Rhythm, Beat, Tempo

Playing a song takes more than just the understanding of notes, but of the rhythm as well. The rhythm is the variation of time from note to note with a certain tempo. To understand a certain rhythm you must first know the tempo of the part. The tempo is the speed at which the beat or steady pulse of the music occurs. The tempo is where you would most likely tap your foot, bang your head, or dance.

To be more specific about tempo, its notation is communicated in two different ways. One way is in words to give the general tempo and communicate the feeling or emotion of the part. In most music, you will see it in English or Italian:

English Italian
Broad Largo
Slow Adagio
Moderately Slow Andante
Moderate Moderato
Moderately Fast Allegretto
Fast Allegro
Lively Vivace
Very Fast Presto
Extremely Fast Prestissimo


The other tempo notation is an exact measurement of beats per minute (bpm). This marking shows a note duration (i.e.-quarter note, eight note) equal to a number of bpm. It will look like this:

- there are 120 beats each the length of a quarter note per minute.
- there are 72 beats each the length of an eighth note per minute

While talking about rhythm and tempo, let me mention that it is important to develop an internal understanding of tempo, or an internal clock. To get this it is imperative that all musicians practice to a metronome (a device that audibly clicks or beeps any set tempo for practice purposes) to know where their rhythmic mistakes lay. Because metronomes (especially electronic) are exact, they will show you where you tend to speed up or slow down. Having good time or a good internal clock will make you or break you as a performing musician.

Rhythmic Notation

Most forms of communication are a dichotomy. There are two aspects - there is the audible/verbal speech and its written/visual counterpart. The same is true with music. Both playing and reading music are necessary tools to grasp to be able to communicate your ideas effectively and grow as a musician.

The basis of reading music is fractions. The most understandable way to see this is to look at a pie. The entire pie represents a bar of 4 equal beats. It is a circle and in essence one piece of pie- it is a whole. So, to equate that in musical terms, one whole note takes up the entire pie or all four beats. If you cut the pie in half, there are two equal pieces. Musically, each half note takes up half the measure or 2 beats. The first half note sounds on one (for two beats) and the second half note sounds beat 3 (for two beats).




+ = "and"


To break this down completely, here is a pyramid of the note values and how they relate to each other:






From this pyramid you can see that any note value from the one above it is half the value. (There are two eight notes in the space of one quarter note, two sixteenth notes in the space of one eight note)


Eighth notes by themselves are notated with one flag off of the stem like this:

When more than one eighth note is writen in succession, they can be beamed depending on the pulse of the groove like this:

Sixteenth notes standing alone have two flags off of the stem like this:

When more than one sixteenth note is written in succession, they are also beamed as such:

Sixteenth notes are read as 1 e + a, 2 e + a, etc…(four sixteenth notes per beat)

Let's start reading through some rhythms.

Rhythm Exercise 1 - Whole Notes, Half Notes, and Quarter Notes
Right off the bat, start using a metronome. Don't let yourself get into bad habits that will inhibit your growth in the future. In this first exercise, every note lands on a beat (a click of the metronome). So be sure that clap, hit, or strike of whatever instrument you're playing is exactly with the metronomes click. As you read this exercise, the counting is right underneath the music to help make sure you are doing it correctly. The counts in parenthesis are showing you that the notes still sound through those beats and are not attacked again. For example, half notes take up two beats - the attack is on the first beat and the note continues to sound through the second.

Rhythm Exercise 2 - Introduction of Eighth Notes
Similar to the first exercise except for the introduction of eighth notes in the second bar. Be sure that each downbeat is right with the metronome. The upbeat (the "and" count) is placed evenly between the downbeats. Some metronomes have the ability to click the eight-note pulse. It would be beneficial to purchase one of these metronomes.

Rhythm Exercise 3 - Quarter/Eighth Combinations
This exercise combines quarter notes and eighth notes in the same measure. Keep the tempo consistent between the quarters and eighths!

Rhythm Exercise 4 - More Quarter/Eighth Combos
If you need more reassurance on the counting, refer back to exercises one and two where the counting is underneath to help you out.

Rhythm Exercise 5 - Quarters/Eighths/Half Note Combo
Remember that the half notes get two full beats.

Rhythm Exercise 6 - Using Quarter Notes on the Upbeats
Ok, this can be a bit tricky, which is why I put the counts with the exercise. The most important thing to remember is that no matter where a quarter note starts, either an upbeat ("and" count) or a downbeat, it always takes up the space of two eight notes. Using the eight-note subdivision on your metronome would be helpful very on this exercise.

Rhythm Exercise 7 - More Quarter Note Upbeats
More of the same.

