Unit 4: Notating Rhythm and Meter


Rhythm Symbols — Whole and Half Notes

Traditional Western music notation doesn’t use horizontal lines to represent rhythms. Instead, note symbols with varying shapes have been used for this purpose for over half a millennium. Let’s begin our introduction to these symbols with the following, called a WHOLE NOTE:

This symbol equals one kind of duration. It does not necessarily equal 4 beats, or 1 beat, or one whole measure (although it may); it’s simply called a WHOLE NOTE.

A symbol for one-half of that duration is called — quite logically — a HALF NOTE:

The half-note symbol may appear in either orientation, depending on various factors which will be discussed later.

The following simple relationships are then true:


In traditional music notation, vertical lines called BAR LINES are placed immediately before each primary pulse except the first, and therefore mark out each measure:

It’s also helpful to view each bar line as marking the end of a measure. In this way, there is no bar line before the first note, but one is needed at the very end of any excerpt that ends with a complete measure (which will end with a single bar line) and at the end of a complete piece of music (which will end with the thin- thick double bar, shown above).


Rhythm Symbols — Quarter Notes

We can continue to divide our rhythm symbols in half. One-half of a half note is called a QUARTER NOTE:

The following simple relationships then follow:

Let’s now go back to the “Twinkle Twinkle”  example we discussed in Unit 2. The rhythmic grid symbols would correspond to something like this:

This time, since the quarter note is equal to one beat, the one-beat notes are all quarter notes. However, the two-beats notes in measures 4 and 8 are now half notes — twice the duration of the quarter-note beat.

It is crucial to recognize the fact that both versions — our earlier one with the half note as beat, and the one above with the quarter note as beat — are equally correct. In first letting the half note equal one beat, and then letting the quarter

note equal one beat, we are merely notating the exact same rhythms in two different ways.

So far, we have used the following three symbols:

The values of those three symbols (and all the symbols we’ll learn below) are relative only to one another. They have no absolute values. In other words, we can’t say exactly how long the half note (for example) should last, until we decide to let it, or one of the other symbols equal one beat. Its length is not absolute — the first time we used it, it was worth one beat, and the second time it was worth two beats. Yet these symbols remain fixed relative to one another  one half note always equals two quarter notes, and so on.

Rhythm Symbols — A System of Duple Proportions

In music notation, there is a theoretically never-ending succession of note values achieved by taking one-half of each previous note. This succession begins with a note equal to two whole notes, called a DOUBLE WHOLE NOTE or BREVE.

We can now begin to construct a table of note values, in which each entry is one- half the value of the previous one:

Theoretically, this table could continue beyond this point, but 64th notes are rare enough and values smaller than that are hardly ever seen. The most common note values are whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, although the others do appear in a variety of music.

Another way of expressing relationships between these rhythm symbols is by showing how each note breaks down into smaller values:

An important outgrowth of these relationships is the ability to express one note’s value as a function of others. For example:

You should work to become fluent at seeing these relationships as rapidly as possible.

The Parts of a Note

Rhythm symbols are constructed from parts, each of which has a name:

The oval-shaped portion of a note is called the NOTE HEAD.

The vertical line ascending (or descending) from all notes of lesser value than a whole note is called a STEM.

Values smaller than a quarter note are achieved by adding more and more “hooks” — one for each halving of the note value. Those hooks are called FLAGS.



There is a corresponding set of symbols used to represent durations of silence in music. These symbols are called RESTS. The following table shows rests and the note values to which they correspond:

The whole rest may also stand for any full measure of rest in any meter.


A thick horizontal line may replace flags on two or more successive notes. This is called a BEAM. A beam stands for a flag on any note whose stem it touches.

Two beams similarly replace two flags. For example:

Single and double beams may be used in conjunction with one another. Each beam that touches a note’s stem acts just like adding one more flag to that note. For instance:

The way to determine the value of any beamed note is to count how many beams touch its stem, and count each of those beams as a flag.

