Musical Subjects · Teaching

Subdivision, Simple Meter

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about the musical subjects I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a teacher and musician. If I continue long enough, I’ll eventually index and categorize them. Each one will include a subject, some notes, descriptions of some activities and  some target skills for different educational contexts, of course with an eye to Dalcroze practice.


In music education we talk of dividing and subdividing the beat. But when I play, I don’t really think of dividing anything. It feels more like simply playing faster or slower and often in the context of the prevailing beat and tempo. Dividing is a physical act: we divide a pie into pieces. Or it’s a calculation: everybody gets two pieces. But I don’t really experience those aspects in time, as such.

Though the metaphor of division is strained, I still use it since it is so widespread. I say division (in both simple and compound meters) to mean a primary level (e.g. 2 eighth notes with a quarter note beat) and subdivision to mean a secondary level (e.g. 4 sixteenth notes with a quarter note beat). (A quirk I picked up from my colleague, Jeremy Dittus, in his quest for specificity!)

Subdivisions in music are often too fast to move by stepping. They can be performed by speaking or with smaller body parts like fingers.

Children can experience subdivisions as a single event, lasting a beat, or as a continuous event, that is, a kind of continuous shift. Even young children are very sensitive to this. I can see by the way they respond that when I play with subdivisions the music feels faster to them. It is, but technically, as long as there hasn’t been a tempo change at the beat level, it actually isn’t! I look for ways to draw this truth out.

Even the young can hear one set of subdivisions if played the right way. The easiest way to test this is to play an inhibition game: they move with the music when they hear one set of subdivisions, and hold when they hear another set, toggling back and forth. (I avoid saying ‘freeze dance’, which has become popular because I don’t want them to freeze, just hold themselves still.) By changing the character, tempo, style, mood of the music the game does not become tiring. The children can even suggest ways to move, though at some point you will have to ask someone for “a slow way”. I imagine that even youngest children, can feel the relationships between beat and subdivision when we do this. There will be plenty of time to articulate it later when their math skills have caught up. Hopefully I am making the lives of their private teachers and band directors that much easier when they begin to encounter “1-ee-and-ah” in their written music. Older children (late elementary) love this game, too. They love to be right, and they love to detect things according to rules. This gives them both plus the opportunity to stand still, which they value much more than their younger counterparts.

To introduce the subject to my early and late elementary classes, I used the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, whose theme is built on a very declaratory 1-3-5 statement, ending with two sets of subdivisions. I gave the kids a movement task (“find joints in your body and move and mirror your partner”). I asked them to change partners whenever the theme appears, which provided some hilarity as the theme kind sticks out like a sore thumb each time. (Give him a break — he was nine when he wrote it!) I wish the theme emerged just a bit more for this purpose, but if was fun anyway and primed them to listen for both subdivisions and the major tonic triad.

Target Skills:

Early Elementary:

  • Recognize one set
  • experience as continuous event
  • associate with
    • a rhythmic language
    • notation in simple meter, with quarter note beat
  • create patterns
  • improvise with

Late Elementary (all the above plus):

  • Understand the relationship to the beat and division
  • Perform on command in movement that travels and movement in place
  • notate in at least two different meters
  • read patterns