Rhythm Exercise 8 - Sixteenth Note Variations


Rests are rhythms of silence. They are just as important as any note you play. Just think of how you speak and how the space between words and sentences changes the way come across. The notation for rests reads just like the notes.






Rest Exercise 1 - Half and Quarter Note Rests
Remember to keep the sound held through each note value. The parentheses in this exercise indicate the counts of rest.

Rest Exercise 2 - Introducing Eighth Rests
In this exercise the eight note is the smallest note value, so make sure to count the eight notes throughout. Even through the quarter and half notes. Put your metronome on the eight note clicks and while your playing, think "1+ 2+ 3 + 4 +" throught the exercise.

Rest Exercise 3 - Half/Quarter/Eighth Rest Combo
Like the last exercise. Keep thinking the eight note pulse throught the larger half and whole note rests, so you can come back in on your next attack more evenly and solidly.

Rest Exercise 4 - Another Combo Exercise

Rest Exercise 5 - Introducing Sixteenth Rests
The syllables used to count sixteenth notes/rests is 1e+a 2e+a 3e+a 4e+a, etc, etc. Make sure you account for each syllable when counting this exercise out. Look at the note and rest pyramid if need be.

Rest Exercise 6 - A Complete Sixteenth Note/Rest Exercise
This is similar to Rhythm Ex. 8. The first few variations are the same but written differently to incorporate sixteenth note rest. Always play the check pattern before playing the rhythmic variation. This will help you to solidify the tempo and better understand the sixteenth note feel by subdividing the sixteenth notes before putting in the rests.


Ties connect one note to the next. The tie's function to add the value of the tied note to the first; to make the note sound for a longer rhythm. Like the dot, it lengthens a notes value. But, with a tie you can lengthen by any note value. You do not re-strike the tied note. The example above showing two quarter notes now sound for the same value as a half note.

The tie allows you to be a lot more flexible in making interesting rhythms. Where the dot lengths the note by a given amount, the tie adds any amount the composer wishes. It is also useful when lengthening a note out across the barline.

Tie Exercise 1
In this exercise, the first line shows a whole note and a tied rhythm which sound the same as one whole note. The second line is half notes and the tied quarter notes which sound identical to the half notes and so on. This exercise should give you the initial idea on how tied notes look and sound.

Tie Exercise 2
A small etude using quarters, eighths, and tied rhythms

Tie Exercise 3
A tied exercise using eighth and sixteenth notes. This is a more developed etude using ties in sixteenth notes.

Dotted Rhythms

One little dot changes everything! When you see a dot added next to a notehead it adds half the value of the note it is connected to. Another way to say this is, a dotted note is worth three of the notes next smaller value.

A dotted quarter note takes up the same space as three eighth notes. The quarter note itself is worth two eight notes plus the dot, which adds half the quarter note. Half of a quarter note is an eight note (remember the note value pyramid). So, the dot adds one eight note, which equals a total of three eight notes.

Now to you the second definition of the dot. Again you see a dotted quarter - what is one value smaller that a quarter note? An eighth note, right. So a dotted quarter takes up the same space as three eighth notes.

What is one value smaller than a half note? A quarter note (remember the pyramid). So, a dotted half note sounds for 3 quarter notes.

A dotted eighth note (e.) sound for how long? The eighth note sounds for two sixteenth notes, plus the dot which adds one more sixteenth note; that makes the dotted eighth notes the same space as 3 sixteenth notes.


Beats naturally fall in a repetitive pattern of weak and strong pulses that are usually grouped into two, three, or four beats. These patterns are called meters. Each grouping of beats are called measures. A two-beat meter, like a march, is called a duple meter. A three-beat meter, like a waltz, is called a triple meter. A four-beat meter, like 99% of what you hear on the radio, is called a quadruple meter. The strongest accent is going to be on the first beat. Also, understand that feeling meter is more on the basis of personal interpretation that just right or wrong.

Time Signatures

Time signatures indicates how many beats are in each measure, the type of note that gets the beat, and the division of each beat. The top number of a time signature represents how many beats are in the measure. This number can be 1 to whatever. The bottom number represents the type of note that gets each beat, I.E.- 1-whole, 2-halves, 4-quarters, 8-eighths, 16-sixteenths, 32-thirty-seconds. (They rarely go up to 32nd notes.) The bottom number can only be from the listed numbers above.

2/4 means that there are two beats to the measure and the quarter note gets the beat.
4/4 means that there are four beats to the measure and the quarter note gets the beat.
6/8 means that there are six beats to the measure and the eighth note gets the beat.
3/2 means that there are three beats to the measure and the half note gets the beat.

