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3. Score Reading: Rhythm


Grade 8 Music Theory - Rhythm Questions in Scores

Questions on rhythm in the grade 8 music theory exam will normally either test your skill in manipulating rhythms, or your knowledge of some of the less common rhythmic notations.


Rewriting a Rhythm in a Different Rhythmic Notation

This is something you probably studied for grade 5 theory, but may have forgotten all about! The question will ask you to rewrite a short section of a rhythm, but change the pulse from simple to compound time or vice versa, without changing the rhythmic effect.

To do this, remember that each simple time signature has a compound equivalent, which can be found by changing the beat to a dotted version of the same note. For example, 4/4 represents four crotchet (quarter note) beats per bar. If you write four dotted crotchets (dotted quarter notes) per bar, you change the time signature to 12/8. Both of these time signatures have four beats per bar, so they are both “quadruple” times, but 4/4 is simple and 12/8 is compound.

Here is a table of conversion:

time signature conversions simple compound

In simple time signatures, the main beat divides into two, whereas in compound time signatures it divides into three. So in order to preserve the rhythmic effect, you will probably need to use triplets or duplets to split the beat in the correct way.


Here are the common note values of 3/4 converted into compound time. The new time signature is 9/8.

compound v simple time


Notes which are equal to or larger than one beat simply need a dot adding to them, to turn them into compound beats. However, notice that a full bar in 9/8 is written with tied single dotted notes – it’s not usual to use the double dotted minim (double dotted half note).

The normal quavers (eighth notes) in 3/4 need a duplet sign in 9/8, whereas the triplets in 3/4 can be written without any extra notation in 9/8, since the main beat is supposed to split into three anyway.



You should already be very familiar with both the triplet and the duplet – rhythmic groupings which are used to change the way the main beat is subdivided.

  • Triplets are used in simple time signatures (those with 2, 3 or 4 as the top number), when the beat needs to be divided into three instead usual two.
  • Duplets are used in compound time signatures (those with 6, 9 or 12 on top), when the beat needs to be divided into two instead of three.

A group with five notes is called a quintuplet, with six notes it’s a sextuplet and so on. However, since they can contain any number of notes, it becomes impractical to give them all separate names, and the word “tuplet” comprises all irregular groups.

In the grade 8 exam, you might be asked to explain in words what the tuplet means. You can explain a triplet as “play three notes in the space of two”, for example. However, an irregular tuplet group can align with one or more beats – you may have to do a little mathematics to work out what the exact rhythm is supposed to be!

Let’s take a look an example of an irregular tuplet, from Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor B.49:

18 tuplet


The tuplet is clearly marked “18”, but in the space of how many normal notes? The note value used is the semiquaver (16th note), and the tuplet takes up the same space as a minim (half note). A minim is normally worth eight semiquavers, so this tuplet means “play eighteen notes in the space of eight” (and good luck with that!)


Shorthand Tuplets

As with repeated notes, tuplets are also sometimes written in an abbreviated form to save on space. A slash across the tail of the note shows you the note value, and the number shows you the type of tuplet.

A bar written like this:

shorthand triplets

Should be played like this:

longhand triplets


Measured Notes v. The Tremolo

Notes with crossed stems (or slashes above the note for semibreves/whole notes) normally indicate measured repeated notes. The number of slashes across the stem is equal to the number of “tails” on the equivalent note.

This semibreve (whole note) with two slashes indicates that the G should be played as repeated semiquavers (16th notes). It takes up considerably less space on the page to write this, than sixteen normal notes!

measured semiquavers

Don’t confuse the repeated note symbol with that of the tremolo. A true tremolo is a rapid repetition of a single note, or a rapid alternation between two notes, and it is not measured precisely.

Tremolos on a single note are commonly found in string music, where the player lets the bow almost tremble across the string. Tremolos are notated in the same way as measured repeated notes, but will normally also include the word “tremolo”, (or “trem.” or “tremolando”).

Tremolos between two notes are commonly found in wind music, where the player can move quickly with relative ease by simply lifting and replacing the required number of fingers. The slashes are placed between the two notes, like this:

tremolo between two notes



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