Reading Music – Learning Rhythms

Music time-signatures – learning, reading and counting rhythms – from the easy duet music people.

Reading Music – Learning Rhythms, Time Signatures and Counting

    One essential part of learning to play a musical instrument is often     sidelined – learning to count and to understand time signatures. Let’s start     with a basic foundation in reading music rhythms.

    All commonly used time signatures consist of one figure over another at the     start of a piece or section of a piece of music. The top figure represents     simply “how many” of whatever value the bottom figure relates to, will be in     each bar of music in that piece or section. To understand what the figure on     the bottom refers to, we need to understand a western evaluation (mainly US     based) of note-lengths. This system expresses the semibreve (an open note     without a stem) as a “whole note”, and can therefore be thought of as being     represented by the number 1. The note half the length of a semibreve is a     minim but referred to in this system as a “half-note.” It is an open note     but with a stem either up or down from it. If we think of one-half written     as a fraction we have the number 2 at the bottom, and the figure 2 at the     bottom of a time signature also refers to “half-notes.” Therefore in a time     signature of 3 over 2, there are three half-notes in each bar. 2 over 2     would be two half-notes in each bar, etc.

    The note one quarter of the length of a semibreve is a crotchet, but     referred to in this system as a “quarter-note” – a filled-in note with a     stem either up or down. One quarter as a fraction has a 4 on the bottom and     a time signature of, say, 3 over 4 means there are three “quarter-notes” in     each bar. 4 over 4 is four quarter-notes to a bar, etc.

    The note one eighth of the length of a semibreve is a quaver – a filled-in     note with a stem in either direction but also with a tail from the stem.     Following the same system a time signature of 3 over 8 means there are three     eighth-notes in a bar. 6 over 8 equals six eighth-notes in a bar, etc.

Counting in Music

    Now we understand what time signatures mean, we need to learn a little about     how to count in music. Time signatures that have 2, 3 or 4 on the top are     referred to as “Simple” times, where each beat of music could be divided     into halves. These are counted using the number of each beat and an “and”     for each beat that could be divided further, as in “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”     for a bar of 4 over 4 time. “1 and 2 and 3 and” is how to count a bar of 3     over 4 time.

    Times that have 6, 9 or 12 at the top are “Compound” times, meaning each     beat could be divided into thirds (not halves as in Simple time.) A bar of 6     over 8 has 6 eighth-notes in it but the eighth-notes are grouped in threes     to form each beat. Therefore 6 over 8 is counted “1 and a 2 and a”, showing     us that this time signature has only 2 Compound beats in it, each beat being     a total of three eighth-notes. To write one note equaling a beat in this     case, we must write a dotted crotchet (a crotchet or quarter-note with a dot     AFTER it.) The dot adds half the length of the normal value to the note. So     a bar of 6 over 8 could have two dotted crotchet beats in it, or six quavers     grouped in threes, or one dotted crotchet and three quavers, etc. A bar of     12 over 8 would be counted “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a” to represent     all of the thirds available for each beat.

    There will be more explanations of Rhythms and Times in the next article.