Music Theory For The Dropouts #1 – Rhythm

Cassi Falk  /  Rhythm Theory  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

Rhythm is one of those elements that a lot of musicians take for granted.  You might get caught up in thinking about all the notes, sharps/flats and other stuff and forget about how crappy it would all sound without rhythmic variation to make things interesting.  Luckily with some dedication and focus, rhythms are pretty easy to understand.  So let’s look at a few simple rhythmic values that you’ll find in some of the songs you want to learn.

The first thing we’ll talk about are time signatures.  A time signature is a number that is displayed at the beginning of a piece that defines how many beats are in a measure and which type of note gets one beat.  The most common time signatures are 4/4 and ¾.  The first/top number tells you how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom number shows you the note value with the measure.  

The most important rhythmic note to learn first is the quarter note.  If you’re counting in 4/4 time, there’s going to be 4 quarter notes per measure.  The next rhythm note to look at is the half note.  Naturally, the half note is held for two beats, or one half of a measure.  You should also learn about the whole note, which is held for the whole measure.  So if you’re in 4/4 time, you simply let that note ring out for the duration of the bar.  

Another important element of rhythm is dotted rhythms.  Sometimes you’ll see a dot at the end of your note.  A dotted note contains that note’s rhythmic value plus half of that note’s rhythmic value.  So for example, a half note (regularly held for 2 counts) with a dot on it will be held for 3 counts instead. 

There are also corresponding rests for each rhythmic value.  You can think of a rest as the opposite of a note: instead of making a sound, you leave a designated beat silent. 

The other note that you need to learn is the fastest of the rhythm notes so far, the 8th note.  The 8th note is twice as fast as the quarter note, which means that you can fit 8 of these notes within one bar of 4/4 time.  The easiest way to count out 8th notes is to subdivide your count of 4, by putting an ‘and’ in between each beat of 4.  So rather than simply counting out a single bar as ‘1-2-3-4’, count out ‘1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and’ to give yourself a greater sense of timing, with an 8th note landing on both the main numbered counts of the bar as well as the ‘ands’ in between.  

Be sure to keep an eye out for these rhythmic notes in notation, so you can get a greater sense of how they work together with each other!  

Ready for your next lesson? You can learn all about the Grand Staff in Lesson 2 of our series!

Cassi Falk is trained as an Elementary and Intermediate Specialist through the Royal Conservatory Teacher Certification Program. She loves the feeling of accomplishment after a good practice session and seeing students discover music. Learn more about Cassi here.

Headshot of woman with short platinum hair against a studio background.

The easiest way to learn beautiful piano chords.
Sign up for 5 FREE play-along lessons

By signing up you’ll also receive our ongoing free lessons and special offers. Don’t worry, we value your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.