless make no trouble, unless it be 3 against 2, 3 against 4, etc. Then the practical difficulty begins.

How many ambitious students we have met, anxious to commence study of Beethoven and naturally taking up his First Sonata, and in their childish innocence imagining that the slow movement would be the easiest, only to find themselves, as the inelegant but forcible expression puts it, “up against it.” With patient perseverance they wade through thirty-six measures, but at the thirty-seventh they stick fast. Even their teachers are usually of little practical assistance, even if they can themselves play the Adagio with ease and correctness. They hardly know how they accomplish it. The rationale is that such players have the sense of rhythm well developed. But when it comes to giving directions to pupils, their explanations do not solve the difficulty.

The Proper Sequence of Tones

It is easy to tell the proper sequence of tones in the two hands in irregular groups and even to decide mathematically what exact fraction of a count should belong to each note of such group, and possible for some people to apportion the parts to each other, but if accurately done while slow the attempt fails in faster tempo and at best sounds mechanical.

Now how to cultivate this sense of rhythm is the practical problem confronting every player and certainly every teacher. A leaf from the pedagogic experience of the writer may help to elucidate. We must presuppose a player who has with care and certainly at first with actual counting aloud established perfect steadiness in notes of one or more whole counts. For division into half counts the ordinary prescription is “and.”

This frequently assists the young player in securing the double rapidity of the half counts. The teacher must certainly see that this is accurately done, but by all means the “and” should only be sued at the exact spot where there is a note for such half count, so that the player is always noticing the actual relation of whole and half counts.

The use of “ands” should be quite discontinued before one becomes a slave to them. As to other sub-divisions of counts into three or more notes the application of other syllables cannot be recommended.

They are usually more of a drag than an assistance. The teacher should count with the scholar simply, “1-2-3,” etc., while accurately hastening the short notes and doubtless giving personal examples at the piano till steadiness is secured.

Comparative Rhythm

Next and preliminary to our main study, the exact comparative rhythm of all notes, regular or irregular, must be established. As exercises for the acquirement of this do not abound, the following set of practical exercises is submitted.


Play the above continuously but repeating each measure four times, at first with hands separately and afterward together. Always accent. Set the metronome at first to 80 and afterward increase it to 92 or more.

In the absence of a metronome, count aloud.

When the whole is in steady time, then skip around in order of measures but still play continuously.

Now we come to passages where one hand has the regular time and the other has the irregular time.

Irregular Times in Different Hands

As usually studied such passages generally develop along these lines. The hand that has the regular or normal movement of the passage is first played and probably goes steady or reasonably so. Then the other hand adapts itself as best it can to the first and probably gets the correct sequence of the notes, but beyond that quite comes to grief, and the resultant effect is frequently like the following absurdity:


If we notice the action of the mind in putting the two hands together we shall usually find the mental attention focused specially on the movement of the hand that has the regular or geometric swing of the passage (in this case the left hand) while the other has absolutely no triplets. The former hand we will call X, the latter Y.

The mind has straightened out X, at the expense of Y. This mental operation should be reversed. The special attention should temporarily follow the triplet or other irregularity, Y. Take that part alone; divide it equally and play it at the speed that a metronome or the ear says is correct as compared with the general movement of the passage. Now play part X once or twice alone; then again part Y; perhaps more times thus. Then when you play the two together, watch the hand Y and keep it absolutely at its established speed, and make the hand X adapt itself to the other but playing as nearly as you can at its own steady jog.

Accent persistently and bring the accents together. Do not try to measure off mathematically the length of each note. In fact the successful player of such passages does not know, hoes not even notice just how the two hands compare. He simply knows that starting at some accented point and playing one hand a little or a good deal faster than the other they arrive together.

For the practical working out of these directions in actual playing of piano music take such a composition as the Chopin Fantaisie Impromptu in C sharp minor, op. 66. Make an exercise of one or more measures, treating hands separately and afterward, together on the lines here suggested, accenting as directed.

Measures 13 to 24 inclusive are good ones to commence with, as they require accents anyway.

Practical Difficulties

Now we call attention to some practical difficulties in the working out and mastering of these exercises on the lines here indicated.

It is the common experience that groupings of 3 against 4, 4 against 5 or still higher are more easily and surely adjusted than 2 versus 3. This results from the fact that a group of 4 or more notes is a more independent phrase than one of 2 or 3 notes and has a more defined swing of its own (from one accent to the next). So these longer and faster groups acquire a certain momentum of their own, independent of what the other hand is doing.

But young players pretty early run foul of the troublesome bugbear of 2 against 3, at the ir objective point, the next accent.

The writer has found this treatment to work satisfactorily in all cases where scholars were patient and earnest. The following exercises are recommended. Accent smartly and keep the counts at the same speed.



Play the part Y alone, repeating each measure four times, starting so slow that you can play to the end of the exercise with the same speed of counting. When this is secured it will not be much more of a job to add the part X.

In each of the following exercises (A to F), repeat and compare the measures for separate hands until the perfect steadiness is secured. Then join on the ensemble measures without any break. A moderate or rather fast tempo will be found easier and more useful than one quite slow.



For the assistance of these we indicate a scheme for working out mechanically this latter problem.

Count aloud these imaginary measures:


Then take the Mendelssohn Song Without Words in E flat, fourth book; divide the measures each into three and work it out on the following scheme, at first accenting each count “one.” Soon the accents may be dropped.