Demystifying Staff Notation part 2: Rhythm

Part two of my series on the basics of reading music in staff notation. This is intended as a logical, from the ground up explanation of music notation for people who either never learned but wanted to, or tried only to get put off and confused by the traditional barrage of unmusical theory, horrible rote learning of unrelated mnemonics and impersonal academia. While I’m still going to give you some of those things, the emphasis is on practical and creative music making and trying to map a logical path through what can be a convoluted and apparently contradictory system at times. I also re-iterate the point made in the last article that written music notation contains no actual music in the same way a recipe book contains no food – the purpose of notation is to codify a set of instructions which can then be accurately turned into a performance of the writer’s intentions.

Last time I left you with this mystery tune. If you already know what it is, good for you, but here it is again:

Last time we looked at the countours of the pitched notes to get the overall shape of the tune. Using the simile of instructions given to navigate a maze blindfolded, pitch can be equated to direction instructions – go straight on, turn 45 degrees left, return to original position and so forth. In that sense, rhythm is more like the instructions that convey distance and pace, telling you how many steps to take, how large they should be and how fast they should be executed.

Stack ’em up – the Time Signature

The first thing we need to look at is the two vertically stacked numbers at the left of the stave, just after the treble clef. These numbers:

This is called the time signature and it defines the pulse we’re going to use to interpret all the rhythm instructions that follow. The top number is the number of beats in every bar – in this case, three. So each bar of music will be divided into three equal beats. Here are two bars of this pulse set in a simple grid:

As for the bottom number in the time signature, well…

Four Is The Magic Number

Although the example we’ve used has three beats in the bar, the most common time signature in Western music actually calls for four beats. A 4/4 time signature like the one below is also known as common time and looks like this in a grid:

With this in mind, the bottom number of the time signature is actually the bottom part of a fraction, although what it is dividing isn’t necessarily the number seen on top. A 4/4 time signature is basically read as “four quarters”, whereas a 3/4 signature would be “three quarters” and 2/4 would be “two quarters”. Sometimes you’ll see 8 or 2 as the bottom number (6/8 = six eighths, 2/2 = 2 halves, 3/2 = 3 halves!). It’s not obviously logical (nobody knows what happened to the missing quarter in a 3/4 time signature, cruelly discarded never to be seen or heard of again), but it is the convention that has developed over time.

As for what these are quarters (or eigths or halves) of, let’s move on…

Slicing The Pie

This is a semibreve, or whole note. It is an unfilled elipse that sits on the stave and denotes a note lasting for four beats in 4/4 time signature. Inputted into the piano roll grid of a DAW (grid set to quarter notes), it looks like this:

In staff notation, we’re going to add a series of things to this note, each of which will divide the value in half. First of all, we’ll put a tail on it to make a minim, or half-note:

This is now worth 2 beats (4/2). Here it is in the DAW grid:

Fill in the note head to make it into a crotchet, or quarter note:

Then stick a tail on the stem to divide it into a quaver, or eighth note:

These tails can be joined together in successive quavers:

Add more tails to keep on halving quavers, to get semiquavers (sixteenths/16 notes), demisemiquavers (32th notes) or hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes):

Here’s the whole kit and caboodle set out in one table, and demonstrated on a DAW grid:

Need a rest?

In music, silence is as important as sound and needs to be accounted for, so sections of time without sounded notes are marked off with symbols called ‘rests’. These are equivalent to the notes seen above and look like this:

Semibreve / whole rest – lasts for four crotchet beats and looks like a brick hanging from the third line of the stave.

Minim / half rest – lasts for two beats and looks like the brick has yielded to gravity and landed on the middle line of the stave.

Crotchet / quarter rest – lasts for one beat and is basically a squiggle.

Quaver / eighth rest – lasts for half a beat, looks similar to a number 7.

Then to get semiquaver (sixtenteenth), demisemiquaver (32nd) and hemidemisemiquaver (64th) rests we keep adding lines to the tail just like we did with the note equivalents, each line halving the value of the rest:

Adding it all up

Once you know the note values, all that remains is to make sure all the note and rest lengths in a bar add up to the number of beats shown in the time signature – in 4/4 time, this means four crotchet beats.

Here’s the timeless classic “shave and a haircut” notated in correct rhythm:

Or to break this down, for the first bar:

Crotchet (1) + two quavers (1/2 + 1/2) + two crotchets (1 + 1) = 1 + 1/2 + 1/2 + 1 + 1 = 4

Bar two:

Crotchet rest (1) + crotchet (1) + minim (2) = 1 + 1 + 2 = 4

Here it is in grid notation:

Dots, ties and tripets

Sometimes you’ll see a dot added on to a note, like this:

The dot adds half as much again to the value, so in this case the dotted crotchet is worth one and a half beats (1 + 1/2 = 1.5). Here it is in a grid:

If two or more notes of the same pitch are linked together like this:

…this is called a ‘tie’ and the duration of the notes concerned are combined into one long note, in this case 2 + 1 + 1/2 = 3.5 beats, with a quaver (0.5) rest to finish off the bar and keep it adding up to four beats overall:

Finally, if you see a group of three notes or rests bracketed like this:

…these are triplets, which squeeze three equal notes into the time normally occupied by two:

Best not to think too hard about the maths for this one, just deal with it when you see it. If there’s a number other than three in there you have encountered duplets, quintuplets or whatever. For now, file it under “here be dragons”.

Return of the Mystery Tune

So now it is time to once and for all figure out the identity of the mystery tune at the head of this pair of articles:

Have you guessed it yet? Here it is in grid notation:

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday, dear reader

Happy Birthday to you.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *