Rhythm and Time Signatures


There are three aspects of music, namely:

Most of the tutorials on this website tend to concentrate on the first two. This is intentional, as they are the areas which I have studied in most depth, particularly harmony. However, no musician can afford to ignore the importance of all three. In an attempt to redress the balance, this is the first of number of tutorials to cover the subject of rhythm.

If you listen to a piece of music, you are almost certain to find yourself tapping your foot in time to the music, especially if the song has a strong beat such as you find in rock music.

In the case of rock and many other contemporary styles of music, you will find that the beat of a piece of music is defined by the drums, playing in a regular pattern. Even with the most adventurous drum styles there is still a discernable steady beat defined underneath everything, usually on bass, snare and high-hat.

A useful word to know is tempo. As the name suggests this is an Italian word (like much music terminology) and it defines the speed of a piece of music. Tempo is measured in beats per minute (which you may sometimes see abbreviated as BPM). Sometimes a tempo may be expressed as a set number of beats per minute. Alternatively, a word (also of Italian origin) may be used to describe the general range, as shown below:

Tempo Beats Per Minute
Largo 40 - 60
Larghetto 60 - 66
Adagio 66 - 76
Andante 76 - 108
Moderato 108 - 120
Allegro 120 - 168
Presto 168 - 200
Prestissimo 200 - 208

A piece of music will have a time signature, which defined the rhythm pattern. This is written on the stave at the start of a piece of music and consists of two numbers. A very common time signature is 4/4.

This tells us that there are 4 quarter notes in each bar - this is the sort of thing that you could count along to '1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4'.

  4/4 time signature

Compare this to another time signature, such as 3/4.

3/4 time signature  

The 3/4 time signature is also known as waltz time, as it is the pattern used for that particular style of dance. Here there are only 3 quarter notes in each bar, counted as '1-2-3 1-2-3'.

There are a number of other time signatures that you may come across. 12/8 is not uncommon, and 5/4 is another that you may see from time to time. There are others that you may come encounter, and it is also worth pointing out that it is possible to change time signatures within a piece of music (the new time signature will be written on the stave as the beginning of the bar where it comes into effect.

Note Values

As mentioned above the time signature specifies the number of beats in a single bar. Music notation provides a means of writing a note as either a whole or some sort of fraction - this is covered in a separate tutorial which you may find it helpful to read in conjunction with this.

Let's take a simple piece of 4/4 as an example:

As you can see, the time signature specifies that we have 4 quarter notes per par. The first bar is quite simple as it has four crotchets. For the second bar, the same note is played steadily throughout, and is written using a semibreve. This is perfectly valid as 1 semibreve = 4 crotchets.

Notice that we've had use a tie to link the final note of the first bar to the note in the second bar. This denotes that the note should be played steadily, and not repicked (or whatever) at the start of the second bar. For all the last note lasts for a total of 5 quarter-note beats, we need to split it across 2 bars, as the time signature has specified a maximum of 4 quarter-notes per bar.

Hopefully this is all making sense so far. Now lets look at an example using a different time signature. Here is the same set of notes, written in 3/4 time:

You should notice how in this second example we haven't been able to use a semibreve at all - this note is too big to fit into a single bar. Also, because each bar needs to have a total of 3 quarter note beats, the end of the final bar has a quarter-note rest.

As these two examples are written in different ways you may be wondering if they sound different. As they stand here then the the answer is "no, not really." However, remember that music will usually be played in some form of band/ensemble context. The time signature provides information to the rhythm section, particularly the drummer or, percussionist to let them know where the beat falls. For example, they could play a pattern which places emphasis on the first beat of each bar - think about how that would sound for something in 4/4 time compared to something in 3/4 time.

This is no less a complex area of music than harmony or melody, and all we have done here is scratch the surface. Hopefully this will act as a good starting point to help you understand rhythm and timekeeping a bit better - future tutorials will look at more advanced ideas.

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