Reading music proficiently requires a musician to be able to understand both notes on the staff and how to play them on their instrument. This on its own, however, is insufficient. A proficient reader will also need to understand rhythm notation. Rhythm notation is a system used to represent the duration of musical sounds. It consists of various note values and symbols, each of which represents a specific duration of time. Our top Toronto music teachers are available to help you learn and understand rhythm notation and anything else that you would like to know about your instrument.
The most common note values used in Western music are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and triplets. It's also important to note that while practicing challenging rhythms, musicians can employ counting techniques to help execute rhythms accurately. To understand the duration of a note, we must first determine if the note has a stem and flag(s) attached to the head and if the note is coloured in. Here's how to read and count each of the most common notes:
A whole note looks like a circle and has no stem. It represents a note that lasts for four beats. Most commonly a musician will count "one, two, three, four" while playing a whole note.
A half note looks like a circle with a stem attached to it. It represents a note that lasts for two beats. Most commonly a musician will count "one, two" while playing a whole note. In the event that we have two half notes next to each other, the first will receive "one, two", and the second "three, four".
A quarter note looks like a filled-in circle with a stem attached to it. It represents a note that lasts for one beat. Most commonly a musician will count "one" while playing a whole note. In the event that we have three quarter notes next to each other, the first will receive "one,", the second will receive "two" and the third "three".
An eighth note looks like a quarter note with a flag attached to the stem. When two or more eighth notes are written next to each other, they are connected by a beam across the top rather than a flag. Eighth notes cannot, however, be beamed while going over the middle of the bar. To count an eighth note, we have to now divide the beat in half, therefore we need another syllable before saying the next number. To do this, we count "one, and, two, and, etc.". A single eight note will either be counted as a number or an and, depending on where it falls. Sometimes while playing a passage that contains eighth notes and quarter notes, it's easiest to count all of the "ands", even while playing quarter.
A sixteenth note looks like an eighth note with two flags or bars attached to the stem. It represents a note that lasts for a quarter of a beat. When two or more sixteenth notes are written next to each other, they are connected by two beams across the top rather than two flags. To count a sixteenth note, we have to now divide the beat in four, therefore we need another three syllables before saying the next number. To do this, we count "one, ee, and, uh, etc.". A single sixteenth note will either be counted as a number, ee, and or uh depending on where it falls. Sometimes while playing a passage that contains sixteenth notes, eighth notes and quarter notes, it is easiest to count all of the 16th notes, even while playing larger subdivisions.
Triplets are a type of rhythm notation used to represent three notes played in the space of two notes of the same value. They are written as three notes of the same value with a curved line connecting them and the number 3 above or below the line. An easy way to recognize them is by thinking that they look like three 8th notes beamed together, but they have a number 3 above them. To count them, we can say "One-trip-let, Two-trip-let, etc.".
A time signature is a musical notation symbol used to indicate the meter or time signature of a piece of music. It consists of two numbers, one written above the other, typically appearing at the beginning of a piece of music or at the start of each new section.
The top number in the time signature represents the number of beats in each measure, while the bottom number represents the type of note that receives one beat. For example, in the common time signature of 4/4 (spoken "four four"), the top number indicates that there are four beats in each measure, while the bottom number indicates that a quarter note receives one beat.
Some other common time signatures include:
3/4 time: Three beats per measure, with a quarter note receiving one beat. This is often used in waltzes and other dance music.
6/8 time: Six beats per measure, with an eighth note receiving one beat. This is often used in music with a "swing" feel, such as jazz and blues.
2/4 time: Two beats per measure, with a quarter note receiving one beat. This is often used in marches and other music with a strong, steady beat.
Time signatures are important because they give the musician a sense of the underlying rhythm of the piece of music. By understanding the time signature, a musician can determine how to count and play the notes in the piece, and how to fit them into the overall structure of the music. It's important to be aware of while counting as well because we count up to the last beat in a bar. For example, in 3/4 time, we count up to 3. In 6/8 time, we count up to 6, etc.
It's important to note that these note values can also be combined in various ways to create more complex rhythms. For example, two eighth notes would equal one quarter note, and four sixteenth notes would equal one quarter note. As mentioned above, sometimes it's easiest to count in the smallest subdivision (ie. 16th notes) while playing passages with mixed rhythms. As you read rhythm notation, it's also important to keep track of the time signature, which tells you how many beats are in each measure and which note value gets the beat. With practice, you can become fluent in reading rhythm notation and use it to play or write your own music. Contact us today to connect with a top Toronto music teacher who can help you understand musical notation.