How to accurately notate a musical rhythm after hearing it just once

music theory

Title_ How to Study Efficiently for Hours On End (With the Help of a Tomato) (1)-4If you have ever taken a music theory class, you have probably become familiar with the concept of dictation – essentially, the process of converting heard music into written, notated form. Dictation exercises are very common in these classes as a means to help students train their ears and hone their aural skills. Many students, however, dread doing them. I certainly know from experience that they can be extremely stressful! In this post, I want to share a strategy that can help take the stress out of rhythmic dictations and enable you to transcribe musical rhythms accurately and quickly – perhaps even on the first try.

The key to this approach, paradoxically, is not thinking about notation right away. Trying to draw noteheads and stems in real time – while also listening to an excerpt – can be time-consuming and frustrating. After all, the music always seems to move faster than our handwriting does. But what if I were to tell you that there is a surefire way to match your handwriting to the tempo of the music so that you never feel behind?

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are being asked to transcribe a four-measure–long rhythm in 3/4 time signature. Before this rhythm is even played, draw a series of evenly spaced tick marks above each measure that correspond to a sixteenth-note pulse (since this is the fastest pulse you will typically encounter in rhythmic dictations). In 3/4 time, that equates to twelve tick marks per measure, as shown below:

Screen Shot 2021-03-31 at 10.51.35 AM

During the preparatory measure that “counts you in” to the excerpt, get this sixteenth-note pulse running in your head. As the excerpt plays, keep these sixteenths going internally, and make a dot above each tick mark where you hear a rhythmic onset in the excerpt. Since dots take an infinitesimal amount of time to “draw,” this frees up a great deal of mental space and allows you to keep moving forward with the music in real time. 

Let’s say that you place your dots like so:

Screen Shot 2021-03-31 at 10.52.51 AM

The next (and final!) step is to convert this shorthand into actual rhythmic notation. Notably, you can do this without having to hear the excerpt again, because the rhythmic durations of each note are already encoded in the shorthand. If each tick mark measures a sixteenth note, then one “tick-span” between dots corresponds to a sixteenth note, two tick-spans to an eighth note, four tick-spans to a quarter note, and so on. Of course, it is always a good idea to listen to the excerpt again to make sure you’ve placed your dots in the right places. But once you know you have gotten this part right, the rest is just simple math!

Here is the notated rhythm to which the above dots correspond:

Screen Shot 2021-03-31 at 10.53.39 AM

When employing this method, many of my students are able to notate a rhythm accurately after hearing it just once, and nearly all are able to do so after a second listen. By reducing the complexities of rhythmic dictation to a simple binary operation – “is there an onset on this tick mark or not?” – this method greatly decreases cognitive load and leads to better results, faster. 

I hope you find this strategy useful in streamlining your future dictating endeavors, both inside and outside of class. Happy (or at least happier) transcribing!

Michael is a PhD Candidate in Music Theory at Yale University. In addition to Music Theory, his specialities include, English & Literature, Expository Writing & the Essay, History, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, and Admissions Writing & Strategy. Want to work with Michael?

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Michael studied Music at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned an MA and MPhil in Music Theory at Yale, where he is now finishing his PhD in the same discipline.


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