how to read music - day 2: the musical pulse/the beat

How to Read Music – Part 2: How Rhythm Really Works

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In this lesson we’re going to see how rhythm is put together in real music. There are four basic components to rhythm: Pulse, Tempo, Meter and Subdivisions – we’ll go over them one by one.

1. Pulse

This is the constant, underlying beat that people tap their feet to when listening to a song. Here’s a simple row of squares that represents a pulse. Notice that they’re all equal in size and they’re always the same distance apart. This is because the pulse is steady, consistent and all the beats are the same duration:

how to read music - day 2: the musical pulse/the beat

Now to measure musical time accurately, we have to decide what these beats are worth. And to do this we must assign a note value to the pulse. So instead of squares, we’ll put a note value, let’s say for example, quarter notes. And so here we have a quarter note pulse where every beat is a quarter note.

how to read music - day 2: the musical pulse

This is useful because now that we know that 1 beat is 1 quarter note, we can measure how many beats every other note is worth. And we can do this because we already know the relative durations of our note values. So if the quarter note is one beat, then the whole note is 4 beats, the half note is 2 beats and so on.

how to read music - day 2: the musical pulse/the beat

2. Tempo

The pulse can be played fast, slow or anywhere in between. Tempo is the pace (or speed) of the music and it’s indicated on sheet music by specific musical terms (traditionally in Italian but there are hundreds of terms in many languages).

Tempo is measured in beats per minute. Here is a table of the 6 most common Italian terms for tempo, their meaning and their equivalent beats per minute.

Italian term Meaning Bpm
Largo Very slow and broad 40
Adagio Slow 60
Andante At a walking pace 80
Moderato Moderately 100
Allegro Lively and quick 120
Vivace Very fast 140

3. Accent

Some beats are emphasized more than others. This is not forced by musicians but happens naturally as music falls into patterns. For example, let’s take the quarter note pulse again.

how to read music (in 30 days) - Day 4: Meter / 6 quarter notes

Although it’s quite simple, it can be played in different ways. One possibility is to divide them into 2 groups of 3 quarter notes:

how to read music (in 30 days) - Day 4: Meter / in three

Another possibility is to divide them into 3 groups of 2 quarter notes each:

how to read music (in 30 days) - Day 4: Meter / in two

What’s really fascinating is that we can hear these groups even without reading the written music. And we can do so because the first beat of every group is accented. These groups are better known in music as meters.

Meter is the division of beats into equal groups. As we’ll see, these groups are known in music as measures (or bars) and they are separated by bar lines.

Time Signature

There are two important factors to meter: the amount of beats in every group and what the value of those beats are (whether quarter notes, eighth notes or anything else). These two factors are represented in written music by the time signature: a symbol that consists of two numbers – one sitting on top of the other. For example this is the time signature two-four:

how to read music (in 30 days) - day 4: meter / time signature

The number on top tells us the amount of beats per measure. The time signature 2/4 shows us that the meter is in two; there are two beats in every measure. The bottom number tells us what those beats are worth. It shows us whether the beats are eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes, or another note value.

Note: This bottom number is relative to the whole note. The easiest way to work out what the beats are worth is to divide the whole note by that bottom number. For example, if the bottom number is a 2, work out ‘a whole note divided by 2’ and that results in two half notes. So when the bottom number of a time signature is a 2, the beats are half note beats.

Here are some of the most common time signatures: 

Two-four: two quarter note beats in every measure:
 

 

Three-four: three quarter note beats in every measure:

 

Four-four: four quarter note beats in every measure:

 


Two-two: two half note beats in every measure:

 

 

Three-eight: three half note beats in every measure:

 

  

Note: The flags of eighth notes and notes of smaller value are often joined together to make them easier to read. This is called ‘grouping’ or ‘beaming’.

4. Subdivisions

On top of the pulse, we get melodies and chords that are made up of a variety of notes –some long, some short and also rests whenever appropriate. Here’s how it all comes together in written music. The circled numbers are explained below the diagram.

Reading Music: how rhythm really works

① This is a visual representation of the pulse. It’s a cycle of equal beats. Every one of these beats is the same length: in this case, they’re all quarter notes (crotchets). Please note that this is for visualization purposes only; the pulse is not shown in real sheet music.

② The word Andante is one out of hundreds of tempo indications in various languages. This particular one is Italian and it translates to ‘At a walking pace’. This music should be performed neither slow nor fast but somewhere in between. In beats per minute, it would be approximately 80.

③ These numbers are the time signature. It specifies how the pulse is grouped into equal measures. The number on top indicates how many beats there are in every measure (in this example, four) while the number at the bottom indicates what the value of the beats are (in this example also four, which means quarter notes).

So this pulse is made up of four quarter note beats per measure. And don’t forget: these recurring cycles of four quarter note beats can be felt because the first beat of every measure is accented.

Notice also that the measures are separated by bar lines.

reading music: how rhythm really works

④ On top of it all, the rhythm of the melody is composed of a variety of subdivisions of the beat. In this example, we have quarter notes, eighth notes (joined with a beam), a half note as well as a quarter rest.

reading music: rhythm of melody against pulse

That’s it for part 2 of the Read Music in 20 minutes Crash Course. Now get some practice by downloading the workbook below and let me know if you have any questions. When you’re ready go to part 3 to learn about all the music notes!