Beams can be used to convey much about musical structure. For our purposes, it is important that you learn to read and write beams so that they clearly convey the metric and rhythmic structure of the music. In general, good beaming focuses on a single metric unit — usually the beat, the measure, or sometimes the half measure (in quadruple meters) — and consistently beams within that unit.

There is one exception to the rule of metric beaming: vocal notation. In much vocal music, notes for singers are grouped by beams to indicate syllables in the text. Under this system, notes sung on one syllable are generally beamed together whereas single notes on single syllables retain their individual flags. Instrumentalists who are unfamiliar with vocal beaming will have to take extra time to learn to decipher the metric groups it can sometimes obscure.


Meter Signs

In order to indicate different kinds of meter and just which rhythmic value is being used to equal one beat, musicians developed a symbol consisting of two numbers, one above the other, like this:

This kind of symbol is called a METER SIGN (also known as a METER SIGNATURE or TIME SIGNATURE).

The top number indicates the number of beats per measure (and therefore the kind of meter — duple, triple, quadruple, etc). Since we have explored meters with only 2, 3, or 4 beats per measure, for now this number will be restricted to 2, 3, or 4.

The bottom number indicates which note value equals one beat (the BEAT VALUE or BEAT UNIT), with “1” corresponding to a whole note, “2” corresponding to a half note, and so on. The most common beat units in simple meters are the half note (2), quarter note (4), and eighth note (8). You may see others as well, however.

To understand a little more about how meter signs work, consider an example. Earlier in this chapter, we notated “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” once setting the half note equal to one beat, and then setting the quarter note equal to one beat. We’ll precede the rhythm symbols with a meter sign to indicate the type of meter and the note value worth one beat.

Here’s our first version. We’ll use a 2/2 meter sign. The top number indicates duple meter. The bottom number indicates that the half note is worth one beat:

For our second version, we’ll use a 2/4 meter sign. The top number once again indicates duple meter. But the bottom number now indicates that the quarter note is worth one beat:

Notice that the two numbers in a meter sign appear directly above one another and that they are not written as a fraction (don’t draw an extra line between them). A meter sign is not a fraction.

Also notice the following conventions which we’ll use when we notate rhythm without pitch:

  • The box-like symbol at the beginning of each line means that the notes to come represent rhythms only.
  • A single horizontal line runs continually through all the measures, with the note heads all centered on that line.
  • Vertical bar lines that mark the beginning of each measure except the first.
  • The double bar at the end, constructed with one thin bar line followed immediately by one thick one, indicates the end.

It’s important to note that the top number in a meter sign is determined by the sound of a piece of music — the number of beats per measure is an audible result of the relationships between the primary and secondary pulses (although, as we’ve already seen, there is often more than one level on which to view these relationships). The bottom number is not a product of sound — it is chosen by the composer, transcriber, arranger, or editor. This means that a single rhythm and meter may be written out in different ways. Here’s an example, written first in protonotation and then with three different beat values:

Although they look different, all three would sound exactly the same.

Notice that, in each version, the top number is 2. That’s because the original rhythm is in duple meter (two beats per measure). The differences among the versions are due to the different note values that were chosen to be equal to one beat: the half note, quarter note, and eighth note, respectively.

None of these differences is audible. In other words, you can hear no difference between music notated using one beat value (for example, 2/4) and the same music notated using another beat value (for example, 2/2 or 2/8). Most important, you should note that the speed of a piece of music is not determined by the kind of beat value used to notate it. Instead, speed is determined by tempo. (We’ll learn about tempo in Unit 18.)


Abbreviated Meter Signs

There are two symbols that work like abbreviations in representing certain meter signs:

Three-Beat Notes: The Augmentation Dot

The only additional symbol we need be concerned about at this time is the AUGMENTATION DOT, which placed after a note increases the note’s value by 50%. For now, we will be adding dots only to notes that are originally two beats long, thereby creating 3-beat notes:


This material corresponds to UMass OWL Homework 3