1.4 Rhythms And Rhythm Notation

1.4.1 Some information regarding reading rhythm notation

Understanding and explaining rhythms and how they are written in notation might take several lessons. That is why it is important to just look at the basic components of rhythms and how to be able to read them. We are mainly interested in what types of rhythm patterns we might commonly encounter in modern notation and in the lessons. We can always read more about the subject in addition to the lessons. You can look at the illustrations at any time for reference while reading the text.

Notes are named according their duration. Most commonly they are measured in how many beats they “contain”. There are two main ways of naming the duration of notes – the “English” and the “American” method. The “English” method uses names such as quaver, semiquaver etc. while the “American” method uses quarter note, eight note etc. Most jazz/contemporary education uses the “American” way and so do we.

1.4.2 Time signatures

The time signature is the two-part number that is written after the clef. It stays the same until a new time signature is presented. The upper number says how many beats are in a bar (“the box”). The lower number then determines the duration of each beat. The most common time signature is 4/4 followed by 3/4. For example 4/4 means that there are 4 bets per bar and each beat is 1/4 whole note (quarter note) long. For example 5/8 (that would be very rare) would mean there are 5 beats per measure and each beat is 1/8 whole note (eight note) long. A “C” as a time signature stands for “common time” and basically means 4/4. A “crossed C” as a time signature stands for “alla breve” and basically means 2/2. More on the duration and the naming of notes later.

1.4.3 Note values

Let us look at the notes in order starting from the “longest” note and going all the way to 1/16th the value of that note. Note that there are other notes as well besides those but those are the ones you will most likely encounter in your musical endeavours.

Look at the illustration below while reading this text to better understand the subject. Next to each note (bar/column 2) there is the same value of rest and how it is drawn. The rests are quite hard to remember and draw. (At least they were and are still for me). Also there is the triplet equivalent of the note in the 3rd bar/column. More on that later. All examples are in 4/4.

The “longest” note is a whole note. It “contains” 4 beats so it fills a whole bar. (A bar is sometimes called a measure). A bar (= 4 beats) thus contains 1 whole note. It is drawn as a hollow circle.

A half note (1/2) contains 2 beats each so a bar contains 2 half notes. It is drawn as a hollow circle with a line.

A quarter note (1/4) contains 1 beat each so a bar contains 4 quarter notes. It is drawn as a full (not hollow) note with a line and a tail.

An eight note (1/8) contains 1/2 beat each so a bar contains 8 eight notes. It is drawn as a full note with a line and tail. The tail is usually connected to the next one making a beam. It is easier to read the value (how long) of the note by looking at the beam. A beam with one line means that the value of the notes are an eight note each. Usually they are connected 2 at a time. The illustration below has 4 of them connected which is also not uncommon.

A sixteenth note (1/16) contains 1/4 beat each so a bar contains 16 sixteenth notes. It is drawn as a full circle with a line and a double-tail. The beam has two lines. Usually 4 are connected at a time as is the case in the illustration.

Notice that each note contains twice the amount of the previous one. So for example a two half notes make a whole note, two eight notes make a quarter note etc. There are other note values besides these but these are the most common ones.

1.4.4 Triplets

A triplet occurs when we “stuff” 3 notes over the duration of two. (It is in fact a common part of a family of duplets where several notes are “stuffed” over the duration of others. Each “number” has its own name such as triplet for 3, quintuplet for 5, nonuplet for 9 etc. The triplet is the most common and it the only one we use during these lessons.) It contains 3 notes of 1/2 of the value of the main note. This sounds confusing but it is easy to explain with an example.

A whole note contains 2 half notes so a triplet over the duration of a whole note contains one half note triplet. So whole note = half note triplet (3 half notes over the duration of a whole note). With the same logic half note = quarter note triplet ; quarter note = eight note triplet; eight note = sixteenth note triplet. Sixteenth note triplet (32nd note triplet) is not presented since we only cover notes up to the sixteenth note value.

The most common triplet is the eight note triplet so we can focus mainly on that during the lessons and exercises. (It is the third row in the illustration.)

1.4.5 Dotted notes

A dotted note adds 50% to the value (length) of the note. It is simply drawn by adding a dot next to the note. A dotted half note will thus have 150% the value of a half note. That means that it has the value of a half note plus a quarter note. In general dotted notes have the value of the note plus one value of the note that is one “tier” shorten than it. Once again several examples can help us understand that.

A dotted quarter note = quarter note + eight note ; a dotted eight note = eight note + sixteenth note etc. The illustration below shows a dotted half note. There are several ways to think about it. It is either a “half note and a half”, “half note and a quarter note” or “three quarter notes “glued” together”. Or any way that helps us remember that a dotted note has 150% the value of the base note.

(c) 2019 Sibil Yanev