Understanding Rhythm In Music

Whenever you dance to music, you are dancing to the rhythm of music or a rhythmic pattern. Rhythm is a fundamental part of the music. Let us understand different aspects of rhythm in music.
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Rhythm In Music

Rhythm is a repeated pattern of sound played in time. When a series of notes/sounds/silence repeats in time, it forms a rhythm. The easiest example of a rhythm would be a clock ticking.

A clock ticks or beats 60 times in a minute i.e. 1 beat/tick every second. This makes the clock beat at a tempo/pulse of 60 beats per minute or 60BPM. So the rhythm of the clock is a tick repeating over time.

In music, drums, and percussions are widely used to make beats/rhythmic patterns and a metronome is used to keep time/rhythm while playing music.

Rhythm Pattern Example In Music

 

Different Elements Of Rhythm In Music

Different Elements of Rhythm In Music are: -

  1. Beat: - Beat is the basic unit of time also called the rhythmic pulse (regularly repeating event). When you tap your foot to the music, you are “keeping the beat.”
  2. Tempo: - Tempo is the speed at which a song or musical piece is played. Tempo is measured in Beats Per Minute.
  3. Duration: - How long a sound or silence lasts is known as duration or note value. There are different note values in music like Whole notes, Half Notes, Quarter Notes, Eighth Notes, Sixteenth Notes, Thirty Second Notes and further subdivisions.
  4. Time Signature: - Time signature represents the number of beats per measure. Time Signature also indicates how long these beats last. A time signature is represented using numbers like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 etc. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure, while the bottom number tells you what value those beats are.
  5. Meter: — Western music theory divides time signatures into three types of musical meter organized into recognizable accent patterns: duple meter (a 2-pulse grouping i.e.2/4, where beats appear in groups of two), triple meter (a 3-pulse grouping i.e 3/4, where beats appear in groups of three), and quadruple meter (a 4-pulse grouping i.e. 4/4, where beats appear in groups of four).
  6. Strong Beat and Weak Beat: - When music is played in time signatures we come across strong beats, medium beats and weak beats.

    Strong beats are called strong because when listening to music, you feel the strong beat the most and they sound more natural. In music, strong beats are more emphasised/accented than medium or weak beats.

  7. Syncopation: - When in music, more emphasis is given to weak beats instead of strong beats, the music is said to be syncopated. Syncopation in music happens when an offbeat emphasis/displacement takes place.

  8. Polyrhythm: - Polyrhythm is the use of two or more rhythms simultaneously. Polyrhythms are also called cross-rhythms. The different rhythms used simultaneously are generally contrasting and leads to rhythmic conflicts that resolve at a common point.

Beat

The beat is the basic unit of time also called the rhythmic pulse (regularly repeating event). When you tap your foot to the music, you are “keeping the beat.”

In a clock, there is one beat every second. So if you tap your feet in time with a clock, you will tap your foot 60 times in a minute.

When you count music, you are counting the beat. Quarter notes are counted as 1-2-3-4.

 

Beat In Music

Tempo

Tempo is the speed at which a song or musical piece is played. Tempo is measured in Beats Per Minute. The number of beats occurring in a minute is known as BPM or Beats Per Minute. Higher the BPM, faster the tempo and vice versa.

A clock beats with a Tempo of 60BPM.

Tempo in classical music is designated by Italian terms: -

  • Largo means Large or Labored. Largo is usually a tempo between 40-65BPM.
  • Adagio means slow. Adagio is faster than largo but still slow. Adagio is usually a tempo between 66-75BPM.
  • Andante means Steady or Walking Speed. Andante is usually a tempo between 76-107BPM.
  • Moderato means moderate tempo. Moderato is usually a tempo between 108-119BPM.
  • Allegro means fast or brisk speed. Allegro is usually a tempo between 120-167BPM.
  • Presto means very fast or quick tempo. Presto is usually a tempo between 168-208BPM.
 Italian Terms Used Meaning Tempo
Largo Large or Labored 40-65BPM
Adagio Slow 66-75BPM
Andante Steady or Walking Speed 76-107BPM
Moderato Moderate 108-119BPM
Allegro fast or brisk speed 120-167BPM
Presto fast or quick tempo 168-208BPM

 

Tempo In Music

Songs of a particular genre also follow a typical tempo of that music genre. This is not true for every song but for most songs.

 Music Genre Standard BPM Range
Pop 100-135
Rock 90-140
Slow Rock 60-90
Metal 90-180
Jazz & Funk 110-130
Hip Hop 80-120
Chill 80-120
Reggae 55-100
House 118-135
Trance 130-145
Techno 120-160

Duration

How long a sound or silence lasts is known as duration or note value. There are different note values in music like Whole notes, Half Notes, Quarter Notes, Eighth Notes, Sixteenth Notes, and further subdivisions.

