Reading Music Part 1: Rhythm

So, you want to read music! Maybe you sing: You’re in the choir at your place of worship, or you landed a part in the local community theatre musical, and you’d like to practice at home. Perhaps you play an instrument by ear, or you read guitar, bass or drum tabs, and you’d like to learn more. But those symbols all over the page look like a foreign language to you, and the task seems daunting.

You’re right about one thing: Music is a language all its own, and you have to learn what the symbols mean before you can interpret the language. The good news? There are a finite amount of symbols to learn, and the list is much shorter than your German-English translation dictionary. You can learn it, and it’s easier than you think.

In the next several blog posts, we’ll talk about the different facets of reading music. Today, we’ll start with rhythm.


Have you ever heard someone count at the beginning of a song, “One, two, three, four!”? If you have, you were hearing the band leader set the RHYTHM for the musicians. Rhythm takes into account three things: (1) TEMPO, or how fast the song is, (2) TIME SIGNATURE, or the natural COUNT or BEAT of the song (‘count’ and ‘beat’ mean the same thing, and the words are interchangeable), and (3) TIME VALUES of the music notes, which establish how straight and easy or how complicated and funky the rhythm is.

1. TEMPO can be compared to travel speed. Consider a bicycle with a baseball card in the spokes. On every rotation of the tire, the card bumps against the frame, and it makes a clicking sound. The faster the bicyclist rides, the faster the t-t-t-t-t of the card. As the bike slows down, the t-t-t-t-t comes slower, with larger time intervals between each click of the card.

Similarly in music, songs can be fast or slow, and the band leader counting, “One, two, three, four!” is setting that tempo. Once the music gets going, you might notice your foot tapping in time to the music. Your taps are analogous to the t-t-t-t-t of the baseball card.

2. TIME SIGNATURE is defined a the beginning of the song. The time signature is a symbol with two large numbers at the very left of the staff, sitting on top of one another. The most common of these are a 4 over a 4, and a 3 over a 4. (Just to confuse you, a giant “C” is used instead of numbers, and this means the exact same thing as a 4 over a 4.)

Time Signatures

A beginner need not worry so much at first about the bottom number, but the top number is important. It defines the BEAT of the song. Remember the band leader? He or she is preparing to perform a song “in 4,” which means the time signature will have a “4” on top. Usually, that band leader doesn’t keep counting throughout the song; it’s a one-time deal, just to get it started. But imagine that the leader does keep counting, and instead of going to “five” next, he or she starts back over at one. Your toe tapping would coincide with a repeating, stead count that sounds like this: “One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!” over and over.

Music is, in fact, broken up into chunks like this. Believe it or not, it’s supposed to make it easier to read and interpret, not harder. This is because you can look at music one small, four-beat chunk at a time. So you’re looking at a whole page of music – how do you break it up into these chunks? So far, all you know is that each chunk gets four beats.

The answer is by looking for BAR LINES on the staff. A bar line is a vertical line on the staff, going straight from top to bottom. You will see quite a number of them in any sheet of music; in fact, there are probably anywhere from three to five bar lines on every single staff on the page. The bar lines divide the staff into the 4-beat chunks, which are called MEASURES.

A time signature of 4 over 4 is called, “four-four” and is expressed by saying, “There are four beats in a measure, and the quarter note gets one beat.”

3. TIME VALUES of notes determine how straight or funky the rhythm of the song sounds. Within the repeating four-count beat of the song, the melody itself might or might not land exactly on your foot taps. So how do you decipher where to sing or play that note?

If you ‘read’ along the staff on any piece of sheet music from left to right, you will see two kinds of symbols: NOTES and RESTS. Notes describe SOUNDS, while rests describe SILENCE. Both have a very specific time value associated with them: How long do I make the sound continue? How long do I remain silent?

This is where a little bit of math comes in. Don’t fret! You only need to know simple fractions – the kind you need to bake a cake.

These symbols are called NOTES. They indicate the rhythm of the song:

WHOLE NOTE is a simple, hollow oval. It is held (‘sustained’) for four beats.

A HALF NOTE is a hollow oval with a vertical stem attached and is sustained for two beats.

A QUARTER NOTE is a solid oval with a vertical stem attached and is sustained for one beat.

An EIGHTH NOTE is a solid oval with a vertical stem attached, with a flag at the top or bottom of the stem. It has a half of a beat. Sometimes,when eighth notes are right next to one another, they are connected from stem-to-stem with a line, which replaces the flags. They still have a half of a beat apiece.

Consider the quarter note, with one beat. When the band leader counts, “One, two, three, four,” each count is a quarter note. Remember the way we express a time signature of four-four? “There are four beats in a measure, and the QUARTER NOTE gets one beat.” Therefore, since there are four beats in a measure, there are four quarter notes in a measure. That’s what the bottom note in the time signature means: it indicates which kind of note gets one beat.

Because a whole note is four beats, you can only fit one into a measure. Why? “There are four beats in a measure.”

So, how many half notes can you fit into a measure? The answer is two. Each half note is two beats, and there are four beats in a measure. Therefore, two half notes fit into a measure. Similarly, since eighth notes get half a beat apiece, you can fit eight of them into a four-beat measure.

If your eyes swam reading all that, it’s because time values are easiest to understand when given examples. Consider the following combinations of notes, any of which could fit into one four-beat measure:

Eight eighth notes
Four quarter notes
Two half notes
One whole note
One half note and two quarter notes
One half note and four eighth notes
Two quarter notes and four eighth notes

We would count the beats of the above examples as follows, where the counts in parentheses indicate beats during which we count time, but we don’t sound the note again:

Eight eighth notes: “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”
Four quarter notes: “one two three four”
Two half notes: “one (two) three (four)”
One whole note: “one (two, three, four)”
One half note and two quarter notes: “one (two) three four”
One half note and four eighth notes: “one (two) three-and-four-and”
Two quarter notes and four eighth notes: “one two three-and-four-and”

The ones, twos, threes, and fours are kept in steady time, as if to the tick-tick-tick of a clock (or the beat of a metronome, if you have one!) For eighth notes, you need to squeeze a count in between the actual beats (or clock ticks), and it is common to use “and” as a measure of a half-beat.

Rests are defined, measured, and counted exactly the same way that notes are, except that they are silent.

A WHOLE REST is a small rectangle hanging beneath the second line from the top of the staff, and it looks like a hole in the ground, which can help you remember that it’s a whole rest. It is held for four beats.

A HALF REST is a small rectangle sitting atop the third line from the top of the staff, and it looks like a hat, which can help you remember that it’s a half rest. It is held for two beats.

The hole/hat analogy may help you remember which is which, because the whole rest and half rest look very much alike.

A QUARTER REST is a vertical squiggle. It is held for one beat.

An EIGHTH REST isa curved horizontal scoop attached to a diagonal stem. It is held for a half of a beat.


 Next week, we’ll talk about PITCH and how to determine exactly how high or low a note is supposed to sound (and which key to strike / string to pluck / etc.) Check out our samplers and private lessons if you’d like to learn more: MTMS Lessons and MTMS Classes.

Until next week! Peace.

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