Nearly all rhythms are built in groups of either two or three beats. A lot of old classical music is in twos, waltzes are in threes, and most pop music is in fours (two groups of two). Other rhythms of sixes and eights could still be considered groups of threes and twos, respectively.
If you don't understand any of the following terms, you can scroll down to have a look at the first chart below.
Music is written on a staff (the five horizontal lines), which is normally divided into measures (groups of beats) by a series of vertical bar lines. The rhythm is represented by two numbers that look like a fraction and usually appear at the beginning of the staff. This symbol is called a time signature. The top number indicates the number of beats in each measure. For example, a 3/4 time signature means that there are three beats to each measure. The bottom number indicates what kind of note is used in the transcription to represent one beat. For example, a 3/4 time signature means that there are three beats to each measure and each beat is represented by a quarter note. A 6/8 time signature means that there are six beats to each measure and an eighth note is used to represent each beat. In most kinds of music, time signatures are nearly always 3/4, 4/4 or 3/8.
Now that we know how to interpret the transcribed rhythm, we have to understand how to interpret note values (the duration of the notes). In most kinds of music, when notes last two or more beats, they appear on the staff as hollow circles. When notes last one beat, the circles are solid black, and when they last less than one beat, the solid black notes are joined by horizontal lines that are called beams. Beams are usually single or double.
Let's see for ourselves how this works in a 4/4 time signature. Clap, count, tap your foot or whatever, but try projecting a steady rhythm of four perfectly separated beats. Now count over that rhythm, "one, two, three, four." In the example below, each beat appears as a quarter note (or crotchet in the UK), which is a single black note head with a stem. Each note is separate and not connected to another.
The staff or bar above is divided into measures by the bar lines. The 4/4 time signature at the beginning indicates that there are four beats in each measure and that each beat is represented by a quarter note, which is a solid black stemmed circle. This is a simple example of a transcription in 4/4. We're going to use 4/4 for the following examples, but we'll see some different time signatures toward the end of this document.
The example above places one note at each beat, but when there are several notes within a beat, we use horizontal lines called beams that connect the notes. Two equally spaced notes per beat are called eighth notes (quavers in the UK). The notes appear on the staff with a horizontal bar that joins the stems to form one beat. If there is half of a beat of silence (a rest), and therefore only one note, the beam trails off, hanging over the single note. This is called a hook or a flag (see graphic). Go back to your four-beat counting and put an "and" squarely between the beats (think marching band rhythm, not swing rhythm).
Now go back and try to feel a swing rhythm, in which the "and" is closer to the next number (it's really the "uh" of the triplet rhythm) and is no longer perfectly between the two. Different styles of music normally use only one of the two eighth-note rhythms.
The symbol or something similar is sometimes used at the beginning of a score to indicate a triplet feel. It shows that all the eighth notes of the piece should be felt like the first and third notes of a triplet.
Dividing each beat into three equal parts offers a different feel, but uses the same single horizontal bar or beam. There should be a number three over each beam to indicate this, but it's often not necessary since we can see the groupings of four beats to a measure (sometimes the three is necessary, but we'll see that later). The syllables for the counting could be, "one and uh, two and uh,...". Remember to keep the syllables equally spaced. There are several ways to divide the beat into three parts, but only one of them is in perfect thirds. The syllables below should flow out in a steady stream.
With four-note divisions of each beat we use two beams, as seen below. These are called sixteenth notes (semiquavers in the UK):
Quintuplets (divisions of five) are common in flamenco but seldom heard elsewhere, and are written as five double-beamed notes. Sextuplets are much more common and are also double beamed. When written out, both of these values should include the little number over the beams to indicate how many equal parts that beat has been divided into. Septuplets, which are very rare, follow the same rule.
When we divide a beat into eight equal parts, and that's pretty darn fast, a triple beam is used to join the thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers in the UK). This time value isn't used too often, but sometimes quick slurs (fretting-hand articulation) can be noted this way.
