by Craig Anderton
As we all know, lots of great musicians have been able to create an impressive body of work without knowing how to read music. But regardless of whether you expect to be able to read lead sheets on the fly—or even will need to do so—there are some real advantage to “knowing the language.” In particular, it’s hard not to run into references to rhythmic notation. Today’s DAWs quantize to particular rhythmic values, and effects often sync to particular rhythms as well. And if you want to program your own beats, it also helps to know how rhythm works. So let’s forget the tough stuff and take some baby steps into the world of rhythmic notation.
This brief overview of rhythmic notation provides the basics; but if you’re new to all this, you’ll probably need to read this section over several times and fool around a bit with something like a drum machine before it all falls into place.
Measures. A piece of music is divided into smaller units called measures (also called bars), and each measure is divided into beats. The number of beats per measure, and the rhythmic value of the beats, depends on both the composition and the time signature.
Time Signatures. A time signature (also called metric signature) defines a piece of music’s rhythmic nature by describing a measure’s rhythmic framework. The time signature is notated at the beginning of the music (and whenever there’s a change) with two numbers, one on top of the other.
The top number indicates the number of beats in each measure, while the bottom number indicates the rhythmic value of the beat (e.g. 4 is a quarter note, 8 is an eighth note, etc.). If that doesn’t make sense yet, let’s move on to some examples.
Rhythmic Values for Notes. With a measure written in 4/4, there are four beats per measure, and each beat represents a quarter note. Thus, there are four quarter notes per measure of 4/4 music.
Quarter note symbol
With a 3/4 time signature, the numerator (upper number) indicates that there are three beats per measure, while the denominator indicates that each of these beats is a quarter note.
There are two eighth notes per quarter note so there are eight eighth notes per measure of 4/4 music.
Eighth note symbol
There are four 16th notes per quarter note, which means there are 16 16th notes per measure of 4/4 music.
16th note symbol
There are eight 32nd notes per quarter note. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably already guessed there are 32 32nd notes per measure of 4/4 music.
32nd note symbol
There are also notes that span a greater number of beats than quarter notes. A half note equals two quarter notes. Therefore, there are two half notes per measure of 4/4 music.
Half note symbol
A whole note equals four quarter notes, so there is one whole note per measure of 4/4 music. (We keep referring these notes to 4/4 music because that’s the most commonly used time signature in contemporary western music.)
Whole note symbol
Triplets The notes we’ve covered so far divide measures by factors of two. However, there are some cases where you want to divide a beat into thirds, giving three notes per beat. Dividing a quarter note by three results in eighth-note triplets. The reason we use the term “eighth-note triplets” is because the eighth note is closest to the actual rhythmic value. Dividing an eighth note by three results in 16th-note triplets. Dividing a 16th note by three results in 32nd-note triplets.
Eighth-note triplet symbol
Note the numeral 3 above the notes, which indicates triplets.
Rests. You can also specify where notes should not be played; this is indicated by a rest, which can be the same length as any of the rhythmic values used for notes.
Rest symbols (from left to right): whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, and 16th note
Dotted Notes and Rests. Adding a dot next to a note or rest means that it should play one and a half times as long as the indicated value. For example, a dotted eighth would last as long as three 16th notes (since an eighth note is the same length as two 16th notes).
A dotted eighth note lasts as long as three 16th notes
Uncommon Time Signatures. 4/4 (and to a lesser extent 3/4) are the most common time signatures in our culture, but they are by no means the only ones. In jazz, both 5/4 (where each measure consists of five quarter notes) and 7/4 (where each measure consists of seven quarter notes) are somewhat common. In practice, complex time signatures are often played like a combination of simpler time signatures; for example, some 7/4 compositions would have you count each measure not as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 but as 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3. It’s often easier to think of 7/4 as a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 3/4 (or a bar of 3/4 followed by a bar of 4/4, depending upon the phrasing), since as we mentioned, 4/4 and 3/4 are extremely common time signatures.
Other Symbols. There are many, many other symbols used in music notation. > indicates an accent; beams connect multiple consecutive notes to simplify sight reading; and so on. Any good book on music notation can fill you in on the details.
Two 16th notes beamed together
Drawing beams on notes makes them easier to sight-read compared to seeing each note drawn indivicually.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
These books can help acquaint you with the basics of music theory and music notation.
Alfred’s Pocket Dictionary of Music is a concise but thorough explanation of music theory and terms for music students or teachers alike.
Practical Theory Complete, by Sandy Feldstein is a self-instruction music theory course that begins with the basics—explanations of the staff and musical notes—and ends with lesson 84: “Composing a Melody in Minor.”
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), andSound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.