Something I find myself telling my students over and over again is that before anything else, they’re rhythm players. I teach guitar, bass, piano, and vocal lessons, so this statement tends to baffle many of the students I work with. In my mind, rhythm should mean everything to all musicians, no matter what their instrument is. Without rhythm, most of the music we hear and love would sound disjointed, aimless, and impossible to follow. But for as paramount the skills of reading musical notation and developing a strong sense of rhythm are, many musicians aren’t sure how to read, play, and comprehend even the most basic rhythms. Today I’ll walk you through some rhythm notation basics to help you get confident with your rhythm reading no matter what instrument you play.
Music Notation Vs. Rhythm Notation
Rhythm notation falls under the broader category of music notation. Its purpose is to accurately describe the rhythms we hear in the world around us and in the pieces of music we’re trying to play and understand. This form of notation isn’t any different than music notation unless it’s notating music that’s to be played on a non-pitched instrument like a snare drum for example. Feel free to adapt any of the examples you see in this article to your specific instrument, or you can simply clap, tap, or count the beats you see here out loud.
If you know nothing about music reading, this is actually a great place to start. You can apply the simple rhythm reading basics here to virtually any instrument and style of music. Ready to get started?
If you wanted to know the ins and outs of rhythm notation, you’ll need to get familiar with the world of time signatures. Rhythm reading is all about knowing what situation you’re stepping into, and this requires you to follow precise instructions. Time signatures are instructions that tell us how many and what kind of beats there are assigned per measure of music. Time signatures have a massive bearing on how a piece of music will sound and feel to the listener.
The top number in the time signature will determine how many beats there are to be played per measure, while the bottom number represents each beat’s note value. The example above, 4/4, is the most basic and widely-used time signature in popular music. In 4/4, there are four quarter notes assigned per measure. Though it’s not common, time signatures can change within a piece of music from measure to measure. By the way, a measure in music is simply the short sections or boxes of musical notes we see in music notation. On pitched instruments, rhythm notation will be written on various lines on the staff. Musicians playing non-pitched instruments read notes from a singular line of music because they don’t need to bother with reading different lines for different pitches.
Now, I’m going to introduce some basic concepts you’ll need to know for rhythm reading. Though it’s not necessary, it would be helpful for you to have a pencil and some paper ready so you can write down what you see in this article for practice.
These are notes that sustain over four beats of music. In the case of music written in 4/4, these notes sustain over the period of an entire measure.
Half notes are notes that sustain over the period of two beats. In 4/4, these notes take up half of each measure, but in other time signatures that’s not the case.
Quarter notes take up one beat. Quarter notes can easily be counted as, “1-2-3- 4.”
Eighth notes play on and directly in between the beats. Essentially, eighth notes split quarter notes equally in half. Eighth notes can easily be counted as, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.”
Sixteenth notes split the space of a quarter note into four exact sections. These notes can be counted as, “1-e-and-uh-2-e-and-uh-3-e-and-uh-4-e-and-uh.”
In rhythm notation, a rest is an instruction for the musician to be completely silent for a specific amount of time. All of the notes we described above have symbols that rest for the same duration as their noted counterparts.
Whole Note Rest
These beats rest for the duration of four beats. My music theory teacher in college used to say that a “whole” gentleman takes his hat off (the whole rest is under the line), while a “half” gentleman keeps his hat on (the half note rest is above the line) in the presence of a lady. That’s an incredibly cheesy way of remembering half and whole note rests, but it seems to do the trick.
Half Note Rest
Half note rests rest for two beats.
Quarter Note Rest
Quarter note rests rest for the duration of one beat.
Eighth Note Rest
These notes rest directly on and between beats.
Sixteenth Note Rest
Sixteenth note rests are silences that occur any time between the space of one beat being split up into four equal parts.
Basic Rhythm Notation Symbols
Now that we’ve covered the note and rest side of things we can move on to defining some of the non-note symbols we see within rhythm notation.
These symbols connect one note to another. Ties are used to connect notes from one measure to another and to tie notes together within a measure as well. Ties are lines that are placed above the notes. They shouldn’t be confused with slurs which are lines that are placed under the notes.
Dots Behind Notes (Dotted Notes)
A dot behind a note is an instruction to add half of the note’s value to the note. These symbols can get a little tricky. In the case of a dotted half note, the dotted symbol would call for there to be a quarter note to be added to the half note. Dotted quarter notes call for an eighth note to be added.
Dots Above Notes (Staccato Symbols)
When a dot is placed above a note, it’s an instruction for the musician to play the note in a short, detached matter.
