Understand the counting system used in music theory. Be able to label rhythms, identify locations in music given beat locations and read basic rhythms.
What is rhythm?
Rhythm in music is the way notes are played in time. If the notes are consistent and short they have a different type of rhythm then notes that are longer. Rhythm itself is explored much further in my book Sound and Synth Basics on a philosophical level but here we need only a basic understanding.
Funky loop with swing
Same loop no swing
The Language of Rhythm
There is a common vocabulary around rhythm that will allow you to speak very specifically about where in a song you are. We have seen that a measure must have the amount of beats the time signature dictates. This means that if a time signature says there are 4 beats then there will be 4, no more, no less. So say we wanted to tell a band to start on the second measure. We can do that by just saying “start on measure 2”. Not only this but we could also specify what beat. We could say “Start on measure 2 beat 2”. Now we have a specific location in the music.
Let's take a look at some examples:
On the bottom we see the beat number that note lands on. We see in red beat 2 of the second measure.
This time beat 3 of measure 2 is red.
This also will work for time signatures where other notes get the beat, for example in 6/8 or 3/16 we can also specify the beat easily:
This time beat 5 of measure 1 is red.
This time beat 1 of measure 3 is red.
What about measures who have notes on spots that are not directly on a beat? Can we start on those notes? That answer is of course yes! We do so with a thing called subdivisions.
Subdivisions are a way of breaking up a beat so we can talk about locations smaller than a beat. The most simple subdivision is the breaking up of a beat into two parts. In this case the first part of the beat lands where the actual beat is, but the second part lands halfway to the next beat. We call these spots the “ands” of the beat and represent them with a plus sign “+”.
So in this example the quarter note gets the beat, half of that is an eighth note. So the eighth note that lands right where the beat would start is called the number of that beat while the eighth note that lands half way to next beat is said to be the “and” of that beat. In this example we see beat 1 and the “and of 1”. Counting out loud we would have “1 and”.
Here the measure is filled with eighth notes, we have 4 beats outlined and 4 ands. It would be counted out loud as “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” and written “1 + 2 + 3 + 4”. If I asked for the “and of 2” that would mean go to beat 2 and select the note that lands on the “and” immediately after 2, which is red in the picture.
If I said go to “beat 4”, that means go to the note that lands directly on beat 4, which is the second to last 8th note.
Now we can specify up to the halfway point of a beat. Before we move on let's go over rests.
When labeling rhythms it is common to not label the rests because a rest indicates no note is played. When counting out loud we do not say the rests out loud. You may find it very helpful when you're starting out however to label the rests because the rests take up time to! Therefore, I will label the rest locations above the stave to demonstrate that they take up time but we do not usually write in their value or say their value out loud. In later lessons I will omit the rests.
Here we have rests, the rhythm would be counted 1 + 3 4 +. Being able to count out loud on a first look at the music is referred to as “sight reading” and is a very important skill to develop. It allows one to imagine how something will sound simply from seeing the music, a useful ability. Let's take a look at more examples before we move to the next section.
BEFORE YOU HIT PLAY! - Try to count out loud with a metronome at 80bpm then check how close you were by hitting play.
Original code by: Music and Coding
Subdivision in other meters
Say we are in 6/8. Here the 8th note gets the beat and there are 6 beats in a measure. Half of the beat in this case is a 16th note. So this means the “ands” would be 16th notes that are half way marks, or in other words the half way point between beats is the “and” regardless of what note gets the beat.
Subdivision into 4
So far we have talked about locating beats and half way between beats. There is a standard subdivision for splitting the beat into fourths.
Note: There also exists divisions for beyond 4 such as 8 but I am not aware of any standard for such small subdivisions.
To divide a beat into 4ths we use the following: 1 e + a, pronounced sounds like “One EE and Uh”
So if we wanted the 4 16th note of beat 1 we would say “the a of beat 4”. This is the red note below.
Here the red note is on the “e of 2” and the purple note is on the “a of 3”.
Here are some more counting exercises for you to try. The first several focus on just 16th notes, then the rest are mixed.
Subdivision A useful technique
We rarely deal with measures that only have one type of note. In these cases we must know how long the notes are and if they “covered up” the beat. For example consider:
Here the half note consumes both beats 1 and 2. Counting out loud we would say “1 3 4”. In such a case it is often helpful to write in the missing beat and assign it the half note even though we don’t say it out loud, so the half note would get 1 2 and then the other two notes would get 3 4. This allows you to keep track of all the beats.
This idea goes further. Look at the second example in the playback.
Here quarter notes are mixed with 8th notes. We would count this as “1 2 and 3 4” and that is how it would sound but some of beat 4 is a rest and the quarters “eat up” the “ands” of their respective beats. So we might decided to subdivide the measure to make it more clear by writing in all the “ands” even though we don’t actually say them all out loud.
This allows up to keep track of all beats and clearly see how it adds up. We subdivided down to the 8th note since that was the smallest note.
The next natural extension is to do this for the 16th note. Look at the 3 example in the playback above. This would be counted “1 2 e + 3 4”. Here we can see many parts of the beat are not shown on the 16th level because the notes are long, such as how beat 1 is a quarter note and so it “eats” the “1 e + a” having it all assigned to beat 1. In these cases we can subdivide down to the 16th note to keep track of all the beats, it would become “1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a”.
Now it is very clear which notes took what beats. This can be very handy when breaking down a complex rhythm. When you get stuck, consider subdividing.
A common term you often hear used in bands is “pick ups to measure 4” or something of that form. This simply means start playing at the notes just before measure 4.
You should now be able to count simple rhythms and read basic rhythms. Below is a quiz with a review of everything. If you can easily answer these questions then you are ready for the next section.
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