Rhythm instruments

How to Read Rhythm: A Foundational Approach

Reading rhythm can be a difficult subject for a lot of musicians. Here I will discuss all aspects of rhythmic notation including some pretty advanced concepts.

This is a rather long post, but it’s basically written in three sections; The first section covers the basics of rhythm as a concept, ending with the most common types of rhythmic notations:

The second section is a discussion of all different types of rhythmic notation, including those that are quite advanced. In case you’re interested in something specific, here’s the list:

The final, much shorter section gives some ideas of how to add more focus on rhythm to your practice at home.

If you find it to be overwhelming, don’t worry! Just focus on the parts you understand and you can always refer back to this article as you progress to more advanced music. I hope you find it interesting and that it helps clarify any of your rhythm questions!

What Is Rhythm?

A landscape divided into three distinct section of day, then night, then day again

Rhythm is probably the earliest type of music. This is because it is happening everywhere, all the time. Any sound happening any time anywhere has some sort of rhythm to it.

As I type this, I hear the rhythm of the clicking of the keyboard, the chirping of the birds outside, the hum of the heater, the ticking of the second hand on my watch. I feel the rhythm of my heart beating, of my breathing going in and out, of the blood pumping through my veins.

On a grander scale there’s a rhythm to our sleep patterns, the switch from day to night and back again, the phases of the moon, the changing of the seasons, and from year to year.

Truly rhythm is one of the most ever-present aspects of our existence.

Rhythm vs. Tempo

Rhythmic pattern on a heartbeat chart

Many people confuse the terms rhythm and tempo. They are related, but are each describing very different things. Let’s consider a heart beat.

The average rhythm of a heart beat usually has one short beat followed by one long beat. BaBUM… BaBUM… BaBUM… The specific way the two beats relate to each other, one short and one long, is what we call the rhythm.

If we’ve just gone for a run and our heart rate increases, we still might have the same rhythm but it will be happening FASTER: BaBUM BaBUM BaBUM. That is a change in the tempo.

One thing that can make this a little confusing is that through rhythm I can manipulate what feels like tempo. What I mean by this is even if I have the fast beat of the second heartbeat, I could notate slow notes, and therefore make it sound to the listener like the tempo overall is slow. I’ll clarify this concept more later in this article.

Visual Representation of Rhythm: The History

Because rhythm is probably the oldest aspect of music, it’s not surprising that there have been many different ways to visually represent rhythm over the course of history. Unfortunately, many of those different methods were not comprehensive and have been difficult to decipher.

Our Western notation stems from medieval Europe when the Catholic church was trying to make things, like music, more uniform. In order to do that they needed to figure out a way to communicate exactly what was to be sung in services and send it to churches across Europe.

Old, arrhythmic notation of Gregorian chant
Old notation of Gregorian chant

If you’re familiar with medieval European music, you’ll know that rhythm wasn’t at the top of the list of importance. A quick search on Youtube of Gregorian chant gives you plenty of examples of what I mean.

Music of that time tended to flow rather than stick to a steady beat. There were some longer notes, but it wasn’t precise like it is now.

Eventually, though, as music got more complicated, thanks in large part to the fact that it could be notated, rhythms too became more interesting and precise.

The music of Palestrina is a lovely example of what music was able to become once notation, both pitch and rhythm, was more developed.

How Modern Rhythmic Notation Works

The way we talk about rhythm is in terms of fractions of a 4/4 measure (a measure with a 4/4 time signature). Here’s what I mean: What we call a whole note gets four beats, and therefore takes up a whole 4/4 measure. Similarly, a half note gets two beats and takes up half of a 4/4 measure. It continues in this way with each note dividing in half again and again.

A diagram of the most common types of rhythmic notation
These are the most commonly seen divisions but it can go on to 64th, 128th, 256th, etc!

Other Rhythmic Possibilities

What if the composer wants a duration that falls somewhere between the above divisions? There are quite a few other options available, some of which can get quite complicated.

If you’re pretty new to music and worried you might get overwhelmed by too much complicated rhythm talk, I’d recommend you skip down to the section on how to practice rhythm.

Tied Rhythms

Two quarter notes connected by a tie

Tied rhythms are rhythms which use two notes tied together to combine their rhythmic value. For example, if you tie a quarter note to another quarter note, you would hold that note for a total of two beats (because each quarter note gets one beat, and one plus one is two.)

For inexperienced music readers, these are often confused with slurs because they look almost exactly the same. In order to always know the difference, you need only remember two key points:

Two tied quarter notes on the left, two slurred quarter notes on the right
Two tied quarter notes on the left, two slurred quarter notes on the right
  1. Two notes tied together must be the same pitch, whereas with a slur the notes will change.
  2. A tie is always between just two notes, whereas a slur can span two or more.
A group of 8th notes all slurred together
A group of 8th notes all slurred together
A dotted half note
Dotted half note

Dotted Rhythms

When you add a dot to any note, you add half that note’s rhythmic value to it. So a half note, which gets two beats, now has three beats if a dot is added. A dotted quarter note gets one and a half beats.

All dotted rhythms can also be notated with ties instead, as the diagram below shows:

A diagram of dotted rhythms with their tied equivalents underneath
Here are common dotted rhythms. The second line is the equivalent rhythmic duration written with ties.

It’s not very common, but for some rhythmic purposes, one dot is not enough. For this reason you can add a second dot, or even a third! Think about it like adding a dot to the dot that’s already there.

So if you add a dot to a dotted half note, you’re just adding half of that dot’s duration, or half a beat. The total rhythmic value of a double dotted half note then is 3 and a half beats.

Similarly, if you add a third dot, you’re doing the same thing again. Since the second dot was the equivalent of half a beat, or an 8th note, the equivalent of the third dot will be of a quarter of a beat, or a 16th note.

Double- and triple-dotted rhythms with their tied equivalents underneath
Examples of double dots and triple dots, with their tied equivalents underneath.

Notation of Tied Rhythms vs. Dotted Rhythms

Some people think one should just always use tied rhythms, as they are often easier to interpret. The rule for which one to use is based on what will make the main beats of the measure as clear as possible.

If the duration of the note passes from the end of one beat to the beginning of a new beat, then you must tie two notes together so that the beginning of the new beat is clear. For example, here’s an excerpt from Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag:

Piano music excerpt from Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin
Click here to download the full score from imslp.org

Notice that the notes that are held from a weak part of the beat (in this case the last 16th note of a beat) across to a new beat, are tied.

In this example it’s also important to note that there are not equivalent dotted rhythms available. No dotted note is equal to a 16th note plus a quarter note.

If the note begins on a strong beat or a strong part of the beat, as long as it isn’t held over any stronger beats, it should be written as a dotted note. Here’s an example of Deck The Halls:

Piano music excerpt from Deck the Halls, a traditional Christmas Carol
This excerpt is from an original arrangement by Heidi Fivash

This melody could just as easily be written out with the starting quarter note tied to an 8th note, but it’s perfectly clear where the beats are without that, and in this case less ink on the page makes for easier reading.

(Notice that there are ties used in the left hand of the above excerpt. This, again, is because the duration of that left hand chord crosses over a bar line which could make the use of dotted rhythm impossible.)

This concept can be confusing to many at first, but as long as you remember that it’s actually this way so the music is as easy to read as possible, it will start to make sense.

Rests

Another extremely important aspect of rhythm is when NOT to play. Silence is just as much a part of music as the sounds are. Mozart is famously quoted as saying, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Every different type of note duration has a corresponding rest. The rests work the same as the notes do, except instead of telling you how long to play, they’re telling you how long to NOT play.

Diagram of common rests

Dotted rests work the same way as dotted notes, but tied rests aren’t a thing. You can understand why because while two notes next to each other would make two distinct sounds, two rests next to each other would just be more silence!

Tuplets

There’s one more type of rhythm I’d like to discuss here, and that’s tuplets. Tuplets are basically when a certain number of notes is squeezed into a space where a different number of those notes would normally be.

8th note triplet

The most common tuplet is the 8th note triplet. This is a set of three 8th notes that fit into the space of two 8th notes, which would be one beat.

The same thing can be done with any note-value. A somewhat less common tuplet is the quarter note triplet, which would be three quarter notes that fit into the space of two, or two beats.

Along with any note-value, a tuplet can also be any number of notes. Below is an excerpt from Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude (Op. 25, No. 1) which is almost all in 16th note sextuplets:

The first measure of Chopin's Aeolian Harp Etude, Op. 25 No. 1
Click here to download the full score from imslp.org

Notice that in this edition only the first sextuplet is actually marked as such. It’s then assumed that the groups that follow will be played the same way.

So far I’ve only shown examples in which the notes are faster than usual once combined into tuplets, but the opposite can also be true. Below is an example of a quarter note duplet, which spans the space of three quarter notes (which would be three beats):

Quarter note duplet

Tuplet Ambiguity

Tuplets can sometimes be confusing, and composers don’t always specify exactly what they want. At times one has to figure it out from the rhythmic context.

The example below is from Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4), in which he, thankfully, adds a little 3 to let us know part of the right hand figure is a triplet. He could have just as easily left that out and the player would have had to figure it out from context, based on the fact that in the final note of the excerpt, the right hand and left hand are clearly playing together.

Hemiola and Metric Modulation

Before ending this article I want to quickly explain what I touched on when I said earlier that through rhythm you could trick the listener into thinking your tempo had changed.

Let’s consider the heartbeat example I gave toward the beginning of this article. First I gave the slower heartbeat: BaBUM… BaBUM… BaBUM… Let’s notate it like this:

Rhythmic notation of the rhythm of a heartbeat

Now I’m going to add to the end of this excerpt a new rhythm that sounds like the old one, but at a faster tempo:

Rhythmic notation of the rhythm of a heartbeat that changes to the same rhythm but written in faster notes

Notice the tempo is still dotted half note = 60 bpm, but starting at the end of the third measure it will feel much faster–120 bpm to be exact! That’s because I cut in half the duration of every note (quarter notes turned to 8th notes, half notes turned to quarter notes).

This a very simple example of something we call hemiola if it’s temporary, and metric modulation if the piece remains at the new rhythmic pattern, often actually changing time signatures.

How to Practice Rhythm

I just threw a lot of different ideas at you about rhythm, some of which are quite complicated. Now I want you to take a deep breath and remember that fully understanding rhythm will take time.

For many, rhythm is one of the most difficult aspects of music. If you find that to be the case for you, the best thing you can do is be patient with yourself and practice.

Here are a few ways you can make sure you add extra rhythm focus to your practice routine:

Clap The Rhythms

Before playing a piece, first clap or tap any rhythms that you find tricky, ideally with a metronome to keep you in tempo.

By removing the note-playing aspect of the music, you can focus fully on really understanding what’s going on rhythmically, which will make a world of difference when you add the notes back in.

Count Out Loud

This is a good thing to do while doing the above clapping exercise, as well as when you’re actually playing the piece. If you find yourself pausing in between counts, get your metronome and slow down the tempo.

In order for this to work you need to find a tempo at which you can play (or clap/tap) the rhythm correctly without pauses or mistakes. This may mean you need to slow it down so much that you’re counting 8th note or 16th note beats instead of quarter note beats.

For counting 8th note beats, assuming you’re playing a piece where the quarter note usually gets one beat, you can count, “One and two and three and four and…” or pick a two-syllable word to say for each beat such as “can-dy”. What’s important is that you’re literally saying something for each 8th note of each beat.

Similarly, if you’re counting 16th note beats for the same piece you can count, “One e and a two e and a three e and a four e and a…” or pick a four-syllable word to say for each beat such as “al-li-ga-tor”. Like above, what’s important is that you’re saying something for each 16th note of each beat.

I hope this has been an interesting dive into all things rhythmic! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments and happy practicing!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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