What You Should Know
  1. A basic understanding of music notation (recommended)
What You Will Learn
  1. What rhythm is
  2. Basic concepts of rhythm in music, including notes, time signatures, and more

Rhythm in Music

What is rhythm?

Rhythm is the part of music that deals with time. It includes the following things:

Note Values

Rhythms are indicated with notes that specify the rhythm to be played. The parts of a note are described below:

Types of notes

The value of a note is determined by the type of notehead used, the presence or absence of a stem, and the number of beams or stems.

Whole Notes

The largest note value used in music is generally the whole note, which is a notehead by itself that isn't filled in:

Whole note

Other note values are a fraction of the whole note.

Half Notes

The next largest note value is a half note, which is half the value of a whole note. It is indicated with an empty notehead with a stem:

Half note

Quarter Notes

Quarter notes are one-fourth the value of a whole note and are indicated with a filled-in notehead with a stem:

Quarter note

Eighth Notes

An eighth note is one-eighth the value of a whole note. They are indicated with a filled-in notehead with a stem and a single beam or flag. Whether a beam or flag is used depends on the context. Two notes together in the same beat will usually be beamed, while notes on different beats may use flags.

Eighth notes

Sixteenth Notes

A sixteenth note is one-sixteenth of a whole note. They have two beams or flags.

Sixteenth notes

Thirty-second Notes

Thirty-second notes are one-thirty-second the value of a whole note. They have three beams or flags.

Thirty-second notes

Relationship Between Note Values

The chart below shows the relative value of all of the notes mentioned above:

Chart showing relationship between different note values


A rest indicates that nothing is to be played for the duration of the rest. Each note value has a rest of equivalent value. The chart below shows the rests that correspond to each note value described above.

Rest Description Rest Image Note Description Note Image
whole rest Whole rest whole note Whole note
half rest Half rest half note Half note
quarter rest Quarter rest quarter note Quarter note
eighth rest 8th rest eighth note 8th note
sixteenth rest 16th rest sixteenth note 16th note
thirty-second rest 32nd rest thirty-second note 32nd

The exact value of a note or rest is determined by the time signature and tempo (explained below). None of these notes or rests have a specific value except in the context of these things, with the exception of the relative value between notes and rests of various lengths. For example, a half note can be described as half the value of a whole note, but unless there is a time signature and tempo, it is impossible to say exactly how long the half note lasts.

Time Signatures

A time signature specifies how many beats are in a measure and which note value gets the beat. A beat is the regular pulse in a piece of music. The beat is affected by the time signature and tempo. A time signature will tell you how the beats are grouped while the tempo will tell you how long each beat is. All beats can be divided into smaller note values. This is known as subdividing.

The time signature indicates the note value that is used as the beat and how many of those notes occur per measure. A measure is a section of music that is equivalent to the number of beats specified in the time signature.

Some measures, such as pickup measures, are an exception to the rule above. Pickup measures have fewer beats than the time signature indicates.

A time signature is represented by two numbers stacked on top of each other. Here is an example of 4/4 (pronounced 'four four') time signature.

4/4 time signature

The top number specifies the number of beats in a measure. The bottom number indicates the note value that gets the beat. For example, the time signature above indicates that there are four beats in the measure (top number) and that the quarter note gets the beat (bottom number).

The numbers in a compound time signature have a different meaning that those in a simple time signature. This will be explored further in the lesson on compound time signatures.

The chart below lists the numbers that correspond to each note value for the bottom number in a time signature. These aren't the only numbers used as the bottom number, but they are the most common.

Number Note value that gets the beat
2 half note
4 quarter note
8 eighth note
16 sixteenth note
32 thirty-second note

Classifying Time Signatures

Time signatures are classified according to the number of beats in a measure and how each beat is subdivided.

Classifying by the Number of Beats

Time signatures are classified as duple, triple, or quadruple depending on whether there are two, three, or four beats in a measure.

Classification Number of Beats
duple 2
triple 3
quadruple 4

It is possible to have more than four beats in a measure, but the beats will usually be divided into groups of twos, threes, and fours. This means that even though a time signature like 5/4 indicates there are five beats in a measure, it will generally be a pattern of two beats followed by three beats or three beats follow by two beats.

Classifying by How Each Beat is Subdivided

Time signatures can be further classified as either simple or compound.

This doesn't mean that you can't have other subdivisions of the beat, but that the standard subdivision for most time signatures is either two or three parts per beat.

Classifying Common Time Signatures

The chart below lists common time signatures and their classification according to the rules above:

Time signature Classification
2/4 time signature simple duple
3/4 time signature simple triple
4/4 time signature simple quadruple
2/2 time signature simple duple
6/8 time signature compound duple
12/8 time signature compound quadruple

Rhythms May Imply Other Time Signatures

It should be noted that rhythms don't always sound like the time signature that is indicated. Due to accents and other musical devices any time signature can be made to sound like any other. For this reason, any music could theoretically be notated in any time signature. However, the time signature used is generally the one that makes the most musical sense.

Equivalent Time Signatures

Although you will see time signatures like 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 most frequently, there are variations of these time signatures that are used from time to time. These time signatures are equivalent in the way they sound, but use a different note value as the beat. For example, 4/8 is equivalent to 4/4. 4/8 just uses eighth notes as the beat instead of the quarter note as in 4/4 time. The examples below show four measures from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The first example is in 4/4:

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in 4/4

Below is the same music notated in 4/8. Both of these sound exactly the same when played.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star rewritten in 4/8

Instances of time signatures like 4/8, 3/8, or 2/16 are less common, but you should be familiar with how they work. They may look intimidating at first, but they are actually as simple as 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 once you understand the underlying concepts.


Tempo deals with how fast the music is played. Tempos can be any speed from very slow to very fast. The tempo will determine how long each beat is. There are two ways of notating tempos: textual indications and metronome markings.

Textual tempo indications are words that have a specific meaning regarding tempo. They aren't exact and interpretation can vary depending on the piece, style, and player. Most of the standard tempo indications come from the Italian language and are more commonly found in classical music.

Metronome markings include a note value and a number that indicate how many of the note value occur per minute. For example, the metronome marking below indicates that there are 120 quarter notes per minute:

Metronome marking