Reading rhythms in sheet music
The ultimate goal of learning to read rhythms is to instinctively know what some notation will sound like the instant you see it. In the same sense that when you read English, you don't painstakingly sound it out one letter at a time.
There are a number of different ways we can reach that goal, including:
- Word association
- By ear
We'll explore these ideas, building on what you learned in Playing the ocarina with sheet music.
Making use of rhythms you already know
You almost certainly already know loads of rhythms, from songs you've heard before, to the timing of syllables in words. Thus, you can learn to read rhythms by associating these with their equivalents in notation.
If you find some sheet music for your favourite songs and look at it while listening to the song, you'll start to notice how aspects of the music are represented in the patterns of notation.
On top of this, the words and syllables in you native language have a natural rhythm. For instance, the timing of the phrase 'apple pie' is very similar to the notation shown below. We explored this idea further in the article Understanding rhythm.
You can find more information about it by searching for 'fruit rhythms'. It's often used for teaching rhythm at an elementary level, but I don't know if it's been developed into a comprehensive approach.
The challenge is that the timing of words changes with accent, and it's probably best used with the assistance of a local music teacher.
Learning to read rhythms by ear
If you have a listen to the following rhythm, I'm pretty sure that you can copy it without much difficulty. Many people can copy very complex rhythms by ear without breaking a sweat.
We can use this to our advantage when learning to read rhythms as the human mind is very good at associating information. If you listen to or clap a rhythm while also looking at its notation, you will start to instinctually know the sound of a rhythm when you see it.
The following notation shows how the rhythm would be written, and if you listen to the audio while looking at it, you'll start to connect the two. Do note that you may not see results until you sleep on it.
This process is analogous to how children learn to read. One's first words are learned by listening to their parents. Reading then comes later, from associating known sounds to the sight of the words. That this happens is obvious from languages like English or French as many words are not written phonetically.
Learning rhythms by ear may seem needlessly arduous at first: isn't the rhythm of every song different? While this is true on a large scale, the story is different if we zoom in.
Many rhythms can be broken down into figures, short patterns analogous to words. The example above is built from the two patterns shown below. Have a listen to them:
By learning the sound of a large enough collection of figures, they can be read and strung together much like you do when reading English, letting you play effortlessly.
But what figures to learn? Go and grab the sheet music of some of your favourite songs and see which figures show up. Do you notice any repeated figures within the rhythms? How about identical patterns that show up in multiple songs?
You may notice some of the following things. At this point don't worry about how to practice them, we'll get to that in a moment.
Groups of half and quarter notes
When a rhythm is mostly formed from longer notes, you'll often see obvious figures between the bar lines, like these:
Note that these patterns will vary between time signatures. Here for example are some patterns that you may see in 3/4 time:
Groups of 8th and 16th notes
Figures are often very apparent in groups of beamed 8th and 16th notes, such as:
It's really common to see rhythms formed from dotted quarter note immediately followed by an 8th note. The same idea also shows up with other note durations.
A triplet is when 3 notes are played in the time duration of two, such as 3 quarter notes in the time of two. They have quite a distinctive sound:
Applying this to your own music
Applying this to your own music is really just a matter of:
- Identifying any figures in the song you're learning that you don't know already.
- Finding a way of hearing each figure separately in a loop.
- Then keep clapping it while looking at the notation, until it becomes automatic.
There are numerous ways of hearing a rhythm, including:
- Asking someone to clap the figures: Like a music teacher or musician friend.
- Using a notation software like Musescore: These tools allow you to enter arbitrary notes and play it back to you as audio.
- Use an audio editor: Take a recording, and isolate the individual figures using software like Audacity or Reaper.
- Use a score reader app: There are smartphone apps that use the device's camera to recognise notes, and play them back to you.
Note that its a good idea to focus on a limited number of rhythm figures at a time as learning too many at once may feel overwhelming. I'd recommend learning the first 3 or 4 used in your song, then try clapping them together, and learn the next chunk.