Another preemptive correction - time signatures are read exactly how the numbers are spoken, NOT as fractions!!! 2/4 is pronounced "two four", not "two fourths".

Simple Time Signatures

Simple time signatures have only the numbers 2, 3, or 4 on the top. The amount of beats is equal with the top number of the time signature. With the exception of 4, the numbers are prime. Four is frequently interchangeable w/ two and is considered simple. Examples of simple time signatures are:

2/4, 2/2 or cut time
3/8, 3/16
4/8, 4/4 or common time.

Compound Time Signatures

Compound time signatures have top numbers such as 6, 9, and 12. Which, as you can see are divisible by three (as opposed to the simple time signatures, which are prime numbers). Compound time signatures are more tricky. Granted the top number indicates the number of beats in a measure of a simple time signature, but it is not so when dealing with compound meters.

Let's use 6/8 as an example here. In 6/8, there are 6 eight notes in one measure and the eight note gets the beat. Now, think of a song with a 6/8 time sig. (many blues songs, "Born Under a Bad Sign", "Pop Goes the Weasel"). These songs don't have six major pulses now, do they? You probably feel two, one for every three beats; 123 456, Right? This shows that each beat in a compound time signature is divided into three parts. Like a waltz, it is in three but there is one strong beat and 2 weak beats. That is the way each beat is felt in a compound time signature.

In 9/8 there are three groups of three- 123 456 789. This time signature has three beats.

There are four beats in 12/8- 123 456 789 101112

Now that you know the beat types and meter types, they can be coupled in six different combinations:





Beat Duple Meter Triple Meter Quadruple Meter
Simple Simple Duple - 2/4, 2/8, 2/2 Simple Triple - 3/4, 3/2, 3/8 Simple Quadruple - 4/4
Compound Compound Duple - 6/8, 6/16, 6/4 Compound Triple - 9/8, 9/16 Compound Quadruple - 12/8, 12/16


Odd Time Signatures

Odd time signatures are signatures with the top number being odd-5,7,9,11,13, etc. These signatures have note groupings of two's and three's that add up to the desired number to create its main pulses or beats.

Let's use the number 5. If we use grouping of twos and threes to equal our odd number, then 5 equals 2+3 or 3+2, which is two beat groupings-12 345 or 123 45. Just make sure that when you count to 5 that you count evenly with no extra pausing or resting between numbers.

With the number 7, you can group this into three ways- 2+2+3, 3+2+2, or 2+3+2. How many beats do you see? The answer should be 3. 12 34 567, 123 45 67, or 12 345 67. Before we go any further with odd signatures, for counting purposes only count to the number that is grouped. Meaning if 7 is grouped 2+2+3, count 12 12 123 not 12 34 567. It makes it much easier on the brain and in keeping in time. The higher the number is, the more combinations of two's and three's there can be.

With the number 9 we can group this bar as 3+3+3 (which was show before as a compound triple meter), 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+2, 2+3+2+2, or 2+2+3+2. Depending on how you group this bar together it can have three or four beats.

Let's go back to 7 to do some exercises:

First count through 7 using the 2+2+3 grouping. Count out loud each beat while clapping on the beginning of each grouping (each time you say 1).

12 12 123- 12 12 123- 12 12 123- 12 12 123- 1

With 9 let's use the 2+2+2+3 meter-

12 12 12 123, 12 12 12 123, 12 12 12 123, 12 12 12 123, 1

Tuplets and Polyrhythms

A tuplet is the division of a note value outside of its normal division. A tuplet of an undotted note is anything outside of two, four, eight, etc; as in triplets, quintuplets, and setuplets. A tuplet of a dotted note is anything outside of three, six, twelve, etc; as in duplets and quadruplets.

Polyrhythms are when one tuplet plays simultaneously with another to create a more complex composite rhythm. To be a true polyrhythm each number cannot have an even subdivision of its partner, as in 2 against 4 (2:4), 3 against 6 (3:6), or 2 against 6 (2:6). They are not polyrhythms because the first, smaller number has an even division of the larger number. That does not make for an interesting, complex rhythm. Some of the most common polyrhythms are 2:3, 3:4, 4:5. 2:3 and 3:4 can also translate into 4:6 and 6:8. As you will hear from the examples, the combination of the simple tuplet makes for a more complicated and progressive rhythmic motive.


Polymeters occur when two or more lines of music are being played simultaneously in different time signatures. Usually, the differing time signatures all end their phrases at the same point as to keep the musical phrasing coherent. (layering mulitple time sigs together in a band setting and how they add up - ie - 3 bars of 4/4 w/ 4 bars of 3/4, 4 bars of 4/4 w/ 8 bars of 7/16 + a bar of 2/4)