The dotted rhythm and the chameleon

What do a chameleon and a dotted rhythm have in common? That’s easy, both are masters of camouflage and know how to adapt their appearance to the surrounding environment. For this reason, however, they can also easily mislead the observers and lead them to a wrong decision. For a predator in the wild, this means the loss of his lunch whereas for a musician it means a total misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a passage or even a whole piece.

Regrettably, I cannot be of any help to predators in the wild, yet I will try to be helpful to the musicians who want to read this blog until the end. Its aim will be putting our defenses up against gross errors of solfège which unfortunately still underpin too many performances of famous ‘dotted’ passages of our repertoire. I will present some significant examples and I will also suggest to you how to practice them in order to achieve a correct and striking performance of this rhythm.

This is the first of two blogs I have dedicated to this subject (the second will be published on May 1st and will have as the topic my new transcription of Schubert’s song ‘Lob der Tränen’). This blog's purpose will be not so much to establish once and for all how to perform a Dotted Rhythm (abbreviated here as DR), but on the contrary, how to perform it according to the nature which it will assume from time to time, given that its different natures are manifold and impossible to capture in a musical notation alone. In this blog, we will deal with the most common form of DR, in which, according to today's performance practice, the dot after a note prolongs it for half its value (we can think of this as the chameleon in its natural color).

Since the birth of musical rhetoric (Seconda Practica), this type of DR has been used to express a direct and determined emotion and was performed consequently with a resolute gesture. A short breath is placed between the dotted note and (roughly till the Classical period) the following short note(s) are played faster than noted, according to the character and title of the piece. An exception to this occurs when the notes are tied through a bow (like in the following example). During the Baroque and the Classical periods, the DR also represented the concept of inevitability/merciless. Therefore, it has been used very often in musical forms related to the concept of death, such as a Tombeau or Funeral March.

Let's now observe the DR at the beginning of this famous Funeral March, perhaps the most beautiful ever composed.

L.van Beethoven, Symphony n.3, Eroica, II mvt, Marcia Funebre:

Now imagine the first violins performing this passage in the following way:

Don't you think that the conductor (imagine Maestro Arturo Toscanini) would instantly chase them out, without even giving them time to put their instrument in the case? You can listen to any recording of this Funeral March, you will never find one with ternary subdivision. Never.

Yet this is the most frequent error in which even famous interpreters often fall when it comes to performing a DR of this kind. So, let's say one essential thing: this type of rhythm does not coincide with a trochee:

Yet, as mentioned, all too often we come across performances in which this fact is totally ignored. The result is that a passage, which should emanate resolution and majesty, is converted into a passage in a festive and lulling trochaic Tarantella rhythm. The result is that its peculiar character is completely upset.

A famous victim of this attitude is undoubtedly the following passage.

Mauro Giuliani, Rossiniana n.1 op119:

Here are some tips to study this passage in order to obtain a correct execution of the DR (these tips are obviously valid for any passage of this kind):

  • a) Use the fingering p-i in the bass line (p on the eighth with the dot and i on the sixteenth).The rapid repetition of p could be an insurmountable technical obstacle for a precise and rapid performance of the sixteenth-dotted eighth sequence, especially in a relatively quick tempo, as in the case of the example in question.

  • b) Try to change position only between the dotted eighths and sixteenths. Only when there is a bow between them you should not.

  • c) Even by changing position, keep both thirds on the same strings if possible. This will greatly simplify the work of the right hand especially, which will not have to jump from one string to another. This point relates also with point e).

  • d) Try never to change the position between the long suspensions (minims) and their resolution. Due to their nature these two elements must always be tied and the resolution played much softer than the suspension (unless the composer explicitly requests the contrary for both things).

  • e) Take advantage of the 'enlarged' position of the left hand (fingers cover 5-6 frets longitudinally). This is a very useful technique borrowed from bowed instruments.

