Rhythm is one of the most important elements of the musical language, arguably even more so than melody and harmony. Try this: without singing, clap the rhythm of “Happy Birthday.” I bet you could ask someone what you are clapping and they would be able to guess “Happy Birthday.” Now try singing “Happy Birthday” without rhythm. I don’t mean with the wrong rhythm; I mean completely without any duration or strong and weak beats. You can’t do it. That is why rhythm is so essential to the musical language.
In a previous article, we taught you how to read music notes. If you haven’t checked it out, it will be helpful for you to read it. Now, we will dive into teaching how to read rhythm. Some of this may be a review for you, if you have checked out our list of basic musical symbols resource.
Music Note Values
In sheet music notation, the note value or relative duration of a note is indicated by three basic components: the color of the note head, the presence or absence of a stem, and the presence or absence of flags or beams. Each type of note value also has a companion symbol, called a rest, that tells the player not to play for the same duration as the note value.
The whole note is represented by a hollow note head (white center, black frame) and no stem or flags. The whole note is equal to four beats in 4/4 time (see time signature below). Most other note values are fractions of the whole note. The whole rest, notated to the right of the image above, is symbolized by a black rectangle that hangs below the fourth line of the staff (lines and spaces are counted from the bottom to the top). It indicates silence for four beats, the same duration as a whole note.
The half note is named as such because it is equal in length to half a whole note. It is represented by a hollow note head with a stem (the line that extends from the note head). In 4/4 time, the half note is equal to two beats. The half rest is represented by a black rectangle that sits on top of the third line of the staff. It indicates silence for two beats, the same duration as the half note.
The quarter note is one-quarter the value of a whole note or one-half the value of a half note. It is represented by a black note head with a stem. In 4/4 time, it is equal to one beat. In the image above, the symbol for the quarter rest is pictured to the right of the quarter note. It indicates silence for one beat, the same duration as the quarter note.
The eighth note is – you guessed it – one-eighth the value of a whole note or one-half the value of a quarter note. It is represented by a black note head with a stem and a flag (the tail-like figure that extends from the stem). In 4/4 time, it is equal to half of one beat. The symbol for the eighth rest is pictured to the right of the eighth note and is equal to half a beat of silence.
The sixteenth note is one-sixteenth the value of a whole note, one-quarter the value of a quarter note and one-half the value of an eighth note. It is represented by a black note head with a stem and two flags extending from the stem. The sixteenth rest, pictured to the right of the sixteenth note, looks very similar to the eighth rest. However, it has two hooks instead of one. For every additional flag or hook, you halve the value of the note or rest. For example, three flags indicates a 32nd note and four flags indicates a 64th note.
A beam is a horizontal or diagonal line used to connect multiple consecutive notes, indicating a rhythmic grouping. The number of beams is the same as the number of flags on a note. In the image shown above, there are two eighth notes grouped together, which is equal in value to one quarter note. It is common to see as many as four eighth notes grouped together.
Because sixteenth notes have two flags when written individually, they have two beams when grouped together. It is common to see sixteenth notes grouped in pairs, which is equal in value to one eighth note, or grouped in sets of four as seen above, which is equal in value to one quarter note. The eighth note and sixteenth note groupings in the example above are both equal in length to one quarter note.
When you see a dot after any note value, it means you need to add one-half the value of that note’s duration. Take a look at the half note followed by a dot in the image above. This is called a dotted half note. A half note is worth two beats. The dot indicates you add half the value of the note. Half the value of a half note is one beat. Therefore, the length of a dotted half note is three beats: 2+1=3.
Use the same logic to figure out the length of a dotted quarter note, pictured to the right of the dotted half note. A quarter note is worth one beat. The dot indicates you add half the value of the note, which is half a beat, equivalent to an eighth note. So the length of a dotted quarter note is one and a half beats: 1+.5=1.5. You can have a dot after any note value; however, beginners will see the dotted half note and dotted quarter note in sheet music notation most frequently.
As you can see from the image above, the location of the stem to note head changes. Generally in music notation, notes have a stem to the right of the note head and extend up if they are written below the third line of the staff. If notes are written above the third line of the staff, the stem will generally be to the left of the note head and extend down. Notes written on the third line of the staff can have stems in either direction.
Time signatures define the music’s meter, which is the rhythmic structure and the pattern of strong and weak beats in the music. Sheet music is made up of sections, called measures or bars (discussed in further detail below), which consist of the same number of beats in each, as indicated by the time signature. The top number of the time signature indicates how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number indicates the note value that gets a beat. The time signature appears at the beginning of a piece of music.
In Example 1 above, there are 4 beats in a measure (indicated by the top number) and the quarter note gets the beat (indicated by the bottom number). This time signature is used very frequently and is sometimes referred to as Common Time. It can also be denoted by a ‘C’, as in Example 2. This will often be one of the first time signatures learned by beginners.
The music’s meter is often described as simple or compound, which is defined by how the beats are subdivided. Simple meter is a meter in which each of the beats of the measure can easily be divided into two equal parts. A time signature in simple meter will always have a 2, 3 or 4 as the top number.
In Example 3, the time signature indicates that there are 2 beats in a measure and that the quarter note gets the beat. As you learned earlier, and as you can see in the example above, the second beat of the measure is divided into two eighth notes, which is equivalent to one quarter note.