It can also be helpful to prefix the figures you're learning with a context that makes it clear how the figure sounds in relation to the beat overall. For instance, if your figure is in 4/4 time, prefix it with a few quarter notes.
And here's a few more examples:
Practising figures in the context of other figures can also be helpful, letting you hear how figures sound in relation to each other.
And another thing, how do the figures you've learned sound if you play them in a different order? This would be a great jumping off point to start playing with improvisation.
Learning to read rhythms by counting
As we explored in Playing the ocarina with sheet music, rhythms are expressed in bars representing a fixed number of beats. When you count a rhythm, you count the individual beats in the bar.
For instance, in 4/4 time we use the quarter note to represent one beat, and a bar of 4 quarter notes is counted '1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, ...':
In 3/4, one counts up to 3 for every bar:
And in 2/4, you count up to 2 for each bar:
Let's practise it:
- Put on a metronome at about 60 BPM.
- Practice counting in 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4, clapping and counting aloud.
- Repeat until you can do it with ease.
Counting notes of different durations
Notes of longer durations get multiple counts, relative to their length:
- A half note gets two counts.
- A dotted half note gets 3 counts.
- A whole note gets 4 counts.
Notice that the counting for the same note duration changes depending on where the note is in the bar.
When a rhythm uses notes of shorter durations, each beat is split in half, and we count these "1 and 2 and ...". An eighth note has half the duration of a quarter note, so two can be played in the same timespan.
Let's practise it:
- Have a go at writing out some rhythms using these notes in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4
- Practice counting them to a metronome.
- You may at first find it helps to write out the counting above the notes.
To begin I'd suggest grouping 8th notes into twos, fours and so on. An 8th note followed by a quarter or half note results in something called syncopation, which will be addressed later.
As you write these, remember that the note equivalent to a whole bar changes with time signature. For 4/4 it happens to be the whole note, but for 3/4, it's the dotted quarter note, and 2/4 is just a quarter note.
Initially it helps to count all of the subdivisions for shorter notes, but after some time you'll start to instinctively feel how long they should be and only the first will need to be counted.
A rest represents a silence of a given duration. For every kind of note, there is an equivalent rest. Counting rests is the same as counting notes, but we don't voice them.
A quarter rest (shown below) represents a gap the length of a quarter note. Have a go at clapping this rhythm, counting as normal, but don't clap the rests.
And do the same on the ocarina. Finger any note and play the rhythm, using your tongue to stop the air over the duration of the rests.
Rests equivalent to the whole and half note look like this.
- The half rest is a rectangle that sticks up from the line.
- A whole rest hangs down, looking like a hole in the line.
Note that while a whole note is only equivalent to a whole bar in 4/4 (and equivalents like 2/2), the whole rest is used as a whole bar rest in most time signatures.
Eighth rests, equivalent to the eighth note, look like this:
Have a go at writing out some rhythms using different kinds of rest. At first starting with quarter rests, and introducing the others as you feel ready.
Practising counting rhythms of eighth notes and eighth rests in different orders is particularly valuable, as it will help you develop a feel for on and off beats.
A tie is a curved line drawn between the heads of two or more notes. To count ties, you combine the values of the tied notes, and play over this total duration:
Ties are frequently used to join notes across the bar line, including to to create extremely long notes. Have a go at counting these, and then writing out some similar rhythms.
Once you've got the hang of this, try making some rhythms that tie to an eighth note.
Tied notes can be used to enhance readability as in the following example. While this could be notated with a dotted half note, notating it using ties may be easier to read as it communicates where the beats are within the note.
Counting partial bars
Music sometimes starts or ends with a partial bar. To count them you take a whole bar, and then slice off the part that isn't there. You may find it easier to count the omitted notes anyway, and treat them as rests.
Common misconceptions with counting rhythms
Counting isn't always representative of human performance
In my opinion, the biggest downside of counting versus learning by ear is that counting forces everything into a mathematical straight jacket. A literal reading of a rhythm isn't always what an experienced human player would do, as timing may vary for expressive reasons, both on a large or micro scale.
Learning rhythms by counting does not eliminate the need to develop your ear. Different musical idioms vary their rhythms in unique ways, and listening to music in the style you want to play is always important.
That being said, learning the strict version of a rhythm by counting can help you hear when a player deviates from what some notation literally represents.
Bar lines don't define phrasing
Counting beats may lead to the assumption that the phrasing of music always rigidly follows the bar lines, which it doesn't:
- Bar lines mark fixed periods of time, measured in beats.
- Phrases may align with the bar lines, but don't have to.
Counting is simply a way of tracking the lengths of notes consciously, and how we phrase and emphasise music is independent. Unfortunately, sheet music doesn't normally notate phrases, they need to be recognised from structure, and how this is done is discussed in Figures, Phrases and motifs.
In cases where the phrases do not align with the bar lines, counting may end up feeling awkward. You may for instance encounter music with a phrase like the following:
It may feel more natural to instead count in relation to the phrasing as follows. Counting is just a tool for practising rhythms and there is no harm in adapting it as long as you know how and why you're doing so.
Too many subdivisions!
You may have already realised that counting has challenges with notes of very short durations, as each level of subdivision doubles the amount of information to keep track of. Counting 16th notes isn't a problem, and they are commonly counted like this:
But with 32nd notes and shorter, things start to get challenging. The amount of vocalisations increases to a point that it may be impossible to count these at any reasonable tempo, depending on how quickly you can think.
For example, here is one way that you might count a bar of 32'nd notes in 3/4:
In many cases counting an entire piece of music at such a fine level isn't needed. Short notes within rhythms tend to manifest as patterns repeated through the music. Thus those figures can be practised until they become automatic.
Once you've internalised the feel of the figure you can count (or feel) just the overarching beat, and instinctively know how the figure will sound in relation to it.
Have a go with these 32nd notes, tapping them alternating between two fingers. Gradually increase the tempo with a metronome, and once you get used to how it feels stop counting the subdivisions.
Another way of counting 32nd notes is to double the count and treat them like 16th notes. However this means that the numbers no longer align with where one feels the pulse in the music. It also does not address the number of subdivisions one is tracking.
Making your own exercises
Regardless of whether you're learning to read rhythms, by ear or by counting, having exercises to practice is obviously important.
It's easy to find large collections of rhythm exercises in the form of books, websites and apps. However my recommendation is to create your own exercises, as:
- The physical process of writing them out helps you remember them.
- You'll know your weak points better than any book or app ever can.
- Making your own exercises also lets you tailor them around the music you want to play.
And doing this need not be difficult. As we've explored throughout the article, rhythms can be broken down into figures, and those figures can be assembled in different orders.
So, start with a small subset, and then gradually increase it. Such as:
Write out some rhythms using your chosen notes in different orders, in the 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4 time signatures. Feel free to do this however you find easiest, using music notation software like Musescore, or with pen and paper.
As you go, try to hear how the rhythm sounds in your mind before writing the notes, and keep practising this every day for a few days to a few weeks.
With such a limited number of notes, it won't take long to reach a point where you can read any rhythm in this subset without needing to think.
And then it's just a matter of introducing a new set of figures, practising them until you can read any rhythm within the new subset, and so on.
The examples shared previously throughout this article would be great things to learn, and here are a few more suggestions:
Rhythms from your own music
The music you're learning is a great place to source rhythms. Have a look over it for commonly repeated figures, can you find the same patterns in multiple songs?
Once you're familiar with the basics of rhythm, the pulse and how other notes relate to it, the order that figures are learned doesn't matter that much. It's perfectly fine to jump directly to learning 16th or 32nd note patterns if you need them for a song you love.
Just be mindful that sourcing the rhythms you are learning only from a single music genre can pigeonhole what you learn. Make sure to reference a wide assortment of music to get a broad picture of the rhythms of real-world music.
