Rhythm is the shape each measure takes in a real piece of music. We understand that a piece of music in 4/4 time has four beats per measure, but that does not mean that we only play on those beats.
In real music, almost every measure is rhythmically different. In other words, we can combine any number of different types of notes in a measure as long as they all add up to the number of beats in the time signature.
Half Notes and Quarter Notes
To explore a measure’s rhythm we can count out the notes that compose it. Let’s start simple: tap it out and count 1-2-3-4-. That is four quarter notes. It looks like this in notation:
Now, instead of counting every number, count only the 1 and the 3, and this time say 1 and hold the sound all the way up until beat 3 comes up and then say three for as long as it takes to get back to the one. 1---3--- Onnnnne-Threeeee- You can tap out the 4 beats with your hand while saying ONE over the first two beats and THREE over the last two beats. These are half notes. The notation looks like this:
Now, instead of saying the one and three for the full two beats, say them over only one beat leaving silence over beats 2 and 4. So tap and say one, then say nothing while tapping beat two, then tap and say three, and say nothing as you tap beat 4. This rhythm has a "rest" on beats two and four because there is no sound heard over beats 2 and 4. The notation looks like this:
Try counting out these rhythms. Remember, tap out four beats and count the beats with notes out loud:
Eighth notes are half the length of a quarter note. So in 4/4 time, they are half of a beat in length.
They are counted one-AND-two-AND-...
So count 1-2-3-4- like before but this time slip a quick "and" between the numbers. Make sure the "and" is pronounced exactly halfway between the numbers. This is what the notation for that rhythm looks like:
Now let’s mix it up a bit. Try counting each of these rhythms out:
That last one contains notes only on the "AND’S". This is also called playing on the upbeats. It is used extensively in jazz, ska, and reggae rhythms.
As you may already begin to see, there is an incredible variety of rhythms that a single measure can contain. And we haven’t even talked about sixteenth notes or triplets yet!
Triplets are notes divided into three parts. Triplets are named by the note smaller than the note they divide. So the quarter note divided into 3 parts is called an eighth-note triplet. A whole note divided into 3 parts is called a half-note triplet, etc.
This is what the triplet notation looks like:
Three quarter-note triplets is equal in length of time as a half note. Three eighth-note triplets are equal to one quarter note:
There are other triplets, like sixteenth note triplets for example, but let’s just focus on eighth-note triplets for now.
So take a simple 4/4 beat: 1-2-3-4- and add the words "is uh" between each number and make sure you pronounce each number and word equally apart from each other:
1 is a 2 is a 3 is a 4 is a.
That looks like this in notation:
Try counting out these new mixed rhythms with triplets:
You may recognize that last rhythm as the theme from the music to Star Wars.
A lot of popular music, especially country music, uses a swing beat rhythm in many of the song parts. A swing beat is basically eighth-note triplets with the middle note removed so the beat is held over the "is" of "1 is a 2 is a".
It is counted: 1-a 2-a 3-a 4-a
It looks like this in notation:
Although swing rhythms are often written in normal eighth notes like these:
but with the words "swing" or "triplet feel" written at the beginning of the piece of music. The intended result is to play all the eighth notes in the piece like this:
Try these rhythms with swing notes:
Sixteenth notes are quarter notes divided into 4 parts.
If you were counting 1-2-3-4- before, this time try to add the words "uh tock uh" between each number:
1-uh-tock-uh 2 uh tock uh 3 uh tock uh 4 uh tock uh.
Depending how quickly your original 1-2-3-4- was being counted, it might be hard to pronounce sixteenth notes in between. Slow down your tempo a bit and try again.
Here is the notation for sixteenth notes:
Now try to count out these mixed rhythms:
That last one is a little tricky, but I think it demonstrates well the difference between a sixteenth note "swing beat" and a true triplet swing beat noted earlier.
So far we’ve been counting in a 4/4 time signature. What if there are 2 beats between each measure instead of four? Then we are in 2/4 time. It is 2 beats to every measure and every beat is equal to one quarter note. It is counted like this: 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2.
All that "one-twoing" sounds like walking which is why 2/4 time is also known as "March Time." The rhythms are counted the same as with 4/4 time so if you had a 2/4 measure of eighth notes:
It would be counted like this: 1-and-2-and-1-and-2-and.
Triplet-eighth notes like this 1-is-uh-2-is-uh:
Try counting these march time rhythms:
¾ time is also called "Waltz Time." It is 3 beats to every measure and every beat is equal to one quarter note. It is counted like this: 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-
Eighth notes: 1-and-2-and-3-and-
Whole notes are not found in ¾ time because a note cannot cross into another measure. Waltz time has 3 quarter notes per measure and a whole note is equal to four quarter notes.
Instead of a whole note to indicate that a note should be played for an entire measure in ¾ time, we need a dotted half note. A half note is equal to 2 quarter notes, but ¾ time is three quarter notes. So we place a dot after the half note. This means to play the half note plus half of its own value. So a half note plus a quarter note (a.k.a. 3 quarter notes).
Try these waltz time rhythms:
6/8 is 6 beats to every measure and every beat is an eighth note. This is one of those few time signatures that is not measured in quarter notes. But it can be counted the same.
So we count 6/8 like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6.
Place a little more "umph" on the 1 and the 4:
ONE two three FOUR five six.
That’s 6/8. It kind of sounds like 2/4 time if 2/4 time was composed of 6 eighth-note triplets. Here’s what 6/8 looks like with notes:
Splitting the eighth note beats into two notes yields sixteenth notes,
but they can be counted with "and’s" like in the other time signatures.
In this case:
1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-. Here’s what the notation looks like:
As with ¾ time, you won’t find whole notes in 6/8 music. For the same reason as ¾ time: the whole note is the length of 4 quarter notes and 6/8 time is a total of 3 quarter notes (6 eighth notes). So instead, the dotted half note is again used to indicate that a note should be played for an entire measure.
Try these 6/8 rhythms:
There are obviously many more variations on the 6/8 rhythms, as well as the rhythms of the other time signatures. But I am sure by now, you will be able to count any new rhythm thrown at you.
Music, of course, is not composed of just one measure. There many measures and each probably contains a different rhythm. Sometimes a rhythm may carry into the next measure. In this case we have a special symbol, called a tie which tells us to hold a note longer than the number of beats in the measure.
In this example, the last quarter note of the measure is carried into the next measure and held for a whole note longer. The result is that the total note duration is 5 beats.
Here are some more rhythms with ties to count out:
In that last example, there is only one note sounded and it gets 6 full beats.
Sometimes a tie is used within a measure to carry a note across a beat:
In this case the half note above is not sounded, but rather is a continuation of the eighth note preceding it. The result is a hurried sort of sound. This style of rhythm is called syncopation and it is used extensively in jazz, country, and rock music.
Here are some syncopated rhythms for practice:
The trick to reading sheet music is quickly recognizing rhythms that occur frequently so that you don’t have to think about how they sound each time you see them. The only way to achieve this level of recognition is to practice counting out the rhythms over and over until they become second nature when you see them. Before you go on to learning about pitches in sheet music make sure you have a good grasp on the common rhythms already noted above.