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The Basics of Rhythm (Part 1)

Feel The Beat

Every piece of music has a steady pulsation that exists throughout the entirety of it, even during those moments when there are no sounds occuring! The duration of every sound and silence within the piece is referenced against this underlying pulse.

We might think of it as akin to our "heartbeat". It keeps pulsing at a steady pace, even if we might not be able to hear it. In fact, within music, we call this pulsation the "Beat".

Oftentimes, whenever we listen to music, we instinctively tap our foot, nod our head, or clap our hands to this Beat. This is natural for most people, and it is good to get a "feel" for a Beat in this manner. If you can't feel it yet, don't worry! It becomes easier as we learn what to look out for...

"Tempo" is the speed of the pulsations that make up the Beat. It is measured in Beats Per Minute (or "BPM" for short).

In other words:

• A faster Tempo = more Beats Per Minute
• A slower Tempo = fewer Beats Per Minute

Sometimes the choice of Tempo is up to the person playing the piece of music and the composer will simply make a suggestion of the feeling that they intend to evoke (rather than give an explicit number of BPMs to follow). This will be written out on the top of a piece of sheet music as a word in Italian. To give a few examples, listed from fastest-to-slowest:

Tempo Approximate BPM Range
Presto ("Fast")
~168-200 BPM
Allegro ("Quick and Lively")
~120-156 BPM
Allegretto ("Fairly Quick and Lively")
~112-120 BPM
Moderato ("Moderately")
~108-120 BPM
Andante ("Walking Pace")
~76-108 BPM
Adagio ("Slow and Leisurely")
~66–76 BPM
Largo ("Broadly")
~40–60 BPM

There are others, but these are some of the most common ones.

Bring Out The Sheet Music!

It is sometimes easier to speak about more specific aspects of music in relation to notation because it gives us an easy way to visualize what we are hearing.

We represent sound and silence with Notes and Rests, respectively. The shape of a Note or Rest determines its duration relative to other Notes and Rests. Here are what the different Notes look like and what they are called:

Notice the difference in their shapes:

• A Half Note is faster than a Whole Note
• A Quarter Note is faster than a Half Note
• An Eighth Note is faster than a Quarter Note


Also notice that different combinations of Notes are equivalent. For example:

• Two Half Notes are equivalent to a Whole Note in length + =

• Two Quarter Notes are equivalent to a Half Note in length + =

• Four Quarter Notes are equivalent to a Whole Note in length + + + =

• Two Eighth Notes are equivalent to a Quarter Note in length + =

• Four Eighth Notes are equivalent to a Half Note in length + + + =


[The shorter Notes are nested inside of the longer ones. They are very similar to fractions. For example, a Quarter Note can be thought of as one-fourth of a Whole Note. This is why the Notes are named in the way that they are. The repeated dividing in half also means that shorter Notes are twice as fast as the longer ones from which they are derived. In other words, a Half Note is twice as fast as a Whole Note, a Quarter Note is twice as fast as a Half Note, and so on.]

Rests follow the exact same kind of pattern, but represent silence instead of sound:

We only know the length of one Note or Rest in comparison to another.

Compare an Eighth Note to a Sixteenth Note or an Eighth Rest to a Sixteenth Rest. To get anything shorter than a Sixteenth Note or Rest, we can just add another little "flag" or "blob" to it. Therefore, a Thirty-Second Note or Rest would have three little "flags" or "blobs" on it, a Sixty-Fourth Note or Rest would have four little "flags" or "blobs" on it, and so on. While Notes and Rests can become shorter, they usually do not become this short within most pieces of music!

We have already seen that the vertical position of a Note on the Staff determines its Pitch. The horizontal position of a Note or Rest determines its sequence:

In other words, we read sheet music from left-to-right, holding and releasing the Notes and Rests in the order that they appear. And again, it is the shape of the Notes and Rests that tells us how long to hold or release them.

The Staff can be divided up into sections called "Measures" or "Bars" with vertical "Barlines":

At the beginning of the Staff is a stack of two numbers called a "Time Signature". For example:

Here, the Time Signature is a 4 stacked on top of another 4. We would read this as "four-four time". [In text, we might also sometimes write it out horizontally, like this: 4/4, with the top number to the left of the slash and the bottom number to the right of the slash.]

The top number tells us how many Beats are within each Measure. Therefore, in this example, there are four Beats within every Measure. [We've marked out the counting here in turquoise.]:

The bottom number tells us the Note or Rest value of each Beat. Therefore, in this example, each Beat is equivalent to a Quarter Note or Rest in length.

If the bottom number was a 2, then each Beat would be equivalent to a Half Note or Rest in length. If the bottom number was an 8, then each Beat would be equivalent to an Eighth Note or Rest in length. If the bottom number was a 16, then each Beat would be equivalent to a Sixteenth Note or Rest in length...and so on.

In summary, the Time Signature is showing us how to relate the length of every Note and Rest within a piece of music to its underlying Beat.

Let's combine this information with the Tempo...

If there is no Italian word at the top of the sheet music which gives us the Tempo, then there will most likely be a symbol that looks something like this:

= 96

This is called a "Metronome Mark".

The Note to the left of the equals sign (=) is the same as the bottom number within the Time Signature. Again, it tells us the Note or Rest value of each Beat. In this case, it is a Quarter Note or Rest in length.

The number to the right of the equals sign is the Tempo given as a specific number of Beats Per Minute. In this case, the Tempo would be 96 BPM. [To put it another way, the equivalent of 96 Quarter Notes and/or Rests are occuring every minute within a piece of music with this Metronome Mark.]

A "Metronome" is a device which makes a regular clicking sound to represent the Beat. It is similar to the ticking of an analog clock, but we can set the BPM of the clicks to whatever we want. [An analog clock is forever stuck at 60 BPM because there are 60 seconds in a minute.]

We can practice "feeling" a Beat by setting a Metronome to the Tempo of a piece of music, and then counting along with the clicks in whatever grouping is specified by the top number of the Time Signature. To continue our above example, we would set the Metronome to 96 BPM and then repeatedly count up to four, aligning each number of our counting with each click.

Whenever we use a Metronome to practice feeling a Beat in this manner, we should always count along with it. Do not simply leave it on and try to sing or play your instrument over the clicks. [This is important because the brain has a tendency to naturally reduce the clicking sounds into a pattern of two the longer that we listen to it. In other words, if we do not count along with it, we might start to hear the clicks as just "tick-tock", even when it is not appropriate.] Likewise, some Metronomes give visual feedback, such as flashing lights. Try not to rely too heavily on visual cues, but learn to listen for and feel the Beat. We want it to become instinctual.

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Beat. The Beat is what keeps everything in order. We cannot speed up and slow down on a whim if we are trying to sing or play something as it is written. This is especially true when there is more than one person singing or playing together. All of them synchronize, or mesh together properly in time, by following a Beat.

Rhythm Counting Systems

For now, let's completely ignore Pitch and pay attention only to the patterns of Notes and Rests in time, the "Rhythm". To do this, we will remove the Clef and most of the lines from the Staff:
Notice that we still have Measures separated by Barlines and a Time Signature. Again, since the Time Signature is 4/4, we have four Beats within each Measure and every Beat is equivalent to a Quarter Note or Rest in length:
We have placed a Quarter Note on each Beat within the above diagram. We know that two Quarter Notes are the same as a Half Note, and that four Quarter Notes are the same as a Whole Note. Let's change the second and third Measures of the above image to reflect this:
If each Quarter Note is equivalent to one Beat, then a Half Note spans two Beats and a Whole Note spans four Beats. The longer the Note or Rest, the greater the number of Beats that it encompasses because they are longer than the Beat itself (in this case, a Quarter Note or Rest).

We can go in the other direction too. Splitting up these Quarter Notes into Eighth Notes is a "Division", and splitting up those Eighth Notes again into Sixteenth Notes is a "Subdivision". There are now Notes and Rests that are shorter than a Beat! However, this also means that we now have Notes and Rests that occur between Beats, instead of directly on top of them. In order to count these out, we usually associate each of these Divisions and Subdivisions with a particular syllable. This is called a "Rhythm Counting System".

There are many different Rhythm Counting Systems, each with their own syllables and rules for applying them, but here we will use a fairly common one called "The Eastman Counting System". Before we demonstrate it, there is something that we have to mention about how certain Notes are written within sheet music...

Whenever multiple Eighth Notes are right next to each other, the little "flags" merge into a "Beam". The same is true for Sixteenth Notes, Thirty-Second Notes, etc. The more "flags", the more Beams:

This does NOT change their duration in any way. It simply makes it easier to read the Rhythm because the Beams do not usually cross Beats or Barlines.

Ok, let's look at two Measures, one where we've broken up every Quarter Note into two Eighth Notes (a "Division"), and one where we've broken up each of those Eighth Notes into two Sixteenth Notes (a "Subdivision"):
Above each Measure, we've shown both the count of the Beats and the syllables associated with the Notes that fall in-between those Beats. To practice, we would say the number on every click of the Metronome, while also trying to say the syllables between those clicks. To elaborate...

Within the first Measure, every other Eighth Note is marked with the syllable "te" (pronounced "tay"). Within the second Measure, every grouping of Sixteenth Notes has three Notes that are labeled "ti", "te", and "ta". (These are pronounced "tee", "tay", and "taw", respectively.) All of the Notes marked with a syllable are the ones that appear between the Beats. Notice how the syllables for the Eighth Notes and Sixteenth Notes relate to each other (as shown by the Notes marked in orange).

Again, the purpose of this Rhythm Counting System is to make sure that we do not arbitrarily speed up or slow down when attemptting to get all of the Notes that fall in-between Beats to fit. Assigning a specific syllable to each one helps us to keep their durations distinct and relate them properly to the Beat. This will help us to sing or play it consistently.

We've just seen how to Divide and Subdivide the Beat into 2 and 4. How do we Subdivide a Beat into other numbers (like 3, 5, 6, or 7)? We use "Tuplets"! Tuplets are named after how many Notes they break the Beat up into...

• If they break it up into three Notes, then it is called a "Triplet". [The prefix "tri-" means 3.]

• If they break it up into five Notes, then it is called a "Quintuplet". [The prefix "quin-" means 5.]

• If they break it up into six Notes, then it is called a "Sextuplet". [The prefix "sex-" means 6.]

• If they break it up into seven Notes, then it is called a "Septuplet". [The prefix "sept-" means 7.]

This might seem complicated, but it is much more simple than it appears at first glance. For example, let's see how to split the Quarter Notes of 4/4 time into "Triplets":
The first Measure contains four regular Quarter Notes, and the second Measure contains four "Triplets". Each group of three Eighth Notes with a number "3" above them is a Triplet. Again, the syllables above the Notes show how to say them when we count with the Beat.

So far, so good. Here is the tricky part: Even though these Triplets are written with Eighth Notes, they are NOT actually equivalent to Eighth Notes in length. We write it this way because we are literally cramming three Notes into the same amount of time that it would normally take to play two Eighth Notes.

[To look at this situation another way: A Division into Eighth Notes split the Beat into 2, while a Subdivision into Sixteenth Notes split the Beat into 4. Therefore, the only way to Divide the Beat into 3 in this context is to use a Triplet!]

To recap: Set a Metronome to a slower Tempo and practice counting out and saying the associated syllables of these four patterns until they become comfortable...
These serve as a foundation for relating the pattern of Notes and Rests (i.e.: the "Rhythm") to the underlying Beat of a musical piece. In the next part, we will learn more about what a Time Signature can tell us and how to apply it.

Thank you for reading! ♥