How to Read Complex Rhythms (Quiz Included)

Are you struggling with time signatures like 5/4 or 7/8? Are you unsure of how to play polyrhythms? Do you find syncopation confusing? Then read on to learn how to read complex rhythms.


how to read complex rhythms


Last week in How to Read Basic Rhythms, we learned about the most common time signatures, simple and compound meter, how to count upbeats, tied notes and rests and how to handle time signature changes. This week, we’re going to dive in a little deeper and learn about common and cut common time, composite meter, other ways of counting, polyrhythms and syncopation. If you haven’t read the article on basic rhythms, I suggest you do that first before reading this article.


Common time and cut common time

The time signature 4/4 is known as common time and can be written as

common time

2/2 time is known as cut common time or alla breve and can be written as:

cut common time

2/2, or cut common time, is essentially the same as any other simple duple time signature like 2/4 in that we count 1, 2 in each bar. The only difference is that the beats are minims as opposed to crochets.


To illustrate, let’s use the same rhythm but write it in 2/2 and 2/4 respectively:

cut common time

As you see, rhythms can be written differently depending on the time signature yet still sound the same.


Why is that?


This is because note (and rest) values don’t actually correspond to precise durations. Their duration will solely depend on the tempo they are played in. Rather, the note values represent their relation to other note values. For example, a minim will always be twice as long as a crotchet, and a crotchet twice as long as a quaver, etc. Understanding this relationship is the key to unlocking any rhythm, however complex.


Take this rhythm:

dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver

You might not know how to play it but if you subdivide, you’ll see that this rhythm is not that foreign to you. Let me show you what I mean.


If we subdivide the above rhythm into semiquaver beats, the first note is worth 3 of those beats, and the second note, the remaining beat. This holds true when this rhythm is “augmented” (doubled) to a dotted crotchet and quaver with quaver beats as a subdivision, or once more as a minim and crotchet with crochets as a subdivision. You’ll see that the way you count remains the same when subdividing:



So if you know how to count a dotted minim followed by a crochet, then you know how to count the other two variations of this rhythm.


You can apply this “augmenting” strategy to any rhythm. Here are a few more examples:

augmenting examples


Composite meter

In How to Read Basic Rhythms, we learned about simple meter where the top number of the time signature is either 2, 3, or 4 (duple, triple or quadruple). We also looked at compound meter where the top number is a multiple of 3 such as 6, 9 and 12.


But what about time signatures where the top number is 5, 7, 8 or 11, etc.? Those time signatures are known as composite meter because they are composed of several smaller units of 2, 3 or 4 beats. When counting in composite meter, count these smaller units. Avoid counting to 5, 7, 8, 11 and so on!


For example, 5/8 consists of 2 smaller units: one of 2 beats (2/8), the other of 3 beats (3/8). Whenever possible, the notation will reflect the order of these units and will determine how to count:

different groupings in 5/8


In the case of 5/4, where grouping is harder to show, the grouping may be shown explicitly in this way:

composite meter example

Time signatures with 7 or 8 beats will have the following grouping or any variation of it:

composite meter other examples

Other ways of counting

Counting the beats is helpful at the beginning when we’re learning simple rhythms like minims and crotchets but there comes a point where counting just gets in the way.



Once you’ve learned to count the beats, you will start to develop an internal pulse and internalise rhythm, meaning that you’ll feel the beats without having to count them. A good way to develop this internal pulse is to move your body to the beat, either tapping your foot, or bobbing your head, or even walking to the beats around the room or on the spot. You can also practise rhythms with a metronome then without and see if you still feel the pulse.



Articulating the rhythms to syllables or words can also help internalise the rhythms. You could either use the same syllable, preferably with a clear percussive start like “ta”, or a mixture of syllables like in Kodály, Takadimi or other systems. Another method that works particularly well with kids is using words. For example:

verbalising rhythm

But beware. You may get increasingly hungry with such words!



Verbalising rhythm is all well and good but it doesn’t indicate the beats and knowing what beat you are on is crucial. I recommend you conduct while verbalising the rhythm. This is what I do before I sight-read any piece or when I get stuck on a particular rhythm. Conducting allows you to keep track of and feel the beats.


Here are the arm movements when conducting 2/4. 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8:


Conducting movements


N.B.: 6/8 can also be conducted in 2 in faster tempi.


Here is me demonstrating the movements with made-up rhythms:




Polyrhythms, meaning “many rhythms”, are two or more simultaneous rhythms with a contrasting division of the beat such as 5 against 3, 2 against 3, 7 against 4, etc.


As pianists, we are blessed (or cursed!) by polyrhythms, especially in the music of Chopin. Below are several examples from Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor posthumous. We have 18 notes against 4, 35 against 4, 11 against 4 and 13 against 4, all of which are not divisible by 4 so how do we play such rhythms?


polyrhythms in Chopin


First, let’s start with a much simpler polyrhythm like 3 against 2, which is one of the most common.


There are 2 ways you can practise it:


  1. Practise each rhythm separately until it’s ingrained in your muscle memory. Then start off one hand and introduce the other and repeat as often as necessary:

practising polyrhythms example


  1. Find the smallest common denominator (like we do when we have time signature changes) and subdivide.


For example, the smallest common denominator of 2 and 3 is 6. Now, if we count to 6, the group of 2 notes will fall on beats 1 and 4, while the group of 3 (triplet) will fall on beats 1, 3 and 5 as shown by the asterisks in the table below:

three against two rhythm


While counting to 6, tap the triplet with your RH on beats 1, 3 and 5 and tap the quavers with your LH on beats 1 and 4. Repeat until it becomes easy and you no longer have to count to 6. Then switch hands.


Here is Saher Galt explaining this concept really well:



This method only works well when the numbers are small. In the case of larger numbers like in Chopin’s music, one solution is to work out the grouping and work out which notes will fall together by marking vertical lines in the score like this:


Chopin polyrhythm example

Remember that polyrhythms like Chopin’s are usually not meant to be rhythmically exact so don’t waste your time trying get all the notes perfectly even! Instead, try out different ways of playing the polyrhythm, with different groupings and with varying degrees of speed and use your ears to guide you. When you’re executing passages with polyrhythms, it should sound like improvisation or a vocal ornament.



In both simple and compound meter, there are strong, medium and weak beats. The first beat, or downbeat, of the bar is always the strongest beat.


Duple time:                  Strong – Weak

Triple time:                   Strong – Weak – Weak

Quadruple time:           Strong – Weak – Medium – Weak


Syncopation happens when the emphasis falls on the weak beats of the bar. For example, syncopation would occur on the accented notes (notes with the > symbol):

syncopation on weak beats


Syncopation also happens when the emphasis falls after the beat. For example:

syncopation other examples
Tip: To avoid getting lost, always be aware of the downbeats, even when the accent is on a weaker beat. This is where conducting the beats can really help.


Final words

Rhythm notation may seem complicated at first but when you look more closely, you realise that it’s very logical. Once you understand the relationship between the note and rest values and how these values are organised on the staff in simple, compound and composite meter, you can begin to make sense of it. All that is left to do is to count and subdivide.


If you’re still unsure of a particular rhythm, work out where the beats fall and mark it in the score. And if that isn’t enough, listen to a professional recording while reading the score and try to get a feel of the rhythm. And if you want exercises to practise basic and complex rhythms and all the things we’ve discussed, stay tuned. I will provide some soon.


Check how well you know your rhythms by taking this short quiz:


What rhythms do YOU struggle with? And what strategies do you use to work out complex rhythms? Let me know in the comments below.


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  • Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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