Rhythm Tips

velcro reach in the jumpy slide

My grandson had a fabulous time at our church Harvest Festival. He went on the slide, bungee slide and velcro wall, to name a few. I got to thinking about his rhythm and how it changed with every event he attended. So it is with musicians and their rhythm. Keep practicing the scales, inversions and octaves. Here are a few articles I wrote awhile back on rhythm.

  • Beginner
Quarter Note = 1 count
A quarter note is all black with a stem on it either going up or down. I call it our "stepping" note because the note just steps and moves along. With 4/4 time, you would have a measure of 4 quarter notes because one quarter note gets 1 count. Remember music and math go together.

Half Note = 2 counts

A half note is all white with a stem on it. When playing this kind of note you would pause, like coming to a yellow traffic light. You would play a half note, counting 1 & 2 &. With 4/4 time, you would have 2 half notes in a measure to play because 2 + 2 = 4. Remember music and math go together!

If you are not sure what a measure in written music is, always remember that the notes placed between bar lines is a measure. Bar lines divide music into measures. When looking at a piece of music, go to the very end of a song and there you will find a double bar line.

Repeat Dots (Repeat Sign)

The two dots at the end of the piece are a repeat sign, meaning to play the song from the beginning. Sometimes my students ask, "Oh, do I have to?" The answer is "yes" because the composer intended for that section of music to be played again! Another way to look at it is that you will not have more pages to turn. Just play the first page again or perhaps it will be just a few lines repeated. The repeat sign is a very valuable sign indeed.

Whole Note = 4 counts

A whole note is a white note, too but it does not have a stem on it. I call it our doughnut note. Some of my students call it a "hamburger" note! When you see a whole note, you must hold the note down and count, 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. It is just like coming to a red light and making a full stop.

Dotted Half Note = 3 counts

A dot after a note adds half the value of the note. So, you now have 2 + 1 = 3 beats. You hold the note down and count, 1 & 2 & 3 &.
Now, the cool thing is that every type of music note has a corresponding rest. A rest sign means "do not play" like a rest area. Sometimes it means get your hand ready in position and move up, yet still do not play a note, just rest! Examples of some rests are:

Quarter Rest

It looks like a "Z" and a quarter rest gets 1 count.

Half Rest

It looks like a black top hat. A half rest gets 2 counts or beats of silence. A half rest sits above the third line.

Whole Rest

Looks like an upside down black top hat. The whole rest hangs below the fourth line. It gets 4 counts or beats of silence.
Each measure in 4/4 time has notes and rests adding up to 4 counts.

Time Signature

The time signature is the two numbers written at the beginning of a piece. The top number tells how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number tells what kind of note gets one beat.
2 means two beats in each measure
4 means the quarter note receives one beat or count.
3 means three beats in each measure.
4 means the quarter note gets one beat.
4 means four beats in each measure
4 means the quarter note gets one beat.

Practice Directions
1. Clap and count the rhythm aloud.
2. Play and say the name of notes aloud.
3. Play and count the rhythm aloud.

  • Intermediate
Tempo is the speed of any piece of music. Just like driving a car and seeing the 45 M.P.H. speed sign, it is the same for Tempo words in music.

At the very top left hand corner, on the beginning page of your sheet music, you will often see a word that tells you how fast or how slow to play a particular song. Sometimes you will be asked to slow down your speed of playing in a particular passage.

Usually you will find that these tempo words are written in Italian. Here are some of the more common Italian words you will discover in music. It does help to memorize most of these words. Having flash cards to quiz yourself is a very good idea.

Slow Tempo Marks:

Adagio (play with ease)
Largo (very slow and broad)
Lento (very slow)
Grave (heavy and solemn)

Medium Tempo Marks:

Andante (a moderate, graceful, walking tempo)
Andantino (a little slower than andante)
Moderato (a moderate tempo)
Molto (very)
Larghetto (somewhat slow)

Fast Tempo Marks:

Allegretto (lively and quick but a little slower than Allegro))
Allegro (cheerful, fast and quick)
Vivace (lively and brisk)
Presto (very fast)
Prestissimo (very, very fast)

Right in the middle of a piece, you will see that the composer has decided he wants you to slow down. Look for a new tempo marking at the very beginning of a new section. Here's what to look for.

Gradually Getting Faster:

Accelerando (becoming gradually faster and abbreviated accel.)
Stringendo (quickening)

Gradually Getting Slower:

Ritardando (becoming gradually slower and abbreviated rit.)
Ritenuto (held back)
Rallentando (becoming gradually slower)
Rattenuto (holding back and slowing down)

When you slow down at the end of a phrase of music or a particular section of a composition, you will notice at the start of the next section a new word, a tempo. This means to go back to the original tempo. It is like slowing down while driving a car because you see a sign that says, "Speed Reduced Ahead.", and then going back up to the regular speed limit once again.

Now your piano practice sounds playful and energetic while observing accelerando. Sometimes your moderato walking tempo sounds smooth dance-like. Time completely changes within a song all because you changed speed when playing the piano. The pace of a piece of music becomes alive because you have observed tempo marks with expression. Well done.

6/8 Time Signature

This time signature can be a bit tricky to play at first. When you first learn to read music, the time signature usually has a 4 on the bottom: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. This means that a quarter note gets counted as 1 beat.

When you see a time signature with an 8 on the bottom like 6/8, this means that an eighth note is counted as 1 beat and there are six eighth notes in each measure.

When you look at some music, you will notice that six eighth  notes are grouped together into two groups of three eighth notes.

Things to watch out for in 6/8:

The three notes in 6/8 are not triplets but eighth notes.
This time signature will often feel like the music has two strong beats instead of six. We often feel a strong beat for each group of three eighth notes.

  • Advanced
Sometimes you see the triplet sign situated on top of the first measure of a song. Most often it follows the indication of style such as swing, boogie-woogie, big band, rock-a-ballad, funky shuffle, slow blues, back-beat, be-bop, dixieland, twelve-eight feel, jazz-waltz, salsa, soft-shoe, country, gospel-waltz, bounce, jump or groove tempo.

These eighth-notes are sometimes called rolled eighths. If you have a rhythm machine handy, set it to swing, rock-ballad, whatever. Make sure your beat-box has a setting that goes (1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3) or a variation of that beat. Set the tempo to 82 (Andante). Once you have mastered that tempo, just increase the tempo.

  • Practice: Left Hand Chords with Single Right Hand Notes

C/C, D, E
G7/F, G, A, B
C/C, C, B, A
G7/G, F, E, D

Db/Db, Eb, F
Ab7/Gb, Ab, Bb, C
Db/Db, Db, C, Bb
Ab/Ab, G, F, Eb

D/D, E, F#
A7/G, A, B, C#
D/D, D, C#, B
A7/A, G, F#, E


Keep ascending by a half-step. Then increase the tempo.

Sometimes you may be wondering when a composer wants you to play straight eighth notes. When there are both dotted eighths and sixteenths, regular eighth notes are played straight. Some professional musicians will make notes on their sheets when it comes to sudden key changes, difficult passage, time signature changes, etc. 

If interested, visit Backpocket Band Software It will help you keep a beat and works with pcs and macs. Easy to use on the computer, next to your keyboard or piano.

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King

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