Standard music notation can convey virtually any rhythm known to man.
The trick, though, is learning to decipher how the different components of music notation interact in order to give us rhythms from the simplest to the most complex.
I can’t possible cover the entirety of reading musical rhythms in this article. Instead, I’m going to give you a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of reading music rhythms in standard notation.
To get started reading music and understanding rhythms, you first need to understand how the time signature establishes the foundation of rhythm for a piece or section of music.
Time signatures consist of two numbers. They look like this:
As you can see, the time signature is made up of two numbers: a number on top and a number on the bottom. Think of the time signature as a fraction–there’s the number in the position of the numerator and a number on the bottom in the position of the denominator.
The time signature tells you extremely important information about the fundamental unit of music: the measure.
A measure is the smallest building block of an entire piece of music. From the tiniest song to the largest multi-movement symphony, every piece of music is made up of measures.
The number on top of the time signature tells you how many beats occur in each measure. So, in the case of the time signature 4/4, the top 4 tells us that the measure has four beats. In theory, there’s no limit to the number of beats a measure can contain, but in actual practice you’ll usually encounter measures with fewer than twelve beats. The vast majority of popular music has either three or four beats per measure.
The bottom number in the time signature tells you what kind of note is given the value of a single beat. Refer to my article on musical notes to learn more about different common notes.
Counting Out Rhythms
As you learn to read music, one of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to recognize and perform rhythms. Musicians have developed various methods of counting out rhythms, and I’m going to share the most common approach with you here.
Here is a simple measure of quarter notes in 4/4 time:
To count this measure, simply count each of the four beats in order. Notice that the four quarter notes coincide exactly with the four beats:
As you count this simple measure of music, make sure that the rhythm is smooth and even. Every single note is the same length.
Now, let’s add eighth notes to this measure. In order to count eighth notes, count the numbered beats just as before and then add the syllable “and” in between each number.
Here’s what that looks like:
Again, as you practice counting these eighth notes, make sure that each note gets the same value.
Your stream of “One and Two and…” will sound extremely regular. If there’s any extra-small or large gaps, that’s a clear sign that you’re not counting all at the same pace.
(Slightly) More Complex Rhythms
Of course, most music consists of many different kinds of notes with many different rhythmic values. So let’s look at a few slightly more complex rhythms that arise from combining half-notes, quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Your task is to count through each of these examples.
Clap out the beats where the notes occur as you count out loud. Clapping helps you feel the rhythm in your body, which is where rhythm ultimately rests whether you’re a singer, instrumentalist or avid listener.
You need to make the music come alive, and the way to do that with rhythm is to clap, tap your feet and sway in time to the music. If this all sounds a bit strange, then you’re definitely in need of some rhythmic body practice.
Getting used to clapping out the actual notes while counting out the ongoing rhythm can be a little tricky at first. Just keep at it. And trust me–this counting/clapping work helps clarify rhythm in a hurry.
Try this exercise. Notice that it starts with a half-note. This means you clap once and hold the note for two full beats before coming in on beat 3 with the quarter note. Give it a shot!
Until you can easily clap and count through relatively simple exercises like these, I don’t recommend that you dive into more complicated music. Take your rhythmic journey step by step, and you’ll be comfortable with any rhythm no matter how complex soon enough.
(This little rhythmic lesson only scratches the surface! For a much more thorough set of exercises and workouts to help you read music and rhythms, check out Read Music Now.)