Understanding Rhythm in Sheet Music

Don't underestimate the importance of rhythm in music.

Scroll this

In our most recent article, we looked at the different types of clefs used in music and the notes they respond to. Now you know what the notes mean, but how long should you hold them for? Unfortunately, Maria von Trapp was not entirely correct – just because you know which notes to sing, it doesn’t mean you can sing most anything…

Where would “We Will Rock You” be without the pulsing stomp, stomp clap? Or “Come on Eileen” minus the powerful folk beat. We feel the rhythm in these songs within us. We become a part of the beat. Rhythm is just as important as pitch…

In this article we’re going to look at the time signature and the beat of a note to help you give shape to the notes you play.

We Got The Beat

An important part of reading sheet music is recognising and interpreting the time signature.

The time signature is the number found at the beginning of each stave, next to the clef. It determines the meter of the music. It is composed of two numbers. The top refers to how many beats there are per bar (the space of music between each vertical line). The bottom refers to the note value for a single beat.

This means if the time signature is 4/4, there are four beats in a bar, and each note is one beat.

4/4 is the most common time signature, and is therefore represented as C. Here’s an example of a piece in 4 /4 taken from our sheet music online collection. You can play Adele’s “Someone Like You” along with her other songs at Jellynote.com.

If the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats in a bar, and each note is one beat. Likewise a 2/4 time signature means there are two beats in a bar and each note is one beat.

Now you know the time signature, you can get started on playing the notes themselves.

Notes have different lengths depending on what they look like.

We do not own the rights to this image.

A whole note is called a semibreve. You hold this for four beats. As you can see it is a round circle with no stem.

A half note is known as a minim. You hold this for two beats. It resembles the semibreve, but with a stem.

A quarter note is called a crotchet. You hold this for one beat. It looks like a minim, but its centre is filled in.

Using the rules of mathematics, we can work out that four crotches are equal to one semibreve. Simple.

Unfortunately, it does get slightly less simple. Check out this bar from the song “Part of Your World” from the film “The Little Mermaid,” which you can currently access on Jellynote.com!

Notice how the minim has a dot next to it? A dotted note means you halve the value of the note and add it to the original.

Get your calculators ready, folks…

So a dotted minim is equal to three beats… (2+1=3)

But a dotted crotchet is equal to one and a half beats… (1 + 0.5 = 1.5)

On the other hand, you can decrease the length of a note by adding a flag or a beam. Look at the end of the bar. Notice how there are two notes which are joined together? This is called a quaver. This means that each note is a half beat. You hold them for half the length of a crotchet. Make sense?

Finding the beat can be hard, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never lose it. The more music you listen to, the easier it will become to recognise the time signature.

Here’s what Xantone Blacq, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and music teacher at The Institute of Contemporary Music, has to say:

“Music is a language. If you are learning a new language, you need to speak, listen, write and read it daily. Well guess what? That’s what you need to do with music”. 

So listen to music with a variety of time signatures and rhythms daily. You’ll be playing like a pro in no time!

Now you have a grasp on rhythm, why not try playing one of our thousands of pieces of sheet music for piano, voice, guitar or whatever instrument you play! You can download all our sheet music direct to your device at jellynote.com, or by using our app. We have sheet music for beginners and for more advanced learners!

Happy Practicing!

Submit a comment

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Instagram