Understanding rhythm

Side Note

Note that this article discusses what rhythms are, not how to learn to play them. If you want to learn to play them, see How to practice rhythms.

I want you to stop reading this, and get up and go for a walk. As you are walking, notice how your feet meeting the ground form a consistent pattern? hit, hit, hit....

Now, imagine that you were to play note every time a foot hits the ground, one pitch for your left foot, and a different pitch for your right? It would sound something like this.

This consistent division of time is called 'pulse' or beat, and is the foundation of all rhythms. In fact, it is also how the speed or 'tempo' of music is measured. The number of beats per minute, or BPM.

Beat grouping

Rhythms are frequently organised into fixed numbers of beats, as repeating patterns are one of the things that makes music sound musical. For example, it is very common to find rhythms grouping beats into fours, which sounds like this:

And you'll also hear music that is based on a grouping of 3. If you consider a rhythm like this while walking, counting '1, 2, 3', you'd notice that the first 'hit' of each group happens on a different foot, giving it a swaying feel. The waltz dance uses this, as does the mazurka.

Time signatures

The grouping of beats is called a 'time signature'. Time signatures are expressed by two numbers, usually placed one above the other, but in text can be written as two numbers with a slash. For example the time signature '4/4' ( read 'four four') looks like this:

The time signature is two numbers one above the other, and describes the beat grouping of a rhythm.

Note that a time signature is not a mathematical fraction, even though it resembles one visually, it is just expressing a grouping of notes:

  • The top number tells you the number of notes in the group.
  • The bottom number names a note duration.

The time signature '4/4' means '4 quarter notes', and is how rhythms based on a grouping of 4 beat chunks are normally expressed. A quarter note is one of a collection of note symbols which will be discussed later. It looks like this:

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Groups of notes are visually separated using vertical lines called 'bar lines', and the space between any two bar lines is called a 'bar'.

Bar lines are vertical lines that group notes, and a bar is a group of notes.

In 4/4 time each one of these note symbols corresponds to one beat, and you can see the relationship with the previously shown beat timeline below.

How the notes in sheet music relate to the beats of a rhythm.

It is a commonly taught error that 'the top number in the time signature tells you the number of beats in the bar'. This is true of 4/4 time, but is not true with all time signatures. 6/8 for example only has TWO beats in each bar, NOT SIX.

The time signature really only tells you the type of note and how meany of them. How these notes relate to beats is defined by convention and other things. That point is addressed under 'compound time' later.

The types of notes

Notes are symbols that mean 'play a note on your instrument', and notes of different shapes represent longer or shorter periods of time, in relation to each other:

Notes of different shapes represent different durations of time.
  • A half note has half the duration of a whole note.
  • A quarter note has half the duration of a half note.
  • Etc...

Thus in 4/4 time, a quarter note is one beat, a half note is two beats (half a bar), and a whole note is 4 beats (a whole bar). That relationship changes with time signature, and will be explained later in this section.

It is almost a given that you will have seen some of these symbols before as the eighth and sixteenth notes are often used culturally to as a graphic for the concept of 'music'. It can be a source of confusion as the 'whole note' may seem like it has something 'missing'.

In actuality, notes have different parts, the 'head', 'stem', and 'flags'. The head is the only critical part of the note, and the stem and flags can be added to it to represent different durations of time, as explained above.

Music notes have 3 parts, a round head that marks pitch, and the stem and flags, which mark duration.

Also note that I am using the American names for note durations as I find them more intuitive having a direct connection to common language. In the UK these have different names:

  • Whole note - semibreve.
  • Half note - minim.
  • Quarter note - crotchet.
  • Eighth note - quaver.
  • Sixteenth note - semiquaver.
  • Thirty-second note - demisemiquaver.

The meaning of note durations

Within the '4/4' time signature, a quarter note is a quarter of the duration of a bar. But how would you represent a rhythm based on a group of 3? This is normally done using the time signature '3/4':

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This may be confusing , as now the quarter note is being used to represent a 3rd of the bar's duration. What's going on is that a quarter note is a quarter of a whole note, not quarter of the bar.

A whole note in 4/4 time being equivalent to the duration of a whole bar is a coincidence. In 3/4 time, a whole note would have a duration of a bar and a third.

This is done so that the notes maintain the same time relationship. A half note is always twice the duration of a quarter note, etc. The absolute time duration of any note can only be known in relation to the note duration named in the bottom number of the time signature.

Using the quarter note as the base reference allows a good range of freedom to create longer and shorter notes, given the available note types. if you organise the notes in a graph, with each level going downwards halving in its duration, the quarter note lands in the middle.

Music notes have a recursive structure, where each successive type of note has a duration half that of the previous note type: whole note, half note, quarter note and so on

Varying note duration

Within a single one of these groups, the lengths of the notes can be varied for interest and expression. Instead of playing a note every beat, the note can be held to span two beats. And the time duration of a single beat can also be subdivided.

An example, using 4/4 time. Note that gaps have been added to allow you to hear the groups separately.

And this is how the same would be written in music notation. 4 quarter notes, 2 half notes, and 8 eighth notes.

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Notes of different time durations may be combined within a bar, totalling up to the duration of the bar.

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And this is how it sounds:

When multiple notes with flags are placed together, the flags are normally beamed together as it reduces visual clutter and improves readability. Beaming may also be used to indicate beat grouping and/or phrasing, which will be discussed later.

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Rhythms can be formed from pretty arbitrary collections of note durations, as long as they align with the beat. If you just play notes with random durations, the rhythm stops aligning with the beat, the sense of grouping vanishes, and the rhythm sounds weird:

Rhythm figures

Rhythms are often formed from short patterns called 'figures'. Essentially, they are analogous to words, and can be combined to form longer rhythms. For example, you may observe a song with a rhythm like this:

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This is actually just one very short figure that has been repeated multiple times to make a more complex rhythm.

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Being able to identify figures is extremely helpful when it comes to learning to play rhythms, as once you know how a particular figure sounds, its easy to read it within a longer rhythm. Reading rhythms is then just a matter of stringing figures together. See Reading rhythms in sheet music for more.

Can you identify any repeated figures in the following example?

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Hearing, and experimenting with rhythms for yourself

Now you know the logic behind how some simple rhythms work, and before moving on, it's a good time to experiment with different patterns for yourself and hear how they sound.

There are a few ways of doing so:

  • Use a music notation software to recreate the rhythms shown.
  • Ask a music teacher, or musician friend to clap the patterns for you.

Having some experience with how rhythms sound will also make it much easier to learn to play them, as you can associate the visual of different rhythm patterns with how they sound.

Dotted notes and ties

So far, all of the rhythms we have explored have been based on simple ratios like halves and quarters. Music also uses rhythms based on other note durations like 3 beats, or one and a half beats, or one and a quarter for that matter.

Regarding music notation, 3 beats and one and a half beats can be easily notated using a dot. Adding a dot after a note extends its duration by half its length. Thus, a dotted half note in 4/4 has a duration of 3 beats, and a dotted quarter, one and a half. Dotted quarter plus eighth, and dotted eighth plus 16th patterns are very common.

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And notes of essentially any length can be created using ties. A tie joins two or more notes together into one longer note, signified by a curved line drawn between the note heads. A one and a quarter, 3 quarter rhythm can be written using ties and dotted notes like this:

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Ties are frequently used to notate rhythm patterns that cross the bar line, or notes that are otherwise very long. It is conventional to insure that bars are always 'full', and thus ties are used in place of single notes having a duration longer than a bar.

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Rests - not playing anything

Another way that interest can be added to a rhythm is to insert gaps or not play notes.

In music notation, such a 'gap' is called a rest. Rests are essentially note symbol that mean 'do nothing', and ones with equivalent durations for all of the note types exist. You can dot them, although it does not make sense to tie rests.

Rests represent different durations of time where no notes are to be played.

And this is how they look in notation. An easy way of remembering the 'whole' rest is that it looks like a 'hole' in the line.

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If you take the 4 beats of a group in 4/4 and split them in two, the first of each pair aligning with the beat is called a 'down beat', and the ones falling in the middle of two beats are called 'up beats'.

The notes that fall on the beat are called 'down' notes, and the notes that fall between two beats are called 'up' notes.

A rhythm is said to be syncopated when it shifts the emphasis onto the up beats. For example, if a rhythm starts with an eighth note, followed by a quarter note. The quarter note spans the duration of the following beat and ends on the up beat.

Syncopation is when a rhythm is shifted with respect to the beat of the music.

Syncopated rhythms can be heard in a lot of music, and are especially common in Calypso music. The following two examples are from a Calypso called "Mud Games" by bagpipe maker Julian Goodacre.

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If you study the uses of these patterns in music, you'll find that they return to the beat periodically. A syncopated pattern that is too long, without reference (for example a background drum beat), will stop sounding syncopated.


Tuplets temporarily change the subdivision of a rhythm, for example fitting 3 quarter notes into the time duration of two:

A triplet is when three notes are played in the time duration of two notes.

In music notation, a tuplet is written as 3 or more notes, with a number above it. The example above can be written like this, fitting 3 quarter notes into the time of 2, which is called a triplet.

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The number above a triplet usually means 'fit the total duration of these notes, into that time minus 1'. For instance, Fit 3 quarter notes into the space of two, or fit 5 quarter notes into the space of 4, although there are irregularities you can see below.

Different kinds of tuplet have different names:

  • Triplet - 3 notes in the time of 2
  • Quintuplet - 5 notes in the time of 4
  • Septuplet - 7 notes in the time of 4

Note that the last example is irregular, and a septuplet could also signify 7 notes in the time of 6. To clarify such irregular cases, a ratio like 5:2 may be written above the note, instead of just a number. Specifically, 5:2 would indicate fitting 5 notes into the space of 2.

Note that when a group of notes is beamed, a triplet is indicated with just a number. But if longer note durations are used, or notes are not beamed, a bracket is used to make sure the group is clear:

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Compound time

In 3/4, you have a beat every note. But what about if you instead wanted to divide each beat into 3? Well you can, and there's nothing difficult about it.

But how would you notate it? One option is to start with a time signature like 1/4, and then notate every bar as a triplet. It works, but doing that would get visually cluttered in longer music.

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Instead, we use a convention called 'compound time'. In compound time the base unit is 3 8th notes. Thus the time signature '3/8' represents bars with 1 beat divided into 3:

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In rhythms with more beats per bar, you take 3, and multiply it by the number of beats:

  • 1 beat: 3/8 - used in the French 3-time Bourree
  • 2 beats: 6/8 - the quintessential 'jig' found in Irish, Scottish and English traditional tunes
  • 3 beats: 9/8 - the Irish slip jig
  • 4 beats: 12/8 - the Irish slide

This convention is used as the bottom number of a time signature conventionally refers only to whole values, and it is not typical to express the duration of a dotted note.

The relationship between the time signature and beats

The exact relation between beats, and the time signature is not entirely straightforward. In a time signature like 4/4 or 3/4, the number of beats in each measure is defined by the top number in the time signature. It also works for a time signature like 2/2, which uses the same note values as 4/4, but implies playing something twice as fast, two beats per bar.

But then '6/8' compound time implies 6 beats, when as we explored above, there are only 2.

In practice the time signature 'sometimes' tells you the number of beats in each bar of music, but it can be ambiguous. One way that this ambiguity is resolved is to use a metronome mark, assigning a given note duration to some number of beats per minute.

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The beaming of notes can also be used to indicate beats and grouping, which can be seen in the above example. Two beats are shown by beaming 2 groups of 3 eighth notes. Although this trick does not work for longer note values.

Closing notes

I'd recommend studying the rhythms in the music that you enjoy, and compare how it sounds to how it is notated. If you can, find sheet music to reference. Musescore, and other music notation software is very helpful, as it allows you to hear the music, with a real time visualisation of the notation being played.

There are a number of different ways of learning how to perform rhythms on an instrument, which are discussed in How to practice rhythms.

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