≡ Menu

Reading rhythm, part 2: notes

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.


Unlike beats, which are points in time, notes have duration. They can start at any time, and be any length.

For example, the last note of Stravinsky’s Firebird is about 6 seconds long:

On the other hand, the notes in Rimsky Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” are only a fraction of a second long:

That’s why you can fit so many of them in such a short space of time. (The pianist is Yuja Wang again, playing an arrangement by György Cziffra.)

However, the duration of a note isn’t measured in seconds in a musical score, it’s measured in beats.

Beats and “beats”

Here’s where things start to get confusing. Remember our beats graph?

beats graph

Let’s zoom in.

beats graph zoomed

The vertical lines represent beats, which, as we established in the previous post, are regularly-occurring points in time.

  • The fact that they’re regularly-occurring is why the lines are equally spaced apart.
  • The fact that they’re points in time is why the lines don’t have any width.

So far so good. The problem is, the word “beat” is also used to describe the time between 2 consecutive beats:

beats and beats

“Why, oh why?!”, I hear you say. Because then we can say that, e.g. a note is “2 beats long”, or “1 beat long”:

notes graph

That 1st note starts on a beat and is 2 beats long. That’s 2 different uses of the word “beat” in one sentence: as a point in time and as a length of time. The 2nd note starts on a beat and is one beat long. Luckily, which “beat” you mean is usually obvious from the context.

Again, this is how notes tend to be represented in music recording programmes, e.g. the Piano Roll Editor in GarageBand:

Piano Roll Editor

Beats are vertical lines, just like in our graph, and notes are horizontal bars – the longer the bar, the longer the note. So we can see that the first note on the left (by the cursor) starts on a beat and is 2 beats long, just like the first note in our graph.

So this is how notes are represented in music notation, right?

Sadly not.

How notes are notated

(Note: the rest of this article contains musical symbols that might not display on mobile devices. I recommend continuing to read on a desktop/laptop if so.)

As we covered in my Introduction to sight reading, notes are represented as blobs, and you can tell how long a note is depending on whether:

  • it has a stem or not ( 𝅝 or 𝅗𝅥 )
  • it’s filled in or not ( 𝅗𝅥 or 𝅘𝅥 )
  • it has a tail or not (and if so, how many) ( 𝅘𝅥 or 𝅘𝅥𝅮 or 𝅘𝅥𝅯 or 𝅘𝅥𝅰 )
  • and whether it has a dot or not (e.g. 𝅗𝅥 or 𝅗𝅥 . )

Here’s a complete chart you can download and print (click on the image for the PDF):

We’re going to cover rests and dotted notes in later articles, and why the 4th column is true “if the bottom number of the time signature is 4” (and what that means), but for the time being let’s compare the “note” and “name” columns.

The note head / stem / tail system is pretty counterintuitive compared to music programs’ horizontal bar system, but it’s not totally illogical. The crude intuition you can use to help you remember it is: as the notes get “heavier”, they get half as long. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with a whole note:


If we add a stem (making it “heavier”), it becomes a 12 note (half as long):


If we fill in the head (making it “heavier” it again), it becomes a 14 note (half as long as a 12 note):


If we then add a tail to the stem (“heavier” again) it becomes an 18 note (half of a 14 note):


And then we can keep on adding tails and halving notes to make 116-, 132-, and 164-notes:

𝅘𝅥𝅯 𝅘𝅥𝅰 𝅘𝅥𝅱

(Don’t worry about memorising all of these now, we’ll work through lots of examples so that they stick.)

So that’s how notes are notated. What about beats?

How beats are notated

Here’s the really bad news.

Wait for it …

In music notation, beats are not notated at all.


Yeah. Bear in mind that music notation was invented to notate Gregorian chant, not rock or pop.

So how do you work out where the beat goes?

With quite a bit of thought.

I’ll show you in a video.

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

Before getting into notation let’s think about how rhythm works in general and define a few basic concepts, starting with beats.


What is a beat?

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what a beat is already, but let’s examine that intuition and see if we can get to a definition. In general, if you’re listening to a piece of music and you’re tapping your foot, your foot is tapping on the beat.

The snare drum at the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” is playing on the beat:

And the bass drum in Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is on the beat:

So how do we define a beat, based on those examples?

  • A beat is a regularly-occuring point in time.

Let’s break that down:

  • regularly-occuring: It doesn’t matter what other rhythms are going on in a piece (e.g. the brass riff in “Uptight” piece or the chords in “One More Time”), the beat is steady.
  • a point in time: Beats don’t have length. The snare or bass drum notes are not themselves the beat, they’re merely on the beat. The beat is a concept.


Okay, so a beat is a regularly-occurring point in time. How regularly-occurring? In other words, how much time should there be between one beat and the next? It varies.

Compare these 2 clips. The 1st one is pretty fast:

The 2nd one is pretty slow:

Another way of saying that “the 2nd piece is slower than the 1st” is to say that “the beats are further apart in the 2nd“. So how do we measure how far apart beats are?

Using Beats Per Minute – or BPM for short – which is what it sounds like: how many beats fit in a minute. Yuja Wang is playing the Strauss at around 180 BPM. (So if you tapped your foot in time to the piece you’d tap your foot roughly 180 times in a minute, or 3 times a second.) The conductor is playing Albinoni’s “Adagio” at around 60 BPM (one beat a second) – a of the speed of the 1st piece. So BPM varies quite a lot. (For comparison, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” is at 133 BPM and Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is at 123 BPM. Dance music is often around 120 BPM since that’s the rate of an elevated heartbeat.)

The speed of a piece of music is called it’s tempo (Italian for “time”).

Important: don’t confuse how far apart the beats are with how far apart the notes are. Later on in Daft Punk’s “One More Time” there’s a less eventful section which might feel slower, but the beat is the same (if you were tapping your foot, you’d continue to tap it at the same speed):


So how do we count beats?

1, 1, 1, 1?


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, …?


We count beats like Coolio:

1, 2, 3, 4

And if we kept on going it would repeat:

1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4

The point being, we don’t count beats one at a time, or in a never-ending list, we count beats in repeated groups. In this case groups of 4, which is the most common, but it can be other numbers. Take the song “Oom Pah-Pah” from the musical Oliver:


That’s a repeated group of 3:

1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3

A repeated group of beats is called a bar (or measure in the US), so in Coolio’s “1, 2, 3, 4” there are 4 beats in a bar, and in Lionel Bart’s “Oom-Pah-Pah” there are 3 beats in a bar. (The number of beats in a bar is what the top number in a time signature tells you, but we’ll get to that later.)

Note that the first beat of a bar is emphasised. They’re the “oom”s in “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which are also lower that the “pah”s:


1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3

You can hear the same pattern in Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” – the bass notes fall on the first beat of each bar, while the other beats are covered by chords:


So how to notate all of this? Well, we already established in my introduction to sight reading that a musical score is essentially a pitch/time graph, with pitch on the x-axis and time on the y-axis:

pitch / time graph

So maybe notate beats as vertical lines, perhaps with the first beat of each bar as a thicker line?

beats graph

That’s how beats tend to be notated in music recording programmes, e.g. GarageBand (click the image to enlarge):


So that’s how beats are notated in scores as well, right?

If only life were that simple.

We’ll talk about how beats are notated later, but first we need to talk about notes.

A piano arrangement of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say?”, one of the first soul songs. Click the image below to download the PDF.

What'd I Say?

A cocktail piano arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”, originally performed by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time. Click the image below to download the PDF.

The Way You Look Tonight

A cocktail piano arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind”, famously covered by Ray Charles. Click the image below to download the PDF.

Georgia on My Mind