Slurs are lines placed under notes. Thy serve as an instruction to play passages of notes in a long and connected (legato) manner. These symbols sometimes come in the form of straight lines under each note.
A triplet symbol calls for there to be three notes inserted into the space of one beat. Triplets are usually indicated with a bracket placed under a “3.”
These aren’t all of the notes and symbols you’ll find in rhythm notation, but understanding the notes, rests, and symbols I’ve shown you above will be more than enough information to help get you started reading rhythms.
The Most Important Rule For Reading Rhythms
While reading rhythms, your main job should always be to find out where the main beats of a measure are. Knowing where the main beats are in a measure will help you to be able to read and understand even the most complicated measures of music. The beats within measures serve as points of reference that help keep us organized and on track as rhythm readers. When you sit down to work on your rhythm reading, don’t forget this important rule.
Developing a Strong Rhythm Reading Practice
Before you move on to reading difficult passages of music, it’s a good idea to take plenty of time to read as well as write your own rhythms. Creating a strong rhythm reading practice is as simple as clapping out passages of rhythm and writing measures of rhythm that feature the notes, rests, and symbols I introduced above. I recommend writing out your own rhythms because it forces students to consider the function of each note they use and how it relates to the time signature they’ve chosen. There are plenty of good books out there to help you practice your rhythm notation skills that will be helpful to you as well.
Use a Metronome
A metronome is a device that produces audible sounds that can be adjusted by speed, meter (time signature), and sometimes pitch. I recommend using one whenever you attempt to read rhythms. This is because as rhythm readers, it’s our job to rely on our own internal metronomes to deliver a strong sense of timing. But like every other aspect in life, our internal metronomes are not perfect, as you’ll see whenever you work with a real metronome.
Practicing to the slow, steady click of a metronome will help you to become centered, confident, and proficient as a rhythm player. Working with a metronome might be really difficult at first, but don’t give up. You’ll begin to see huge improvements in your reading and playing if you stick with it.
How To Count
There are a few different methods when it comes to counting the beats we see in rhythm notation. Like I said before, in my mind, the most important goal in rhythm reading is to be able to find where each beat is. Keeping that goal in mind, I recommend counting the beats found in measures with a series of numbers and specific words. Use numbers to identify the strong beats in a measure. You should count or at least acknowledge the strongest beats in a measure even if they’re not being played. Use the word “and” to account for the eighth notes in a measure. For example, a measure of only eighth notes in a 4/4 time signature should be counted as 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and. An “e” and “uh” syllable can be used to count sixteenth notes.
Say It and Play It
The act of playing and saying a rhythm is a powerful way to solidify your rhythm reading knowledge. This is because counting out loud forces the music reader to get their thoughts out in the open as far as what a rhythm is and how they should play it. A lot of people might feel silly doing this, but speaking rhythms benefits musicians in many ways. Most importantly, it helps musicians of every skill level and experience to take the time to fully comprehend how each measure of rhythm is constructed and how it should be played. This ensures accuracy as well as understanding. It’s a tool that’s helpful for everyone from young students trying to master understanding the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes down to an accomplished violinist learning a new piece she’s not familiar with. If we can learn to say, play, and think rhythms, we’ll gain a powerful understanding of rhythm notation. Rhythms don’t necessarily need to always be played and counted out loud at the same time, but I think that it’s a good idea for musicians to speak rhythms as a way to develop their reading skills.
Mark It Up
When I studied classical guitar in college, my professor always had a knack for being able to tell whether I’d practiced the week before or not. When I asked him how he knew, he’d tell me that all he had to do was look at the sheet music he’d assigned me to determine whether I’d been working on the material he’d assigned me the week prior. If my sheet music was pristine and unmarked, he knew I hadn’t been practicing. Real musicians consistently mark their sheet music with a pencil to help them be able to read and understand tough passages of rhythm.
For tough measures, I typically start by writing out where each main beat is. Again, half the battle of rhythm reading is knowing where the strong beats are. If we can do that as readers, we’ll be well on our way to being able to understand and play anything we see in rhythm notation.
Jumping into the world of rhythm notation can be really difficult at first, but anyone can learn how to read and understand rhythms with enough focused practice. I recommend taking every opportunity you can to speak and tap out the rhythms you see in sheet music. You might feel like your brain is going to explode (that’s actually quite normal), but frustration is an important part of learning. If you stick with it, you’ll begin to see and understand music in a completely new and more powerful way.