How to Read Music: What are Dots and Ties?

The above video appears in Soundfly’s free course, How to Read Music, which is a starter companion to our mentor-driven Mainstage course, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, offering more in-depth instruction and resources around reading and writing music. To learn about all of our other Mainstage course offerings, head over to Soundfly.com.

Dots and ties are two of the most common ways to subdivide a beat into unusual rhythms. Adding a dot to the right of a note makes it 1.5x the original value — check out some common examples in our chart below. This becomes super handy when you’re playing around with off-rhythms and syncopation (playing off the beat). Ever wanted to write an Afro-Cuban beat? Well, you’ll definitely need dotted rhythms for that!

Ties allow you to do something similar while still marking the beat so it’s easier to read. One obvious example is when you want a note value to last between measures. Using a tie allows you to still mark the first beat of the next measure even though you don’t play it. This may seem a little redundant, but believe me, it’s critically important for instrumentalists to be able to quickly and easily tell where they are in a measure — and a dotted note just doesn’t cut it sometimes.

Word to the wise: Don’t confuse your tie with a slur, a similar-looking ribbon that means to move fluidly between notes rather than holding them! They look the same, but one is a ribbon connecting the same note and one is connecting different notes.

For now, here’s a handy recap of the values of some common types of dotted notes and how to tell the difference how to tell the difference between dots and ties or slurs. 

Brushing up on your reading and writing abilities doesn’t have to be intimidating! Explore Soundfly’s many composition-related courses, such as How to Read MusicIntroduction to the Composer’s Craft, Orchestration for Strings, and Theory for Producers to start demystifying music theory on your own time and at your own pace.

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