An Introduction to…Rhythm

An Introduction to Rhythm

Understanding the basics of music theory can go a long way in helping you read music, create music, and communicate with other musicians. And Sheet Music Direct is here to help! Take a look at our introductions to other key music theory topics, including pitch and chords.


A note has two rhythmic parts: attack (when it begins) and duration (how long it lasts).

Note Values

The more stuff a notehead has attached to it, the shorter the note's duration. Let's look at the different types of notes, from long to short.

A hollow notehead without stems or flags is a whole note. It sustains for four beats. Tap your foot and count to four while letting a C note ring on your instrument. Stop the note on beat 1 of the next measure.

A hollow notehead with a stem is a half note. This note rings out for two beats. Two half notes occupy four beats, the same amount of time as one whole note. Tap and count while playing these notes on beats 1 and 3. Again, use a C note on your instrument.

Notice that although the notes are evenly spaced over the numbers, the attack, or start time, of the second note is really determined by the duration of the note preceding it. The second note starts on beat 3 because the first note was two full beats in length.

Stem Direction
When a stemmed note is on or above the center line of the staff, its stem hangs down from the left side of the notehead.

If the note is on or below the center line, its stem points up from the right side of the notehead.

Stemmed notes on the center line should point in the same direction as their neighbors.

The rules of correct notation may seem a bit picky, but by making it look neat and accurate, the music will be easier to read.

For a quarter note, draw a filled-in head with a stem. This note lasts for one beat. Tap your foot, count aloud, and play the note C on each beat (number).

The next, smaller rhythmic value is an eighth note, created by adding a flag to the stem. The flag should look like a real flag, curving away, then pointing back at the notehead. Regardless of stem direction, the flag always goes to the right.

There are two eighth notes in one beat. To count them, insert the word "and" between the numbers, like this: "1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and…" Your foot should reach its highest point just as you say the word "and."

This pyramid shows the relationships between various note durations that work across all divisions of time. For instance, two eighths equal one quarter; two quarter notes plus one half note equal one whole note, etc.


The number of beats in each measure is called the meter, and is indicated at the beginning of the music with a time signature. The top number indicates the number of beats per measure, and the lower number indicates which type of note is to be counted as one beat.

Below is an example of 4/4 meter, also called "four-four time" or "common time." It's sometimes written with a symbol that looks like a 'C'. There are four beats counted in each measure, and a quarter note gets one beat. Immediately upon hearing a piece of music, we can usually tell what the top number of its time signature will be because of the frequency of the strongest downbeat.

The lower number in a time signature will be 2, 4, 8, or 16. This is not instantly discernible from hearing the music alone. A composer will decide which lower number to use to make the music easy to count. Here are some commonplace meters.


Once a meter is set, the notes in each measure must add up to exactly the number of beats it specifies. The exception to this rule is the first measure, which may contain fewer beats than the time signature specifies. When this happens, the first measure is called a pickup measure. The notes themselves are called pickup notes.


Rests indicate silence in the music, which is just as important as sound. For every note duration (whole, half, quarter, etc.), there is an equivalent rest.

Picture the whole rest as a little black hat that hangs down from the fourth line of the staff. Like a whole note, it lasts for four beats. Count four beats while remaining silent.

The half rest is also a black hat, but it stands upright from the third line. Think of the half rest as being lighter in weight than the whole rest, so it stands upright instead of hanging down. The half rest is two beats in length.

Like the quarter note, a quarter rest is one beat in length.

When hand-writing a quarter rest, it's best to keep it simple, as follows:

1. Make a diagonal line from left to right through the center line.
2. Draw a counterclockwise hook at the bottom.
3. Add a counterclockwise hook at the top.

The eighth rest looks a bit like the number seven, although the horizontal flag should be curved. Notice the diagonal stem goes from right to left to clearly distinguish it from the quarter rest. The eighth rest is half a beat in duration.

Review the pyramid of rest equivalents. Name each aloud.


When multiple eighth notes appear in sequence, beams are used instead of individual flags. Beaming makes eighth notes easier to read and write.

There are some important rules about beaming. In 4/4 time, a beam should not cross beat 3. Instead, draw two beamed groups. Imagine a line dividing the measure in half.

Beams also create some exceptions to the rules about stem length and direction. A beam should follow the general direction of the notes, and the shortest stem in the beamed group should be an octave long. The stem direction of the group is determined by the note that is farthest away from the center line. Following these few guidelines makes the difference between unreadable and readable music.


A dot added after any note or rest increases its duration by one half of its original value. For instance, if a note is four beats long, the same note with a dot after it is now six beats long (4 + 2 = 6).

Since a half note is two beats long, a dotted half note is three beats long (2 + 1 = 3).

For a dotted quarter note, we must count "ands." The dotted quarter note is one-and-a-half beats in duration. If it starts on beat 1, any note following it starts on the "and" of beat 2.


Consider the dotted whole note for a minute. It is six beats in duration, longer than a measure of 4/4 time. In fact, it is not uncommon for one pitch to sustain for several measures. However, for ease of reading, there should always be something written on beat 1 of each measure.

To correctly notate duration longer than a measure, ties are used. When notes are tied, only the first one is struck. Its duration is then extended by the value of the other note(s) tied to it. Here is a whole note in one measure tied to a half note in the next measure. A half rest completes the second measure. The pitch sounds for six beats, while two measures of 4/4 time are counted.

Note the difference between a tie and a slur, which is used to show a smooth connection between notes of different pitch.

Since rests are silent, we never use ties to join them. We also do not use dots with whole, half, or quarter rests in 4/4 time. Like the example below, use the correct number and type of rests needed to create the necessary duration of silence, so that any notes that follow fall on the desired beat.

Along with correct beaming, ties are also used to make beats easy to see within a measure. If eighth notes are present in a measure, imagine a line between beats 2 and 3 that notes or rests may not cross; there should be something written on beat 3 for us to read. If a sustained note from a previous beat is desired, it is tied to a note on beat 3.

When considering the best way to write a note, try to create the necessary duration by using the smallest number of symbols on the page, while still showing beat 1, and showing beat 3 if eighth notes or rests are present.

1. Use one large note if possible.
2. Add a dot if needed to complete the necessary duration.
3. If the note extends past the bar line, use a tie instead of a dot.
4. If there are eighth notes in the measure, use a tie across the imaginary bar line before beat 3.

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