Musical notes vary in duration, and when they’re written on sheet music, notes of different lengths are depicted in different ways. Most Western sheet music has measures separated by bar lines (vertical lines that subdivide musical staves) that divide the composition into groups of beats. The most common of these is a measure containing four beats, notated with a 4/4 time signature. The most common note values in the 4/4 time signature are as follows.

Note Value Pyramid In Music

A whole note is a single note that covers the entirety of a four-beat measure. It contains an open note head with no stem. At 60BPM in 4/4 time, the duration of each whole note is 4 seconds.

A half note lasts for half the duration of a whole note, and it covers half of a four-beat measure. Two half notes are equal in duration to one whole note.  The half note contains an open note head with a stem. At 60BPM in 4/4 time, the duration of each half note is 2 seconds.

A quarter note lasts for one fourth the duration of a whole note, and it covers a quarter of a four-beat measure. Four quarter notes are equal in duration to one whole note and two-quarter notes are equal in duration to one-half note. At 60BPM in 4/4 time, the duration of each quarter note is 1 second. Quarter notes are counted as 1-2-3-4. A quarter note contains a closed note head with a stem.

An eighth note lasts for one eighth the duration of a whole note, and it covers one-eighth of a four-beat measure. Eight eighth notes are equal in duration to one whole note and two eighth notes are equal in duration to one-quarter note. At 60BPM in 4/4 time, the duration of each eighth note is .5 seconds. Eighth notes are counted 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&. The eighth note contains a closed note head with a stem and a tail.

A sixteenth note lasts for one-sixteenth the duration of a whole note, and it covers one-sixteenth of a four-beat measure. Sixteen sixteenth notes are equal in duration to one whole note, and two sixteenth notes are equal in duration to one-eighth note. At 60BPM in 4/4 time, the duration of each sixteenth note is .25 seconds. Sixteenth notes are counted 1-e-&-a-2-e-&-a-3-e-&-a-4-e-&-a. Sixteenth, note contains a closed note head with a stem and a double tail.

Note Duration In Music

Some music has even smaller subdivisions like 32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes sometimes appear in written music. Each of these shorter notes has a duration that is one-half the length of the duration that came before it.

To calculate the duration of each note

 

Time Signature

Time signature gives a sense of unity to the rhythm. Time signature represents the number of beats per measure. Time Signature also indicates how long these beats last.

A time signature is represented using numbers like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/8, 6/8 etc. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure, while the bottom number tells you what value those beats are.

So in a 4/4 time (also known as “common time”), each beat is the length of a quarter note, and every four quarter beats form a full measure.

So for every bar/measure, you count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 and this count starts again and repeats after every measure.

Diffrent TIme Signatures In Music

In a time signature with a 4 on the bottom (such as 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc.), a beat corresponds with a quarter note. 

In 5/4 time, every five quarter beats form a full measure. 5/4 time is counted 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5 and this repeats.

In 6/4 time, every six-quarter beats form a full measure.  6/4 time is counted 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6 and this repeats for every measure. I hope you get the point.

In a time signature with an 8 on the bottom (such as 3/8, 6/8, or 9/8), a beat corresponds with an eighth note.

So in 3/8 time, every three eighth-note beats form a measure. In 6/8 time, every six eighth note beats form a measure. The same rule follows.

Meter

Western music theory divides time signatures into three types of musical meter organized into recognizable accent patterns: duple meter (a 2-pulse grouping i.e.2/2, 2/4, 6/8, where beats appear in groups of two), triple meter (a 3-pulse grouping i.e 3/4, 9/8, 3/2, where beats appear in groups of three), and quadruple meter (a 4-pulse grouping i.e. 4/4, 12/8, 4/2, where beats appear in groups of four).

Meters can be seen and felt through the standard patterns used by music conductors.

Meters In Music

Simple Time

Simple Time is any meter whose basic note division is in groups of two. Examples of these meters include Common Time, Cut Time, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 2/2, 2/1, and so on. These meters are simple time because the quarter note divides equally into two eighth notes, the half-note divides equally into two-quarter notes, or the whole note divides equally into two half notes.

Compound Time

Compound Time is any meter whose basic note division is into groups of three. Compound time signatures include 6/8, 9/8. 12/8 etc.

When you see an 8 as the bottom number of your time signature, you know that you are in compound time. Now your eighth notes should be grouped in groups of three instead of two.

Irregular Time

In irregular meters, beats do not divide evenly into groups of two, three or four. The most common irregular meters mix simple time and compound time within a single measure. The most common irregular meters examples include 5/8, 5/4, 7/8, 7/4.