In Example 4, the time signature on the right, 2/2, indicates that there are 2 beats in the measure and the half note gets the beat. This is also commonly written as shown to the left, and is referred to as Cut Time.
Example 5 is an example of simple meter because the half note is easily divided into two quarter notes.
In compound meter, the beat divides naturally into three equal parts. Take a look at the time signature in Example 6. From what we learned earlier, this time signature indicates that there are six beats in a measure and the eighth note gets a beat. However, unless the tempo of the music is very slow, it is common to group these notes into larger beats. As you can see from the example, there are two groups of three notes, with the first and fourth eighth notes getting the pulse. Examples of compound meter time signatures include 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc.
Simple meter does not have to be limited to beats easily divided by two. It is possible to write and play three notes in a beat in simple meter. This is called a triplet. A triplet is a rhythm in which three notes are played in the space of two. The most common example is the eighth note triplet, pictured above. An eighth note triplet rhythm is three evenly-spaced notes played in the space of one beat (or two eighth notes). It is written with a single beam and the number three above or below the beam. You will only see this notation in simple meter. In compound meter the beat naturally divides into three equal parts, so it is not necessary to write the ‘3’ above the grouping.
A quarter note triplet, commonly called a super triplet, is three evenly spaced notes over the space of two quarter notes, or two beats.
A duplet is a rhythm found in compound meter in which two evenly-spaced notes are played in the space of three. The duplet pictured above is equal in length to one beat in compound meter, or three eighth notes. It is written with a single beam and the number 2 above or below the beam. You would not see this notation in simple meter because the beats naturally divide into two equal parts.
We’ve been doing a lot of talk about beats per measure. So what does that actually mean? Music notation is made up of a sequence of measures, also called bars. Dividing music into measures is helpful because they provide reference points throughout the piece and, by grouping the musical symbols into manageable segments, it makes the sheet music much easier to follow. Typically, a piece of music consists of several bars of the same length, which is indicated by the time signature at the beginning of the piece.
Bars are separate by bar lines, a thin vertical line that extends from the bottom line to the top line of the staff.
There are several different types of bar lines, which give various musical cues.
In some music, often longer more elaborate pieces, you may see a double bar line as shown above. This type of bar line separates two different sections of the music. It may precede a key change (see Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Notes) or a time signature change. For example, music preceding the double bar line may be in 4/4 and after the double bar line it may be in 2/2.
A double bar line in which the right line is bold represents the end of a piece of music. It is referred to as the “final” double bar line.
A final double bar line with two dots tells the musician to repeat the music from the beginning, or to repeat the section of music in between two repeat signs.
Tips for Counting Rhythms
When you practice counting rhythm, it is very important to keep a steady beat. The best way to do this is to use a metronome. A metronome is a device that produces regular beats, settable in beats per minute. Purchase a metronome or download one of the many apps that are available for smart phones or tablets.
In traditional rhythm counting, each beat of the measure will be counted with a number. Any subdivisions of the beat will be counted with a word or sound. For example, quarter notes in Common Time will be counted “1, 2, 3, 4”. Eighth note subdivisions will be counted “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. Sixteenth note subdivisions will be counted “1 ee and uh 2 ee and uh, etc.”. Look at the examples below for more details.
Practice clapping and counting aloud the rhythm in Example 7 above. When reading music, the first two things you should do is look at the key signature and time signature. This example is in 4/4 or Common Time. Note that the whole note gets four full beats, so you will clap your hands on beat 1 and not again until the first half note of the second measure. In the second measure, you will clap your hands on beats 1 and 3. In the third measure, clap on each beat.
In Example 8, there are only 2 beats per measure. The first note of each beamed grouping is on beats 1 and 2. For the eighth note subdivisions of each beat you say the word “and”. For the sixteenth note subdivisions you say “e&a” pronounced “ee and uh”. Notice how the “and” in the sixteenth note subdivisions falls on what would be the second eighth note of the measure. The “ee” and “uh” sounds are the subdivisions of the eighth notes. Practice counting this measure with your metronome set at 60 beats per minute. Don’t have a metronome yet? That’s ok! You can use a second hand on a watch or clock to keep time. Remember the quarter note gets the beat, so in the first measure you will clap two notes per beat and in the fourth measure you will clap four notes per beat. The first note of each beamed grouping should line up with the click of the metronome. Try to give a slightly accented clap on beats 1 and 2 since they get the pulse.
Example 9 shows how to count in compound meter. Remember in compound meter, the beat has three subdivisions. That’s why the dotted quarter note is getting the beat in the first measure, instead of a quarter note. When you clap the rhythm above, clap on beats 1 and 2 in the first measure. In the second measure, the beat is subdivided so that you will clap three notes per beat. Give the first note of each grouping an accented clap to show that they are on the beat.
For some students, it may be easier to conceptualize rhythms by putting them to the syllables of actual words. Types of food are popular for these exercises. For example, you can use the word “ap-ple” for eighth notes and “wa-ter-mel-on” for sixteenth notes. Using this method, Example 8 above would be counted “ap-ple ap-ple wa-ter-mel-on wa-ter-mel-on”. Do you have tips and tricks for counting rhythm? Let us know in the comments!
Check out our other articles in the “Learn How to Read Sheet Music” Series: