Musical Information: Rhythm Basics

How to understand written rhythm, with a few notes on how to teach it.

Rhythm can be a hard thing to understand, in written form. So much of it is 'the same,' even though it's written differently. It can also be difficult to teach to young children. Here are some rhythm basics.

The most basic meters are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The bottom number in each time signature (that is what '4/4' is) tells you what the beat is. That is, 4=quarter note (think of the 4 meaning '1/4'). The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure. That is, 2, 3, or 4. That means, in 2/4 there are TWO QUARTER NOTES, in 3/4 there are THREE QUARTER NOTES, and in 4/4, there are FOUR QUARTER NOTES.

A quarter note is your basic beat, and it is written with a black oval and stem (which goes either up and to the right OR down and to the left). Four quarter notes means there are four beats, so you would clap (stomp, tap, etc.) four times, counting "1, 2, 3, 4."

A half note is twice as long as a quarter note. It is written with an OPEN (non-colored) oval and a stem. Each half note gets two beats. So, if there were two quarter notes, you would tap twice as you said "1 2, 3 4." Notice the difference -- you say "1 2" as you tap the first half note, and "3 4" as you tap the second.

A whole note is a plain oval with NO stem. It gets four beats. If there is one whole note, you would tap once (on beat one) and count "1 2 3 4."

There are also eighth notes, which are written with a black oval and a stem (two eighth notes are frequently barred together). These are each half a beat. To explain to a younger child, say that there are two eighth notes per beat (multiplication is easier than division). Eighth notes can also be thought of as twice as fast as quarter notes. To count them, you say "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and," tapping on each beat plus all the "ands."

There are also sixteenth notes, which are twice as fast as eighth notes, and four times as fast as quarter notes. These are written with colored ovals and double flags (or two bars, if four are written together). They are counted "1 e and a, 2 e and a, 3 e and a, 4 e and a." Each part of that ("1 e and a") gets one sixteenth note.

It isn't as hard as it sounds! In a 4/4 measure, there is ONE whole note, TWO half notes, FOUR quarter notes, EIGHT eighth notes, or SIXTEEN sixteenth notes. That's all you have to remember, for 4/4 time (which is what all this is based on).

In 2/4, you will get exactly half that number of notes per measure.

Remember this: all rhythm is relative. You may see a sign that shows quarter note=96. What this means is that the beat (pulse) of the music is 96 beats per minute. You can figure this out by using a metronome or an ordinary clock. For example, quarter note=60 means that there is one quarter note each second, or one beat each second. This is how we figure out the speed of the music, or tempo.

A tempo can be as fast or slow as you want. You may have quarter note=60, or quarter note=180. However, as long as you know that eighth notes are twice as fast as quarter notes, and quarter notes are twice as fast as eighth notes, you will be fine.

Many people run into trouble because they think quarter notes are ALWAYS slower than eighth notes. This is not true! If you have one piece at quarter note=60, the eighth notes will be fairly slow (two eighth notes every second). However, if you have another piece where quarter note=180, you will have THREE quarter notes per second! These quarter notes are faster than the first eighth notes.

As long as you keep in mind that rhythm is entirely relative, and base your idea of how long a quarter note or an eighth note is on the tempo of a particular piece, you will be fine!

If you are teaching rhythm, start out teaching only 4/4 time (whole notes to eighth notes; no sixteenth notes right away), and keeping tempos fairly steady around quarter note=96. Don't make anything very obviously faster or slower until your students understand rhythm well at a particular tempo (a "walking" tempo is good to start). Later on, explain the idea that "rhythm is relative." Don't start this until at least middle school.

Rhythm is easy -- as long as you know the basics!

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