Those Pesky Dotted Notes


Neat Trick

“No no, dear … it’s One … Two and    …..   One Two and    …..   the dot comes on the second beat.”

dotted eighth note

The teacher repeats this several times.   We demonstrate it a couple of times more.   We explain that the first beat is a regular beat but the dot is worth half of the first beat   … so it’s a half and the little eight note is the other half of the second beat.   Even as I write this, it seems like a formula in physics. ” Every neutral atom has an equal number of protons and electrons.   When an electron is added or removed, the atom becomes ionized and has an electrical charge.”    

Those dotted notes and electrons are just about equally incomprehensible to a beginning student.

So how to tackle the problem of those dotted notes.   Which can appear anywhere and on notes of any value.    You can have a dotted quarter ( or single beat) note or the somewhat trickier dotted eighth ( or half beat) note.

dotted notesNow the dotted quarter note is fairly easy to count.   The student is reminded that each beat is made up of two half beats.  The first note gets an entire beat, the dot gets the first half of the second beat and the eighth note gets the last half.  Sometimes it’s easier to count all the beats and half beats out loud as you play the notes.

counting dot notes

But the main problem comes with the smaller value notes.  The proportion of counts is exactly the same but for some reason many students struggle with this.

eight note dotted


Well there’s a trick here.   Why and how it works is a mystery to me even after many years of teaching.  We have a little miracle lurking somewhere in our brains which combines words, musical tones AND rhythm in a way which give as whole new dimension to unconscious multi-tasking.

Thus I find myself singing “Ombra Mai Fu” with the correct notes in the correct rhythm and in a language I know nary a word of.   Warbling away in Italian, I gleefully chant to a tree and praise its lushness.   A friend on Kauai admits to accompanying himself on his ukulele while singing along in perfect Hawaiian, while rather shamefacedly admitting that he often has no idea what he’s singing about.  Both of us are unable to memorize a poem in our own language without some effort.   But to a musical accompaniment, we can sing the correct words in a foreign tongue.

The clincher is of course the fact that one never hears anyone of any age or musical ability or training singing a familiar song or hymn in the wrong rhythm.  Rhythm seems to be firmly tied to the notes in a melody.    “Jingle Bells” is a complex rhythm, yet the smallest caroler will sing it in perfect time.   Unconsciously. and without a thought.

So if we tackle the problem of the dotted note rhythm by connecting it to a simple word pattern, we will have solved the problem almost immediately.  Ironically adults have more problems with the dotted note figures than children, apparently because they’re so busy analyzing the relative values of the notes.   Merely humming the correct notes and rhythm for a child, sometimes suffices.

catch shmoo

My most difficult encounter with this probem was with a brilliant adult student who was an architect.  She analyzed and drew diagrams and generally worked herself into a state of immobility whenever she saw a dotted note on her music score.   Finally one day in utter frustration I pointed to the figure and for some inexplicable reason chanted “Catch a Shmoo” in the correct rhythm.   She promptly repeated “Catch a Shmoo” with the proper timing and   …  there it was.   Problem solved.    For some reason, that silly phrase captured the dotted rhythm as surely as the words of “Jingle Bells” guarantee that a child will sing it correctly.   I’ve used this trick ever since. 

You can of course vary it if you like.   I had another adult who raised parakeets for a hobby so I changed it to “Cock … a … too”   which she found more compatible.   Any three syllable word will suffice.   But the Shmoo … accompanied with a little cartoon in the student’s lesson book,  has proven to be the favorite.


♥ This little trick can be applied to almost any problem with rhythm.  Simply add some words and sing it a couple of times.   Then your brain will take over nicely.





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2 Responses to Those Pesky Dotted Notes

  1. Nick Mallory says:

    I’ve always struggled with the dotted notes. The counting is a little rough for me. This may be because I’ve been teaching myself for a few years. Your tip about saying the words I think will help me though. I’ll have to try it next time I sit down at the piano. Thanks for the help! es.

  2. nikkitytom says:

    Just count those “Shmoos” and it will be easy. Why this works, I have no idea. But it does. 🙂

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