Understanding Rhythmic Feels

One good thing about playing classical music is there is never any confusion about how to play an eighth note (or quaver). An eighth note is an eighth note is an eighth note, right? Well, yes…and no.

Rhythmic Feel: What is it?

In pop and jazz music, it’s very important to determine the correct interpretation of the eighth and sixteenth note (or semiquaver) before you start playing a song. What do I mean by that?

Have you ever come across any one of the following terms/symbols when you looked at a piece of music: “Play in swing 8ths,” “Bounce feel,” “Rock Shuffle,” or “swung-8th-notes“? It’s usually found on the top left hand side of the song, just before the start of the first line of music. These terms/symbols are actually referring to the feel of the music, i.e. how to interpret the eighth note, because they are definitely not to be played as written or in the conventional way.

The most common eighth and sixteenth note feels in pop and jazz music are the straight, triplet and rolled feels.

Straight Feel

Quite often, we see the quarter note beat being subdivided in twos and fours. When that happens in 4/4 time, we get a row of eight eighth notes and sixteen 16th notes, respectively. The straight 8th and 16th feels are how we term the conventional way we interpret the eighth and sixteenth notes, respectively. Play the notes as written and as traditionally learned.

Str 8th feel-1

Str 16th feel-1

Triplet Feel

The quarter note can also be subdivided into three parts. When that happens in 4/4 time, there will be 12 eighth notes and 24 sixteenth notes, respectively.

Triplet 8th feel-1

Triplet 16th feel-1

Rolled Feel

This feel is known by other names such as swing, bounce, shuffle and uneven eighths. Regardless of how it’s called they all refer to the same thing, i.e. the first eighth note of a pair of eighth notes gets two-thirds of the beat. Another way to look at this is by looking at the previous triplet feel and only playing on the downbeats and all the “a”, leaving out all the “e.”

Rolled 8th feel-1

Often, in printed music, the rolled 8th feel is represented in straight 8ths but with additional indication of how the eighth note is to be played. Generally, this method is employed to make the music easier to read.

Rolled 8th feel 2-1

Rolled 16th feel-1

As with the rolled 8th feel, the rolled 16th  is also commonly represented in straight 16ths in printed music but with additional indication of how the sixteenth note is to be played. Again, this method is favored to make the music much easier to read, which in the case of a row of sixteenths makes a lot of sense!

Rolled 16th feel 2

Drum Rhythms in Various Feels

Now listen to some drum patterns that will correspond to all the above feels.

Straight 8th Pop Rock Feel

Straight 16th Pop Rock Feel

Triplet 8th Ballad Rock Feel

Triplet 16th Hip Hop Feel

Rolled 8th Blues Shuffle Feel

Rolled 16th Hip Hop Feel

[Note: Musically, an entire drum rhythm of triplet 16ths is not very common. However, this particular example here starts with a row of triplet 16th hi-hat patterns before launching into mainly a rolled 16th feel.]

So before approaching any piece of contemporary music, make sure you determine the feel first.  As you can see, all these feels are unique and different from each other. The proper feel sets the groove and mood of a particular song or style of music.


  1. Great tips! I really enjoyed this article ~ It’s a great resource for those studying piano. As a classical pianist, it was a challenge to get the straight vs swing vs triplet feel down when I started taking jazz lessons. You provide a good explanation. 🙂

    • Hi Kat

      I’m happy the article managed to clear some of the uncertainties regarding the different rhythmic feels which are so essential to good contemporary music interpretation. 🙂 Cheers to good rhythms!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.