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Lesson 5: Rhythm and Time Signatures

Lesson 5: Rhythm and Time Signatures

In my last blog post, I discussed the staff and how notes are placed on it are read in musical scores. For this lesson, we’ll be looking at how notes written on the staff can be counted.
To be heard coherently, music must have rhythm, which is the placement of notes within a set repeated time pattern. So, how is rhythm shown in musical scores?
Notes on the staff read from left to right comprise a line of music. But, in order to be counted in patterns, each line of music needs to be broken into smaller portions, called measures. You may sometimes hear measures called bars; the words are synonymous. Measures are created by placing vertical lines called bar lines throughout the staff. At the end of the score to signify the conclusion of the piece of music, there are two lines, called a double bar. You can check out the breakdown of a line of music here (I’ve used the treble clef and quarter note E’s for my example):
To count the notes inside each measure, you need to know two things:
1.) How many equal units of time, called beats, are in each measure? And,
2.) What kind of note—quarter note, half note, whole note, etc.—gets one beat?
Next to the clef sign at the beginning of every musical score are two numbers stacked on top of each other. These numbers are the time signature (sometimes also called the time meter or meter signature). The time signature tells you what set repeated pattern you will be using to count the notes in each measure of your piece of music. The top number of a time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number tells you what kind of note gets one beat. Let’s have a look at one of the most common time signatures, 4/4 time, which looks like this:
The 4 on top tells you that there will be 4 beats in each measure, and the 4 on the bottom tells you that the quarter note gets one beat. So, you would count “1, 2, 3, 4” in each measure, then start over at 1 again after each bar line. Here’s the line of music I used earlier, but now with the 4/4 time signature included and the counts written in along the bottom of the line:
As explained in a previous post, there are always two quarter notes in every half note, and two half notes in every whole note. So, according to that hierarchy, if the quarter note gets one beat whenever 4 is the bottom number in the time signature, the other note values would get the following numbers of beats:
Half Note = 2 Beats
Whole Note = 4 Beats
You can use these note values in any arrangement you like to yield a total of 4 beats per measure, which makes the rhythm of the measure. Half notes and whole notes should be held for the appropriate number of beats. Here is another line of music in 4/4 time that uses different note values in addition to the quarter note. I’ve used dashes to show the beats for longer held notes:
Because the 4/4 time signature is so often used, it is also referred to as “common time,” and sometimes written like this in scores:
There are many different time signatures comprised of a variety of number pairings. Changing the top number of a time signature is very straightforward, as it simply changes the number of beats per measure. For example, in 3/4 time, you would count “1, 2, 3” and the quarter note would still get one beat.
Changing the bottom number of a time signature is a bit trickier, as that means a different note instead of the quarter note would be getting one beat, and so the beat values for all of the other notes would need to be adjusted. For now, it will be easiest to stick to time signatures with 4 as the bottom number as you familiarise yourself with counting music in measures.
See if you can sketch out some lines of music in 4/4 time like the ones in this post—try to use quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes. Then see if you can come up with rhythms in other time signatures like 2/4, 3/4, or even 6/4.
Look out for the next lesson, which will explain how the treble and bass clef staves are joined together to make lines of music read in piano scores, as well as how to read especially high or low notes on the staff. Make sure to subscribe to my mailing list for musical updates!