Reading Rhythms

Rhythms tell musicians how long a note should be played for.

how to read and count rhythms in music
written by andrew swinney

By: Andrew Swinney

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.

The three parts of a music note are the head, the stem, and the flag.
  • (3) The note head
  • (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 conect 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 does't have to have all of 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 four beats.

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

Half Notes

A half note gets two beats.

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 doesn not have a flag.

Quarter Notes

A quarter note receives one beat. It has a filled head and a stem.

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

Eighth Notes

A single eighth note with a flag. Two eighth notes connected with a bar.

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.


Three triplets make up a single beat. They will always have the three above the 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 differenciate them from eighth notes.

Sixteenth Notes

A single sixteenth note with two flags. Four sixteenth notes with two bars.

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.

Thirty-second Notes

A thirty-second note with three flags.

Rhythmic Tree

Remember, all notes 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.

A tree showing the rhythmic relationship between notes.


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 gets four beats of silence. It looks like an upside down hat.

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 from falling off.

Half Rest

A half rest gets two beats of silence and looks like a top hat.

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.

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

Eighth Rests

A eighth rest gets half a beat of silence.

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 is equal to a quarter rest, so you would just write a quarter rest.

Sixteenth Rests

A sixteenth rest receives a quarter of a beat of silence. The same duration as a sixteenth note.

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

Multiple measures of rest will always be written with the number of measures over the measure.

Sometimes in music you will need to rest for multiple measures at a time. Composers will write the number of measure 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).

To find the duration of a dotted note you should add half of its value.

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

A dotted rhythm will always be extended by half of its original value.

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.

You can also figure out a dotted rhythms duration by adding three of its closest subdivisions.

Occassionally 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 out 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 notes gets seven beats (a whole note + half its value + a quarter of its value).


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.

Tied notes add the values together.

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 rhtyhms, you are essentially counting the beats.

How to count quarter notes in four four time.

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?

Counting half notes and whole notes.

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

What syllables do you use to count eighth notes.

The down beat 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.

What syllables do you use to count triplets.

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.

What syllables do you use to count sixteenth notes.

Sixteenth notes are counted with the downbeat getting the number, the upbeat getting the and (just like with eighth notes) and the second sixteeth getting a "e" and the fourth a "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.

How to count eighth notes in a measure.