Musical Meter and Rhythm

So far we have seen that music is made up of notes, that interact together and join to make chords etc.

But music is not just a succession of notes. Music is rhythm. A same line of notes can sound in a complete different way, according to the rhythm it is played on. We are going to introduce the notion of measure, tempo, and we will hear the various music figures.


The measure or meter is a musical unit that tells us how music is subdivided. On the score, we will see that at the beginning of the staff, usually expressed by a fraction. If the meter changes during the course of the song, this will be notified and the new value of the meter will be specified. The meter enables us to divide the score in measures. The measure bars correspond to each subdivision made within the score, designated by vertical lines.


The staff


Rhythmically, each measure has the same duration, in other words, in the same number of musical figures fits in each measure (although, all figures don’t have the same length, as we will see).

As I said, the meter is specified by a fraction. The numerator of the fraction (the top number) indicates in how many parts the measure will be divided, i.e it indicates how many pulses or beats our meter will have. The denominator (the bottom number) will indicate the beat unit, or figure that will correspond to each beat of the measure. following this chart (I will explain each figure further on, don’t worry):

1 → whole note
2 → half note
4 → quarter note
8 → eighth note
16 → sixteenth note

Note that there are also some smaller divisions, such as the 32nd note, the 1/64th note or the 1/128th note, which I will not elaborate since they are rarely used.

So, now we know the meaning of the fraction that represents the meter.

Let’s see a few examples:


The numerator indicates that this meter is divided is 4 beats or pulses. The denominator indicates that each beat is a quarter note. In other words, in each measure we will have 4 quarter note figures, one for each beat of the measure. This is the most commonly used meter in contemporary music (pop, rock, blues, etc).


The numerator indicates that it is divided in 2 beats, and the denominator tells us that it will be quarter notes. So, each measure will have 2 quarter notes.

Try to decipher the meaning of a 3/4 meter, and of a 12/8 meter.

Important note. As we know, the denominator tells us about the figure that corresponds to each beat of the measure, and we know how many beats it has from the numerator. This doesn’t mean that a 4/4 meter will always have 4 eighth notes, with one on each beat of the meter. The meter tells us about the total duration of the measure, but we can use as many musical figures as we ant to, as long as we don’t exceed the duration indicated by the meter. The duration of each figure is always half of the previous one, if we follow the list we saw previously. So, a half note lasts half of a whole note, a quarter note lasts half of a half note (or half of the half of a whole note, i.e a quarter), an eighth note lasts half of a quarter note (or an eighth of a whole note), and a sixteenth note lasts half of an eighth (or a sixteenth of a whole note). Let’s see this with an example.

In a 4/4 meter, we can have :

  • A whole note (it will last for the 4 beats of the measure)
  • Two half notes (one will last for the first 2 beats, the second will last for the other 2 beats)
  • Four quarter notes (according to what we just saw)
  • Eight eighth notes (we will have 2 eighth notes on each beat)
  • Sixteen sixteenth notes (fours sixteenth per beat)

On top of that, we can make any combination, provided that the total sum equals 4 quarter notes.

  • One half note and 2 quarter notes
  • One quarter note, 2 eighth notes, and 8 sixteenth notes
  • 8 eighth notes

We can combine them as we want to.

Musical figures

Though we practically already saw them, let’s see how they are represented, and what is their duration.

Whole note

It is the basic unit. Each note length is a division of this value. It lasts for an entire 4/4 measure.

whole note

Whole note


Half note

It lasts half the beat of a Whole note which equals to two beats (half of a 4/4 measure).

half note

Half notes


Quarter note


The quarter note lasts half the beat of a Half Note, or a quarter of a whole note. It lasts for a quarter of a 4/4 measure.

quarter note

Quarter notes


Eighth note

Its duration is half of a quarter note, or an eighth of a whole note. It lasts for an eighth of a 4/4 measure, i.e 2 eighth notes “fit” in each beat of the measure.

eight note

Eighth notes


Successive Eighth Notes are tied together with a bar.