Up to this point, we've looked at notes that last one beat or less. When a note is held over several beats it is represented in a different way. Instead of the black note head, a hollow circle is used. A note lasting four beats is called a whole note (semibreve in the UK) and is represented by a stemless hollow circle. A note lasting two beats is called a half note (minim in the UK) and is a stemmed hollow circle. A dot next to a note increases its value by one-and-a-half times. This is used to transcribe notes that last three beats. Look at this:
We've already seen quite a bit. Here's a summary of the symbols presented so far. The name is how we refer to the note, and the number or fraction represents how many beats that note is worth in 4/4 time. You'll have to memorize all the note shapes and values from the whole note (hollow circle, 4 beats) to the thirty-second note (triple beam or flag, 1/8 of a beat).
All of these examples use the 4/4 time signature. This is so common that it is often represented by a large capital "C" instead of the fraction. Other time signatures are sometimes used. Three beats to a measure, a waltz for example, is often written in 3/4. This could also be written in 3/8, and the notation would look a little different. Every eighth note would be one beat. The two examples below would sound identical:
Sometimes different time signatures can be used to simplify the notation. An example of this is the 12/8 signature sometimes used for blues and shuffle rhythms with a strong triplet feel.
In the 12/8 time signature the top number indicates twelve beats per measure and the bottom number that each beat is represented by an eighth note. In the example above you can see that there are twelve eighth notes all together, and that it looks just like a measure of 4/4 in triplets. It's a different way of saying the same thing, and in this case it would avoid having to include the little three that should appear over each beam. In 4/4 time, in a piece where everything or nearly everything appears in triplets, the use of 12/8 time would be an alternative. However, in other pieces it's often necessary to include the three, in order to make it clear that a grouping of three notes is a triplet, because beams can link more than one beat. Look at these two examples:
Here the 4/4 time signature is clearly represented by the beamed groups of notes. The symbol at "two and" is an eighth rest like the one we saw earlier, which indicates a half beat of silence. The third beat has three beamed notes that should be played like a triplet (three and uh).
But this same idea could also be written this way:
Notice how the first three eighth notes are beamed, but the last of them starts beat two, just like the first example. The notes in the third beat look just the same as those in the first beat but should be played differently. This is made clear by the little number over the notes, and the same rule is applied to other note values that "share" the same beaming: sixteenths, quintuplets, sextuplets and septuplets.
There are only a few more symbols to learn for this brief overview of noted rhythm. When we hold a note, letting it ring out, there are two ways of transcribing this. The first way is to use a curved line called a tie that joins shorter notes together into one long one. The second way is to use a single note value that is equal to several tied notes. This might involve using dotted notes, which equal one-and-a-half times the note without the dot (the dot adds 50% more value).
In the first measure we can see how the third note is held. The curved line is a tie and indicates that this note is sustained (only the first of the tied notes is played and the rest are the result of this note ringing out). The second and third measures show more logical ways of noting this idea. In the third measure the tie is no longer necessary, since the value of the sustain is now represented in a single dotted note (quarter note equals two eighths, the dot equals half that amount, the total is three eighths). For guitar transcriptions, ties are also used to indicate slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs), but, obviously, the different notes could not be substituted for one long one.
There are a series of symbols used to indicate rests, or moments of silence. The symbols are seen below at the end of each measure. Notice that eighth, sixteenth and thirty-second rests use something similar to the single, double or triple hooks of their counterparts. The notation before each rest is what's left of the four beats after subtracting the value of the rest. Remember that each measure has to contain four beats. There's a bit of math involved in reading notation: not complicated formulas, but adding up whole numbers and fractions until you come up with the number of beats per measure. For example, the last measure seen below would be "two + one and a half + three eighths + one eighth = four". Make sure to notice whether or not the notes are dotted.
The examples below compare similar ways of dividing one beat. On the left side, the division is made up of evenly spaced notes, and, on the right, the same number of notes is distributed in different (uneven) patterns. It is very important for any musician or dancer to be able to feel the difference between even and uneven patterns. I've included some syllables for counting, but bear in mind that the "and" and "uh" in triplets and sextuplets happen at different moments from the "and" and "uh" in eighths and sixteenths (a triplet is divided into units of 33.3% and sixteenths in units of 25%). This reflects the difference between binary (in twos) and ternary (in threes) divisions. The syllables shown are for just one beat and can be repeated to simulate a rhythm. If you count the patterns out loud you should silently feel the syllables in parentheses without pronouncing them. All of these examples would use some time signature like 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4, in which the lower 4 represents a quarter note for each beat.