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Jonathan Curtis Snare drum

Rhythm Lectures

#4 - Nested Tuplets


This episode covers the concept of nested tuplets. Though they often look quite daunting, they are in fact relatively simple. Once we understand how to reframe the context in which we read the rhythms, they lose their enigmatic façade and become relatively straight forward to work out.

I. Nested Tuplets

Nested rhythms or tuplets describe any rhythm or tuplet which exists inside a larger tuplet, such as a triplet within a quintuplet, or any other combination. To demonstrate this concept, we can begin with a simple working example. Taking five 16th notes without any further metric context, we have a simple rhythmic figure comprising five evenly spaced notes, which we can count numerically 1 to 5.

Within this figure, the standard rules of notation apply; two 16th notes can combine to form an 8th note, or halve to form two 32nd notes; we can apply rests, tuplets, or any other rhythmic device available to use. For this example, we will alter our five 16th notes as follows:

  • The first two 16th notes combine to form an 8th note

  • The third 16th note halves to form two 32nd notes

  • The final two 16th notes become three via a 16th note triplet

We now have a simple rhythmic figure comprising an 8th note, two 32nd notes, and a 16th note triplet. This in itself is not a difficult rhythm to play, and this fact is significant. Now, we will group this entire figure under a quintuplet bracket, comprising the five original 16th notes.

A 16th note quintuplet places five 16th notes in the space of four; more specifically, it places those five 16th notes in the space of a single quarter note, and so, while our nested figure looks quite daunting, all it is really saying is that this entire figure takes places against a single quarter note, which we can do by simply feeling the beat at the beginning of each repetition.

In essence, to decipher nested rhythms, the simplest way is to remove the top layered tuplet. With that gone, we can read the rhythm as it would normally occur, and likely find that it is not difficult in and of itself. When we reapply the top layer tuplet, that simply tells us the duration in which the rhythmic figure should be played. Any tuplet which comprises a single quarter note, like a 16th note quintuplet or septuplet, simply states that the rhythmic figure should fit within that same quarter note.

In longer tuplets, such as an 8th note quintuplet, we find that the rhythm occurs in the same time (with the same duration as) two quarter notes, the second of which occurs at the half way point of the figure.

Essentially, by removing the top layered tuplet, we can decipher the figure normally, and then use the top layered tuplet simply as an indication of duration: 16th note tuplets occur against a single quarter note, 8th note tuplets against two quarter notes, and so on.

5 16ths.png
8ths and 16ths and 32nds.png
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8ths and 16ths and 32nds and tuplet.png
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septuplet 1.png
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