A Survey of Music Theory for the College Classroom: Fundamentals

Rhythm, Meter, Beaming

Rhythm

Rhythm is the time element in music. It is one of the fundamental elements in music, along with melody, harmony, dynamics, texture, timbre, articulation, and register. Indeed, rhythm is often the most recognized facet in many pieces of music.

Basic Elements of Notation

Before we explore rhythm, we need to survey the basic building blocks of music notation. So far, we have only used whole notes when writing music. Stems, beams, flags, and dots allow us to access more complex rhythms. A flag shortens a note’s duration by half. Flags are combined into beams when two or more notes are grouped together.

basic elements of notation

Stem Direction

We will adhere to the following basic rules for stem directions.

  • Single notes on or above the middle line of the staff – stem direction is down.
  • Single notes below the middle line of the staff – stem direction is up.
  • Two beamed notes unequal in distance from the middle line of the staff – stem direction is determined by the note farthest in distance from the middle line of the staff.
  • Two beamed notes that are the same distance from the middle line of the staff – stem direction is down. 
  • Three or more beamed notes – stem direction is determined by the note the greatest distance from the middle line. If there is a tie for greatest distance, all stems are down.

stem direction examples

Rhythmic Values

The notation of rhythm involves a basic set of symbols of sound and silence. The following “rhythm tree” shows note values from the whole note through the thirty-second note. Observe that undotted notes divide into two equal parts.

rhythm tree

For every symbol of sound there is a corresponding symbol of silence. While it may seem counterintuitive, silence is just as important as sound in music.

notes and rests

Dots and Ties

Dots and ties can be used to create more flexibility in rhythmic values. A dot increases the duration of a note or rest by one-half its original length. An additional dot will add half the value of the original dot.

dots and ties

A tie connects two notes that are the same pitch. The tied notes are to be played as a single note with the rhythmic values added together. They can be used to connect pitches within a measure as well as over bar lines.

ties

Meters, Division of the Beat, and Time Signatures

The beat is the pulse of the music. It is what we clap to, dance to, and march to. Tempo describes how fast the beats occur. It is described using words, usually in Italian, and by using metronome markings. Metronome or tempo markings show how many beats occur in a minute. The following metronome marking means that there are 120 quarter notes occurring every minute, or two a second.

metronome marking

Some beats are accented and are stronger than other beats. The first beat or downbeat in a measure is always strong. This naturally occurring accent on the downbeat in a measure is called a metric accent.

Meters

Meters are classified as duple, triple, and quadruple depending on the number of beats within each measure.

  • Duple meters contain two beats in a strong / weak pattern.
  • Triple meters contain three beats in a strong / weak / weak pattern.
  • Quadruple meters contain four beats in a strong / weak / somewhat strong / weak pattern.

These patterns of strong and weak beats are the foundation of the conducting patterns that are used in bands, orchestras, and choirs. Below are the basic patterns for duple, triple, and quadruple meters.

conducting patterns

Division of the Beat

Beats are classified as simple or compound depending on the division of the beat into two or three equal parts. Both simple and compound meters can be duple, triple, or quadruple.

  • Beats that divide into 2 equal parts are called simple beats.
  • Beats that divide into 3 equal parts are called compound beats. The beat notes in compound meters are dotted values.

Time Signatures

Time signatures show how many beats are in a measure and which note value gets a beat. Time signatures for simple beats have 2, 3, or 4 at the top. The top number shows the number of beats in a measure, while the bottom number shows the beat note value. Simple meters with 2 at the top are duple, those with 3 at the top are triple, and those with 4 are quadruple.

If the bottom number in a time signature is 4, the quarter note is the beat note. If the bottom number in a time signature is 8, the eighth note is the beat note. If the bottom number is 2, then the half note is the beat note.

Some common simple meters are:

common simple meters

Time signatures for compound beats have 6, 9, or 12 at the top. The top number shows the number of divisions in a measure, while the bottom number shows the division value. Dividing the top number by 3 will yield the number of beats in the measure. For example, 6 ÷ 3 = 2, which means that time signatures with 6 as the top number are duple meters. Also, 9 ÷ 3 = 3, which means that time signatures with 9 as the top number are triple meters. In addition, 12 ÷ 3 = 4, which means that time signatures with 12 as the top number are quadruple meters.

A compound time signature with a bottom number of 8 means that the division is an eighth note and that the beat is a dotted quarter. A compound time signature with a bottom number of 16 means that the division is a sixteenth note and that the beat is a dotted eighth. A compound time signature with 4 at the bottom means that the division is a quarter and that the beat is a dotted half.

Some common compound meters are:

common compound meters

Beaming and the Notation of Rhythm

Beaming is the practice of grouping beats and subdivisions into easy to read and interpret visual packages. Beams connect two or more notes that are within the same beat in both compound and simple meters. Beams should help to clarify the natural metric accents that occur within a meter. As you can see from the next example, beamed rhythms are much easier to read than non-beamed rhythms.

beaming in simple meter

Syncopation

Syncopated rhythms displace the regular metric accents within a meter. The following illustrates the standard way of notating a common syncopated rhythm.

example of syncopation

Borrowed Divisions (Tuplets)

When writing music in a simple meter, composers can borrow the triple division of the beat from compound meters. These borrowed divisions are called triplets. Similarly, when writing music in a compound meter, composers can borrow the duple division of the beat from simple meters. These borrowed divisions are called duplets. It is also possible to create quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, and septuplets. The illustrations below only touch upon the range of tuplets available.

tuplets

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