Music is composed of three primary elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. These three elements act in concert to produce the emotional effects that make us love listening to music. We love it when the chords change at just the right moment, or the notes of a melody seem to float effortlessly together.

But, to really grasp the mysteries of melody and harmony, you need to have a proper understanding of what rhythm is and how it works.

Rhythm is everywhere; you see, hear, and feel it at all times of the day, even if you are not aware of it. There is a pulse to your heartbeat, there is a rhythm of sunrise and sunset, and there is a beat to the flow of traffic on a freeway. In essence, rhythm is simply the perception of patterns in time. It can be as basic as snapping your fingers or as mathematically complex as your imagination can create. Once you approach rhythm from this perspective, the basics of how rhythms work in music will seem logical and straightforward.

How is rhythm organized in music?

Musical rhythm is organized with the help of two different tools: notes and time signatures.

Notes are symbols that describe how long a particular sound will last. Time signatures describe how the notes will be organized and measured. Understanding how both notes and time signatures work will increase your knowledge of music and open new doors to creativity in your songwriting and beat-making. It’s also crucial for understanding how to read sheet music.

What are the different types of notes?

In essence, notes describe how long a sound lasts. There are a few main types of notes with some variations. Let’s dive in.  Whole notes last for four counts and look like this:

Dotted half notes last for three counts and look like this:

Half notes last for two counts and look like this:

Quarter notes last for one count and look like this:

A single eighth note lasts for ½ of a count and looks like this:

Two eighth notes last for one count and are often connected with a beam like this:

Sixteenth notes are twice as fast as eighth notes and have two flags or beams instead of one. They last for ¼ of a beat and look like this:

Clap to get these rhythms in your body

Reading about the different types of notes may seem a little abstract or esoteric right now if you don’t have a real application for the knowledge. So here is a little exercise to help you internalize these rhythms.

Build pathways for yourself of the different note lengths and then clap and count for yourself as you move through them. Go in order to begin, so start with a whole note and clap once and count to 4. Then, move to the dotted half note, clap once, and count to 3. For the half note, clap once and count to 2. For the quarter note, clap once and count 1. For the eighth notes, clap twice inside of 1 and say to yourself 1 + (the + is pronounced “and”), or twice as fast as the time for the quarter note, and for the sixteenth notes, clap twice as fast as the eighth notes (or 1 e + a).

Nice work! Do you hear how every step forward in the path is a shorter duration? You can think of it as shifting gears in a car or on a bike; each level has a different purpose and meaning.

How do notes fit into time signatures?

Now that you understand the different types of notes let’s fit them into the context of some music using a time signature.

A time signature describes how many counts or beats will be inside one measure and which type of note will be the counting unit.

You can think of measures like fundamental building blocks of music; all music pieces have measures in some form.

Time signatures look like this:

The top number of the time signature indicates how many counts will be inside of each measure. If the top number is 4, there will be four counts in one measure. If the top number is 3, there will be three counts. If the top number is 6, there will be six counts. These are the most common and basic numbers, but there are many others.

The bottom number indicates what type of note will be the basic unit of counting. If the bottom number is 4, that means a quarter note will equal one count. If the bottom number is 8, then the eighth note will equal one count.

Another way to think about this is a 4/4 time signature means four quarter notes to a measure, a 3/4 time signature means three quarter notes to a measure, and a 6/8 time signature means six eighth notes to a measure. You will only see 4 or 8 as the bottom number of a time signature.

You can think of time signatures and measure like spaces on a sequencer grid. Here is how half notes would fit on a sequencer in 4/4 time:

Versus a measure with two half notes in 4/4 time:
See the similarities? Here is a measure of quarter notes on a sequencer in 4/4 time:
Versus a measure of quarter notes in 4/4 time:
And a measure of eighth notes on a sequencer:
Versus a measure of eighth notes in 4/4 time:
If you think of notes, time signatures, and measures like building blocks, you can create some exciting rhythms and patterns you might not have otherwise composed:
This groove is a combination of eighth and sixteenth notes on the bass drum (bd_t05), quarter notes on the snare drum (sd_t05), and eighth note accents on the closed hi-hat (ch_t05). See if you can use a similar perspective to make some new and fresh-sounding groove in your music!

Tying it all together

Now that you have some deeper knowledge of rhythm, including the different types of notes, time signatures, and how the two fit together to create rhythm in music, the key to the mystery should become apparent.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a song is in 4/4 or 6/8 or 9/8 time or if you are playing quarter notes while your bandmate is playing eighth notes.What truly matters is how you are playing those notes and how those notes fit together.

There is an infinite amount of space between zero and one. Think about it. 0.0000000000001 is a very small number, and we can continue to add an endless amount of zeros after the decimal.

Likewise, there is an infinite dimension of time between the moment you strum your guitar and the second drummer hits the snare or the hi-hat. How do you deal with this space? That is where the magic truly happens when the rhythms line up in such a way that a new feeling is generated that makes us perk up our ears and come back for more. That space cannot be notated on a piece of paper or programmed into a drum machine. Focus on that, and you will have all the time in the world.