How to count semiquavers: play 16th note rhythms more reliably

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Keeping beats in time is a struggle for many, so if you need a helping hand with how to count semiquavers or 16th note rhythms, keep reading, as I’m going to share lots of tips that will ensure you can not only play these rhythms, but you can also execute them with control and precision.

If you’ve ever been told that there’s just one way to count semiquavers, such as 1 e and a then you haven’t been given all the information you deserve to know.  In this article, I’m going to cover how to count a semiquaver in various ways, because there isn’t one way that fits all.  It depends on the time signature, the beat, your level of ability and the tempo of the music you are learning.

The Best Way to Achieve Accuracy

So often, learners try and subdivide rhythms straight from the off, and that’s why they struggle to play semiquavers evenly and reliably as they progress.  The best way to achieve accuracy is to practice slowly in the initial stages which means breaking rhythms down so that you can play them precisely.

There’s a misconception that just because the time signature for example is 4/4 that you have to count in quarter notes or crotchets. When you begin learning a new piece you can count in whatever beat you like, and I always suggest you start by setting the beat as the shortest note value in the piece.

What is the value of a semiquaver?

So let’s start by taking a look at the mathematical value of the semiquaver because for many people this is where there are often a few gaps in the knowledge.

If you’re in the UK and I ask you what’s a semiquaver worth, you’ll probably say 1/4 and if you use American terminology, you’ll answer a 1/16th.  However, both of these responses are missing one important bit of information, because the value of a semiquaver or 1/16th note depends on what the value of the beat is.  And it’s the time signature that defines the value of the beat.

A semiquaver is worth a 1/4 if the beat is a crotchet or a quarter note.  In American terminology, the 1/16th note is in reference to the whole note, but if you are playing in compound time, for example, the beats are dotted. 

In 6/8 the beat is a dotted quarter note, so a 1/16th note is not a 1/16 of the beat. Hence the value of the semiquaver changes.  So how you count a semiquaver or 1/16th note really depends on the value of the beat as defined by the time signature.

Now for the purpose of avoiding confusion, I am going to stick with the term semiquaver as the name is less confusing as it doesn’t have any connotation to a numerical value.

The Value of a Semiquaver

Let’s look at the value of a semiquaver in more detail with a few time signatures.

In most time signatures, the value of a beat is equal to one, but the length of that beat is not always the same in every time signature.

music notes quavers semiquavers

In 3/8, there are three quavers (1/8th notes for those in America) per bar.  So each quaver is a beat and, therefore, equal to one.

There are two semiquavers per beat in 3/ 8 time therefore, the mathematical value is a half.

music notes dotted

In 6/8 time, there are two dotted crotchets (dotted quarter notes) beats per bar.  So each dotted crotchet is worth one. 

There are 6 semiquavers in a dotted crotchet so in 6/8 time a semiquaver has the mathematical value of a sixth.

music notes minim

In 2/2 time, a minim or a half note is equal to one. 

There are eight semiquavers in a minim, so one semiquaver has the value of an 1/8th.

music notes crotchet

And lastly, in 2/4 time, a crotchet (quarter note) is equal to one beat.  Hence in this time signature, a semiquaver would have the value of a 1/4.

I know all this math seems confusing at first because learners don’t fully understand the maths behind the music, which is why people find rhythm so challenging.

Keep reading, though as I’m going to show you how always to ensure that your semiquavers or 1/16th notes are played accurately and evenly.

When it comes to counting rhythm, there is a process that I recommend you go through in your practice, not only so that you understand the rhythm, but also so you can encode the notes in a way that will ensure you get the passage right every time you play it.

How to count semiquavers or sixteenth notes

To begin with, you always want to avoid sub-division and practice counting in the smallest note values.  Take a bar that has semiquavers in it and set your metronome so that it clicks once at 60 beats per minute.  Don’t use any of the fancy metronome settings, you just want to hear 1 click every second.

60 bpm metronome

Step one

Before you play the notes, think about the finger combinations you’ll need to use, and just minim them a couple of times through.  Now play one note per click.  It’s worth finishing on the 1st note of the next bar when you do this so that you can piece the bars together more easily later.  

Repeat the bar at this tempo a few times before being tempted to increase the speed.  At this stage, you can count 1 for each semiquaver because you are playing one note per click with your metronome. So the metronome click, which is set at 60 bpm is, representing one semiquaver or one 1/16th note.

You want to gradually increase the speed until you get to around 140 bpm.  Take your time doing this, as the foundations you lay down in the early stages of your practice are crucial.  Everything you do later is built upon the foundations you put down.  If your fingers aren’t moving with ease and confidence at this stage, there’s no way they will at a faster tempo.

Step Two

Once you can play one note per click at 140 bpm, reset the metronome back to 60.  Now you are going to practice playing two notes per click.  So the value of the metronome click is now a quaver or a 1/8th note.

60 bpm metronome

To subdivide the beat evenly into two, I use the word coffee.  You want to say the word militantly to the metronome click. Make sure that the syllable coff lands with the metronome click and the syllable fee lands halfway between one click and the next.  

You can see which semiquavers land on the click in my example, as I’ve highlighted them in yellow. Subdividing the beat evenly may take you some practice, and I would record yourself vocalising the word coffee with the metronome. That way you can listen to whether you’re placing those syllables correctly.

Top tip

Don’t try playing the notes until you are 100% sure that you can vocalise the word corroded to a metronome click accurately.  There’s a well-known phrase that you’ll often hear professional musicians say- if you can’t say it, you can’t play it.

You going to do the same process bit as we did before,  Starting at 60, play 2 semiquavers per click. If possible, say the word coffee out loud as you do this- you’ll be amazed at how much better your timing will be if you vocalise the rhythm as you practice.  

Gradually increase the speed, ensuring that each repetition is assured before moving to the next.  Keep a log of your metronome speeds in your practice journal, as you go because it’s good to take regular breaks.  

You shouldn’t aim to accomplish everything I’m sharing in this process in one practice session.  That can be hard to accept as adults like to see a result instantly, and this method is more of a slow burner.  However, in the long run, your results will be much better.

Step Three

Once you reach 140 on the metronome playing two notes per click, you will put the metronome back to 60 bpm. Now it’s time to try 4 notes per click, so the metronome click now has the value of a crotchet or quarter note.  

metronome 60 bpm

To subdivide the beat into 4 equal parts, I use the word piccadilly.  Again you want to practice vocalising the word piccadilly making sure to really pronounce the syllables so that every time you say pic it lands with the metronome click. When you can play 4 notes evenly and controlled at 60 bpm, you can gradually increase the speed.

This method is a fantastic way to build tonal control and evenness with your scale patterns and any semiquaver passage work.

Further Semiquaver Rhythms

If you are playing a piece in compound time that has 6 semiquavers per beat, you can use the word tikkapiccardilly.

There are, of course, many other rhythms that include just one or two semiquavers or 16th notes.  To master these, you would again start by counting in the smallest note values and gradually increase the metronome mark.  Here are a few examples.

music stave with metronome 2/4
music stave with metronome 6/8
music stave with metronome 2/4

When it comes to playing semiquavers with control and precision, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I share many other practice methods inside my membership, Learn Music Together.  If you are interested in joining you can get on the waitlist here.

And if you have any other rhythms that you’d like me to cover, let me know in the comments below so that I can plan further posts like this to help you make progress.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below.

Before I go, if you haven’t already grabbed my Free practice tips guide make sure to do so, as you may find it helpful if you are looking to grow and develop your musical skills so you can play with confidence.

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