In any case, the rhythmic inaccuracy of some performances of this passage lies, in my opinion, also in a tempo which is too rapid which many guitarists use. In fact, despite the fact that in Rossini's "L'italiana in Algeri" the tempo of this part is very fast, Giuliani, probably aware of the difficulty of such performance on the guitar, explicitly recommends a Maestoso tempo, meaning not too slow but also not too fast.

Rossini’s original (from 04:40)

The theme of Fantasia op.30 by Fernando Sor is also often played as if it was written in 6/8:


Due to of printing layout of the facsimile, the note B (in upbeat) is missing (see the next example in 6/8).

Incorrect, but frequent performance (only melody):

In this case, I suggest studying the passage by filling in the bass line in the empty space between the dotted eighths and the sixteenths. We start filling it with sixteenths, in order to get a precise perception of the subdivision of 4 notes per beat:

The second step will be playing the bass in eights (e.g.2-notes per unit of time):

It is always very useful to practice such exercises with the metronome, placing it first at 200/sixteenth and then 100/eighth. When you feel comfortable in controlling the subdivision, you can finally run the theme at its own pace, correctly.

Here are some other passages, closer to our time, which are also victims of the ‘Tarantella Syndrome’.

M.M. Ponce, Sonate Romantique, 1st mvt:


Jose: Sonata, III mvt (Pavane Triste):

Honorable mention: Rodrigo: Sonata Giocosa, II mvt, J.S.Bach: Adagio from Sonata BWV 1005, J.K.Mertz: Elegie, Introduction.

An incorrect execution of the DR in such cases cannot really be considered as personal interpretation. I simply call it a severe error. Personal vision has nothing to do with eccentricity and contempt for the basic rules of music. One may discuss, for instance, if the speed of the short note at the end of a phrase might sound more convincing if played slightly less quickly. Yet, this departure from the standard execution has meaning only if used in a solid rhythmic context and performed with a reasonable dose of 'heresy' (many times, for sake of playability, the 16th of a DR is transformed into a no less than an 8th!).

By the way, in all guitarist’s defense, it must be said that the performance of such rhythm requires, especially in a fast tempo, quite complex coordinated movement from both hands.

The next example, from the aforementioned 4th movement of Ponce's Sonate Romantique, gives us the opportunity to deal with a topic that is crucial for the correct performance of the DR when a chord of 4 notes comes after the sixteenth note:

Since we normally use 4 fingers in the right hand (although some guitarists also use the little finger) it is inevitable that in circumstances like this one finger will have to pluck the string twice in rapid succession. So, the question is: which finger can pluck the single note more efficiently? If we pluck the {2} string with m we see that, after flying over it, the same finger 'lands' in a natural way on the {3} string below, where it will be ready to aptly pluck the B.

The situation becomes slightly more troublesome when a 5 or 6 notes chord follows the short note, as in the following 2 famous examples.

F. Sor, Variations op.9, Introduction:

In this case, without prejudice to what was said in the previous example, it is necessary to specify that the red squared chord can be performed arpeggiated with the p, however taking care to start the arpeggio a little early so as to give way to the F# of the upper voice to resonate exactly on the beat. Another technique that can be used is that of the 'double ring finger'. This can be considered as the 'double thumb' technique on bass strings (which is the most common) but applied to the trebles: in this case {1} and {2} string are plucked with the ring finger, from the bottom upwards. It is a technique that allows us to obtain a very compact and balanced chord.

In the next example, the same considerations apply to the use of the thumb for the arpeggio. For the 'double finger' technique, you can use the 'double ring' and 'double thumb' simultaneously.

F. Sor, Variations op.9, Introduction:

To conclude, a very useful and empirical suggestion, which is the result of my 40 years of experience as a teacher and concert performer: study a DR as if there were 2 dots. Most of the time, due to the speed of the short note being too high, this execution would indeed be factually impossible, but nonetheless it will force you to reach a very high coefficient of rapidity in the execution, leading you actually to achieve a correct performance.

Well, I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!



P.S. My most sincere thanks to Mike Ibsen for the correction of the English text!

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