This article was written by Mete Bakircioglu and edited by Sarah Zwinklis
Welcome to “The Shape of Music,” a five-part series where we go through the magic of music—how it works and what makes it sound so good. Music is an art form that we’re all familiar with to a certain degree. It’s the sounds that make us want to move or laugh or cry or try new things. Read along as we learn about music theory, which is a fancy way of saying “how music works.”
Follow Along! Modules:
The first important idea in music is rhythm. Rhythm is a pattern that holds something together; it’s the space between notes in music. Think of it like how you need both sand and water to build a sandcastle. If you have dry sand, you can’t make anything with it; it doesn’t have structure. But once you add a little bit of moisture by mixing in some water, you can build a sandcastle.
Let’s first take a step back, because it’s more than just music—there’s rhythm all around us.
Think about the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter each happen for the same amount of time every year, and they’re what give us a full year. The rhythm of the seasons will go on for as long as we will know. Bouncing a basketball, dancing to a song, chewing your food all have rhythm.
Rhythms come in infinite shapes and sizes. Different cultures use different rhythms; they vary from loudness to tempo to the instruments playing them. Let’s take a look at what rhythms sound like in the music around the world.
Morocco, North Africa
This song is from a party where musicians are beating drums to a loud rhythm, so people are dancing and having a good time. Because the setting is so energetic, the rhythm is very strong. You can hear in the background the crowd clapping along to the drums. This Moroccan rhythm is definitely something you can move along to!
Bolivia, South America
Here’s a rhythm from Bolivia, a country in South America. The rhythm here is played only on the guitar, and while it’s more lonely and complicated, you can still feel how it keeps moving along.
United States, North America
In America, a popular folk rhythm is the ragtime. This rhythm feels almost like it’s upside down, or it should be played differently, right? Its unique feeling and liveliness makes the listener want to move!
Now that we know what different types of musical rhythms sound like, let’s break them down and see how they’re played, so you all can read and play rhythms by yourselves! Remember that rhythm is the space between notes. That space depends on the length, or duration of the note.
The Four Types of Notes
The first type of note is the whole note, and it looks like a circle. Imagine a pizza, and think of the whole note as the whole pizza: round.
The next note value is the half note, which is a circle with a stem. The half note is—conveniently—half the length of the whole note; so two half notes make one whole note.
The third note value is the quarter note. Two quarter notes make a half note, and four of them make a whole note.
The third note value is the quarter note. Two quarter notes make a half note, and four of them make a whole note. Lastly, we have the eighth note. The eighth note looks like a quarter note with a little flag on the end of it.
If you’ve been following along with the pizza or circle example, breaking up the pizza into eighths notes gives us eight pieces. Each slice represents one eighth note.
A time signature is another way to organize music so people can read and play it. Written music is divided by measures, or bars, and the time signature tracks how the bars are spaced. The time signature we’ll be learning about today is called 4/4. When you look at the start of any piece of music, you’ll see the time signature.
The top number is how many beats there are in each bar. The bottom number tells us what note value is equal to one beat. So in our 4/4 time signature, the bottom four tells us that a quarter note—the one where four of them makes the whole pizza—gets one beat. And the top four tells us that when you put four quarter notes together, that’s the end of the bar and we need to start a new one because there’s no more space for anymore notes. Listen to the podcast version of Shape of Music | Episode 1: Rhythm for examples of music in 4/4!
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check out our next episode, where we go over melody—rhythm’s twin sibling.