Sixteenth note

Its duration is half of an eighth note, or a sixteenth of a whole note. It lasts for a sixteenth of a 4/4 measure, i.e 4 sixteenth notes “fit” in each beat of the measure.

sixteenth note

Sixteenth notes


Augmentation dots

The dot is a musical sign used to increase the duration of a note by one half. For example, a dotted half note lasts for three beats (in a 4/4 meter), which would correspond to three quarter notes. A dotted quarter note lasts for a beat and a half, which would correspond to three eighth notes.

augmentation dots

augmentation dots


It is represented by a dot on the right of the note it applies to.


A rest is an interval of silence, marked by a symbol indicating the length of the pause. Like for the notes, there is a specific symbol per the duration.


Whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, eighth rest and sixteenth rest



So far we have seen how music can be divided in measures that have the same duration. Tempo is measured by beats per minute (bpm). As we saw, a measure is divided in pulses or beats. Therefore, the tempo tells us how many beats there will be per minute, it’s as simple as that.

The tempo is specified at the beginning of the song, and every time it changes.

With the help of a metronome, we can follow up to the rhythm and stick to the duration of each note. Using the meter and the tempo as our reference, we will set the metronome. For example, we have a 4/4 meter and the tempo shows it’s 60 bpm. That is to say, we have 60 beats per minute. In a 4/4 meter, as we already know, each beat is a quarter note, therefore we will be playing 60 quarter notes per minute, i.e. on every second. They will all last the exact same amount of time. In this case, we would set the metronome to 60 bpm, and play a quarter note coinciding with each click of the metronome.

Following the same process, we could play eighth notes: we would be playing two notes per click of the metronome (remember that a quarter note equals two eighths), and we would be playing a total of 120 notes within a minute.

The same goes for the other figures. A whole note would be 4 clicks, a half note would be 2 clicks: 4 sixteenths within a click.

If you have a metronome, use it. If you don’t, buy one! (or use an online metronome or a phone app). It’s important for you to get used to playing in tempo, to be able to make the necessary subdivisions with accuracy. So, if the metronome indicates quarter notes on each click, you should be able to play eighths or sixteenths without any problem in between two clicks.

Exactly as I’m telling you to learn how to use the metronome and be able to play in tempo, I also ask you to do the contrary. You need to be a little flexible, make some notes last longer, cut other notes short… together with a few techniques such as vibrato, ties… the combination of it all will make our interpretation unique (feeling). Always under control.

Rhythm patterns

Apart from specifying the duration of the note, the musical figures we have seen designate each note according to its position on the staff. In order to represent a rhythm, we use the same process as for musical figures, except that we don’t need to designate notes, duration is enough. We make it as simple as possible. This is how percussion and rhythm patterns can be transcribed.

In order to represent a rhythm, we will use rhythm slashes, which are just simplified musical figures. We have rhythm slashes for a whole note, a half note, a quarter note, and so on. Have a look at them here:

rhythm patterns

Rhythm patterns can be clustered as we want to, as long as we always respect the duration of the measure, just as we do for normal musical figures. And we can prolong them with a dot if needed.

Let’s take an example of a rhythm pattern in a 4/4 measure:

rhythm pattern example

Let’s put the metronome to 60 bpm, or to the speed that suits you. Each click is a quarter note. Therefore, on the first click we will play a quarter note, on the second click we will have to play the two sixteenth (the first one will correspond to the click, and the second will be right between the second and third clicks), each one will last for a halt-beat, they must all have the same duration. On the third click, we will play one more quarter note. On the fourth click, we will play two sixteenths *(the first one will correspond to the click, and the second one will be right between the fourth and fifth clicks),

When I was young, I was taught the following rule, in case it helps you. The TA syllable lasts for 1 beat. The TI syllable lasts half a beat, and the syllable RI lasts a quarter of a beat. They respectively correspond to quarter, eighth and sixteen notes. The example would be TA – TI TI – TA – TI TI.

I hope that you survived and found it helpful.

Featured image © Alexander Zlatnikov –

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