Simple Time Irregular Time and Compound Time In Music

Strong Beat and Weak Beat

When music is played in time signature we come across strong beats, medium beats and weak beats.

Strong beats are called strong because when listening to music, you feel the strong beat the most and they sound more natural. In music, strong beats are more emphasised than medium or weak beats.

 

Strong and Weak Beats In Music

Every meter has its patterns of strong beats and weak beats but what all-time signatures have in common is the first beat is always the strong beat.

In the 4/4 time signature, the first beat is the strong beat also called the downbeat. The third beat is the medium best. The second and fourth are weak beats in 4/4 time.  Beats 2-3-4 are also known as backbeats or after beats. The fourth beat in 4/4 is also known as upbeat. Upbeat is always before the downbeat.

Downbeat and upbeat are called so because on a downbeat the hand of the music conductor moves downwards and on an upbeat, the hand of the music conductor moves upwards.

Syncopation

When in music, more emphasis is given to weak beats instead of strong beats, the music is said to be syncopated. Syncopation in music happens when an offbeat emphasis/displacement takes place. In most cases, this is done by a really short note on the downbeat which is immediately followed by an accented long note, or having a tie to an un-articulated downbeat, so that the downbeat gets completely lost.

So in 4/4 time if a musician displaces the notes to off beats (or accents offbeat notes) rather than on the natural pulse, the music will sound syncopated. These displaced notes will be called syncopated notes.

When music is syncopated, the natural pulse of the music feels off and the listener tends to search for the symmetry in music and this leads to a desire for the reestablishment of metric normality.

Example Of Syncopated Rhythm In Music

Polyrhythm

In polyrhythms, there is a base pulse over which different rhythms are played. Hence the name polyrhythm - two or more rhythms played simultaneously over a common meter. Polyrhythms are also called cross-rhythms or counter-rhythms.

In Polyrhythms, the time division of beats differ. The different rhythms used simultaneously are generally contrasting and leads to rhythmic conflicts that resolve at a common point in time.

 

Polyrhythm In Music Example

Polyrhythm is a vast topic for learning and will discuss it in detail in some other articles. If you would like that, let me know in the comments below.

FAQ

What Does Tempo Mean In Music?

Tempo is the speed at which a song or musical piece is played. Tempo is measured in Beats Per Minute. The number of beats occurring in a minute is known as BPM or Beats Per Minute. Higher the BPM, faster the tempo and vice versa. A clock beats with a Tempo of 60BPM.

How To Measure Tempo Of A Song?

You can measure the tempo of the song by tapping your foot to the downbeat and simultaneously using a clock or a metronome and follow these steps: -

  1. Determine the song’s time signature.
  2. Start the song and tap your foot to the downbeat.
  3. Try to count the number of foot taps in 60 seconds.
  4. Once you know the count in 60 seconds, you know the tempo of the song in whole notes. If you want the tempo in quarter notes, multiply the determined tempo by four.

Why is tempo important in music?

Tempo is used in music to keep time. Different instruments are played simultaneously in a song or piece of music. To keep all the instruments synced, a common time and tempo are used as a base. The tempo of a song or piece of music also sets the mood. Slow tempo songs are generally calming, soothing, relaxing and fast tempo songs are energetic, powerful, danceable.

What are bars in music?

A bar is one small repeating segment of music that holds a number of beats. Multiple beats make up a bar and multiple bars make up a song.

What is double time and half time?

Half-time means to play a rhythm half as fast as its original speed or tempo. Double time means, playing a rhythm twice as fast as the original rhythm. So if a song is at 60BPM, half time would be 30BPM and double time will be 120BPM. Using half time and double time in a piece of music or a song changes the feel of that song. Half-time slows things down and takes off the energy from the song or piece of music while double-time speeds up things and adds energy to them.

What Is Tempo Rubato?

Rubato means 'Robbed Time'. Whenever you come across the term tempo rubato it means free time or there is temporary abandonment of tempo. Tempo rubato gives a performer liberty to perform in free time in between songs or a music piece and speed up or slow down to create effect and emphasise certain musical passages. 


4 comments


  • Brian Hollon

    Great stuff! Would love to read more about polyrhythms!

    Thanks!


  • Kevi

    Good Read Thankyou


  • Udeeksh Sood

    Hey Alp Tiritoglu!
    Thanks for writing. Great Idea. Will work on it for sure and update. Thanks a ton.


  • Alp Tiritoglu

    This list is great. It would be great to add sample rhythms (sound clips) so that the reader could hear the rhythms and also some sample music pieces from well known songs.


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Udeeksh Sood on

Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer and Co-Founder of learnmusicproduction.in. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.