Think about what happens if you follow an eighth note with a quarter note. The quarter note would be delayed such that it 'bridges over' the next beat. This is called syncopation.
You may find syncopations easiest to learn by ear at first. If you count them, slowly count and clap until you get the hang of it.
Syncopated rhythms have quite a distinctive sound and show up in numerous genres of music. Can you find any in the music you listen to?
Triplets and other tuplets
Tuplets allow rhythms to be formed that deviate from the typical 'division by two' the standard note symbols allow—for example, playing three notes in the time duration of two, called a triplet.
Triplets are easy to learn by ear, by prefixing the triplet with a context that allows you to hear what it sounds like in relation to the beat. And this can be assisted using a 3 syllable word association like 'pine-ap-le' or 'jaf-a-cake'.
Tuplets can be counted by finding a common devisor for the entire rhythm, although it can be awkward due to very small subdivisions. Instead we can treat it as a figure and find a divisor for the tuplet in relation to the beat. Then count it until it becomes subconscious.
Other time signatures
And finally, there are many other time signatures. An overview of a few have been given here. To learn about these in detail take a look at other resources online, as well as real music.
Compound time (3/8, 6/8 and 9/8)
Time signatures like 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8 are called compound time, a convention for notating music where each beat is split into 3. Essentially it represents music formed from one or more 8th note triplets.
Compound time really needs to be learned as its own thing, as the figures one encounters within these time signatures are different due to the base division of 3 instead of 2, although its also quite easy as the figures tend to be pretty simple.
I'd recommend learning compound time rhythms by ear as the subdivisions are not always even. The first note in each triplet is often extended, with the other two played in the remaining time. That's called either 'lilt' or 'swing', depending on the musical idiom.
But, to count music in compound time signatures, I'd recommend:
Note that compound time is often taught with the counting '1,2,3' for 3/8, '1,2,3,4,5,6' for 6/8 and so on. It works, but can be misleading as it does not communicate the individual triplets, or how 3/8 differs in intent from 3/4.
Beats on the half note (2/2, 3/2 and 4/2)
Time signatures with a '2' at the bottom represent a rhythm where the beat is assigned to the half note, and it's easiest to see how this works considering how you would count them.
For example, 2/2 is counted like 2/4 and the half note aligns with the numbered count. Thus, quarter notes are counted like 8th notes would be, and 8th notes counted like 16th notes would be.
If you were to take something in 4/4, and move it to 2/2 at the same tempo, it would be played twice as fast (unless you are told otherwise with a metronome mark).
However, while this counting demonstrates the intended function, in practice you can count 2/2 like you would count 4/4, and adjust the emphasis and tempo to align with the half note. The note values are otherwise equivalent.
Music using these time signatures is very rare in the mainstream, but they can be found in classical music and folk tunes such as reels and 3/2 hornpipes.
Irregular time signatures (5/4, 7/4, 7/8)
You will at some point run across irregular time signatures such as 5/4 and 7/4, and while they may seem scary they really aren't. What they commonly represent is a rhythm based on a mixed grouping of twos and threes.
For example, 5/4 typically represents a group of 3 and a group of 2. (1,2,1,2,3) or (1,2,3,1,2). Music in this time signature includes five time waltzes, and the jazz piece 'Take 5'.
Likewise, 7/8 represents music based on a triplet and two pars of 8th notes, and is felt with an irregular long, short, short pulse. These time signatures have quite a distinctive sound as we tend to perceive groupings like this as having a 'skip', a missing beat.
We learned a number of different approaches for reading rhythms, each having distinct pros and cons:
- Counting is a useful skill to have in your toolkit and is like sounding out a word a syllable at a time. It can be a good way of developing tighter rhythmic accuracy as it forces you to think about what you are doing.
- Learning rhythms by ear is an effective way of learning complex rhythms quickly, as well as internalising the unique aspects of human performances.
But regardless of your approach, the main thing is to take it slowly. Limit the possibility space, and practice until it becomes effortless.