Dr. Ronald Anderson

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Expression in Music:
Note Grouping

by Dr. Ronald Anderson
SFA Director of the SFA School of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


When it comes to musical expression, the notation itself may cause a problem for young music students.  Because of the way groups of notes are organized (i.e., by bar lines or beams), metric accents may "appear" to be the way musical expression should be approached.  For sensitive musicians, however, nothing could be further from the truth.  Sensitive musicians find ways of "reorganizing" the notes into groups that foster the feeling of music motion rather than metric dominance.

Let's see some examples:

Example #1:

This is the way music in 4/4 time is organized metrically.  We quickly learn that beat 1 is the most important (probably because it helps us stay together better in ensembles) and that beats 2, 3 , 4 are weak beats.  Thus, young students often perform these notes in this way:

You can hear beat 1 clearly accented and that beats 2, 3, and 4 sound much softer.  Now let's hear it another way, using a different approach to "note grouping."

The difference you are hearing here is that beat 1 sounds like the end of a group of notes and beat 2 "starts" the next group.  See how the notes are grouped differently below.

Example #2:

Now in slow tempos it may be appropriate to subdivide the groupings further; i.e., beat 2 "moves" to beat 3, beat 4 moves to beat 1 etc.  Here is how that would sound:

And here is how it looks with brackets grouping beats 2 & 3 and beats 4 & 1:

Example #3:

Reducing the notation to eighth notes follows the same procedure.  See the example below.  First, listen to the notes performed according to the beams:

Example #4:

Now if we apply the same note grouping ideas expressed above, the example sounds like this:

And here is how the notes look when bracketed with note grouping principles.  In slow tempos it may be appropriate to subdivide the groupings further as suggested above.

Example #5:

But let's move on.  If we divide the beat further, into four parts, the principles remain the same.  First, look at the example of 16th notes below.

Example #6:

Here's how it would sound if the beams govern the expression:

And here is how it sounds using note grouping:

And again, see the notation with the note grouping brackets for visual help.

Example #7:

If we move from duple to triple meter, the principles still remain the same.  Look at the example in 3/8 time below:

Example #8:

If we accent beat 1 each time and let beats 2 & 3 be weak, it sounds like this:

If we regroup it as above, it sounds and looks like this:

Example #9:

Before moving on to the next lesson, try performing each example both ways so the difference between performances based on the "beams" and performances based on "note grouping" is clear to you.

[You will find further information on the use of note grouping in musical expression in: James Morgan Thurmond's Note Grouping, Camp Hill, Pa.: JMT Publications, 1982.]


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