How to Read Rhythms

    Ever wonder how rhythms are written in music? This post will teach you to read the most common basic musical rhythms.

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    What is rhythm?

    Music is made up of two things: pitches and rhythms. Rhythm lets musicians know when a note should be played and how long it should be played for. The rhythmic value of a note is shown by the shape and parts of a note.

    The parts of a note.

    There are three main parts to a note, each of which will tell you something about the duration of the note.

    • (3) The notehead
    • (2) The note stem
    • (1) The note flag
    • Bars are similar to flags in how they change a note's value, but they are used to connect two notes. You can mix and connect any notes that would have a flag (eighth, sixteen, or thirty-second notes) with bars.

    Now, a note doesn't have to have all three things. It might have just a head, or a head and a stem, but each of these elements changes the note value. All notes get their name from the relationship they have to the whole note. For example, four quarters make a whole, and there are four quarter notes in a whole note.

    Note Values

    Whole Notes

    A whole note gets 4 beats. It has an empty (white) note head but no stem or flag.

    Half Notes

    A half note gets 2 beats. That should be easy to remember as it is half the value of a whole note. It has an empty (white) note head and a stem. It does not have a flag.

    Quarter Notes


    A quarter note gets 1 beat. It has a filled-in (black) note head and a stem, but no flag.

    Eighth Notes

    An eighth note gets half of a beat. It has a filled-in note head, a stem, and a single flag. When you connect multiple eighth notes with a single bar.


    A triplet receives one-third of a beat and they usually appear in threes. They can have a flag or be connected with a bar, but will have the 3 above their grouping to differentiate them from eighth notes.

    Sixteenth Notes

    A sixteenth note gets one-fourth of a beat, which means four sixteenth notes will make up one beat. They have a filled-in note head, a stem, and two flags. When they are connected to other notes, the two flags are replaced with two bars.

    Rhythmic Tree

    Remember, all note values get their name from their relation to the whole note. A half note is half of a whole note. A quarter note is a quarter of a whole note. Just as four quarters make a whole dollar, four quarter notes make a whole note. This tree shows these relationships and how many of each smaller rhythmic value fits into the larger value. This is what musicians call subdivision.



    Music also has a way to notate how long silences should last. Maybe the composer just wants space, or perhaps a different instrument is playing and should be the focus. Silence is notated with what is called a rest. Just like note values, there are different types of rests to show different durations. Rests share their names and lengths with their note counterparts. For example, just like a whole note receives four beats, a whole rest will receive four beats of silence.

    Whole Rest

    A whole rest receives four beats of silence and looks like an upside-down top hat. It will always hang from the staff line. Whole notes and half notes look very similar, so an easy way to tell the difference between the two is that whole notes "hold on" to the staff to save them from falling off.

    Half Rest

    A half rest receives two beats of silence. It looks like a top hat and always sits on the staff line.

    Quarter Rest

    A quarter rest gets one beat of silence. It looks somewhat like the letter "Z" stacked on top of the letter "C".

    Eighth Rests

    An eighth rest gets one half of a beat of rest. Unlike eighth notes, you will never see eighth rests connected. The reason is slightly obvious, two eighth rests are equal to a quarter rest, so you would just write a quarter rest.

    Sixteenth Rests

    The sixteenth rest looks like the eighth rest except it as another flag and receives a quarter of a beat of silence.

    Multiple Measures of Rest


    Sometimes in music, you will need to rest for multiple measures at a time. Composers will write the number of measures you should rest above the staff. Typically, rests will only be written like this if there are more than four measures of rest.

    Dotted Rhythms

    A dot after any note extends the duration of the note by half of its value. For example, a whole note gets four beats. Adding a dot to the whole note will add another two beats (half of the whole note's value), meaning a dotted whole note gets a total of six beats (4 beats + 2 beats).


    Here is that same idea applied to half, quarter, and eighth notes.


    Another way to understand the value of a dotted rhythm is to think about the subdivisions. Ask yourself, What is the subdivision of this note? For example, a half note can be subdivided into quarter notes. A dotted rhythm is equal to three of its subdivisions. So, a dotted half note is equal to three quarter notes.


    Occasionally, you will see double dotted or, even more rarely, triple dotted notes. A double dotted rhythm adds another quarter of the value to the end. Sticking with our whole note example:

    • A whole note gets four beats.
    • A dotted whole note gets six beats (a whole note + half its value).
    • A double dotted whole note gets seven beats (a whole note + half its value + a quarter of its value). ## Ties A tie is a curved line that joins two notes together. They can connect values of any duration and can even extend over bar lines. However, a tie can only connect notes of the same pitch. If the pitches are different, then it is called a slur, meaning there should be no articulation between the notes.


    How to Count Rhythms

    Before you read this section, I highly recommend that you understand how time signatures work. You have to know how many beats are in a measure and what note value received the beat. To learn, we will use the 4 4 time signature, which means that there are four beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat. When you count rhythms, you are essentially counting the beats.


    Notice how each beat is getting a number and since a quarter note gets just one beat, we count every quarter note. Of course, that only works for quarter notes. How would we count a half note? Or a whole note?


    A half note takes two beats, so we would only count the beat where the start of the note happens. When we count notes that last for less than a beat, we have to add new syllables.


    The downbeat will get the number and the upbeat will always be and. To feel what an eighth note feels like, try saying the words "soda" in one beat.


    With triplets, we say the number on the downbeat and the "la" for the second triplet of the group and "le" for the third triplet for the group. You can feel triplets by saying the word "Strawberry" in the space of one beat.


    Sixteenth notes are counted with the downbeat getting the number, the upbeat getting the and (just like with eighth notes), and the second sixteenth getting an "e" and the fourth an "uh." You can feel sixteenth notes by saying "Ravioli" in the space of one beat.

    Now that you know how these rhythms are counted, you can look at they fit into a measure.