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How to Listen to Music Through the Element of Rhythm - Rhythm Exercises

Updated on May 10, 2020
Reginald Thomas profile image

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.


A Metronome is an important tool used by musicians to help the keep steady time while practicing their music.
A Metronome is an important tool used by musicians to help the keep steady time while practicing their music. | Source

Rhythm in Music

Rhythm is the “heartbeat“ to what we see and hear in music. This is very important as we learn How to Listen to Music Through the Element of Rhythm. If we were to put a definition to the rhythm we could follow the same format that we learned previously with the definition of Music. This would be - “Organized Sounds and Silences”. More specifically, we will say that Rhythm is the organized arrangement of sounds and silences in time.

Representing the Sounds are “Notes” and Silences are “Rests”. Understanding this concept enables us to hear and see music notation. Music notation, therefore, brings life the composer's creativity to their compositions. Rhythm is the “heartbeat” to what we see and hear in music.

Try this Rhythm Exercise

Take your right hand and put it over your heart. With your left hand, tap your leg to the rhythm of your heart. Now, hopefully, you have a steady recurring pulse known as your “heartbeat”. If the beat that you’re tapping out on your leg is not steady, then turn this off, get in the car and get to the hospital. You might have a problem. OK then! Just kidding! But, your heart beats continuously the same pattern minute after minute, day after day, year after year.

Another example of the beat being a steady recurring pulse is obvious if you have a watch or clock that ticks the seconds away. Listen to that if you can. If you notice, there are 60 ticks in one minute of time. A steady recurring pulse.

As we go through the five “elements of music” ( Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Form, Timbre) we will explore a certain amount of theory that goes along with what we are ”listening for” and then through the examples given, you will gain a better understanding of the music. Plus you will better equipped to selecting music to listen to from any genre. For now, we will be concentrating How To Listen To Music Through the Element of Rhythm.

Listening Exercise #1 Advanced Rhythms

In this first listening exercise, I chose a musical example that Illustrates rhythms at an advanced level. The example that you’re about to hear is the drumline from a DCI (Drum Corps International) drum corps in rehearsal. The group is called the Blue Devils and is one of the best of the best when it comes to this type of music. These members are all volunteers and selected by audition from hundreds of musicians that apply because of their expertise and musicianship.

Listen and watch the video to observe the intricate rhythms being played by these drummers. All the rhythms were written by a specialist in this field. The composer knows these instruments extremely well and the musicians playing them. As you watch, notice that there is not just one Snare Drum player but many players playing the same parts. In the group, there are up to six instruments which are called “Tom Toms“. This instrument is made up of three/four different pitched drums connected together with a special frame and can produce three/four separate sounds. A high pitch, a middle, and a low pitch. They also have five multiple size bass drums. And to complete this group they have Cymbal players. By themselves, we could call this a ”percussion ensemble”. But, when you put this ensemble with the rest of the instruments which is comprised of brass instruments, we have a drum and bugle corps.

If you listen really carefully you will hear the sound of a “metronome“. Again, this device is used to keep the musician in time with the steady recurring pulse.

Fasinating Rhythms

Notes and Rests

From the most basic performance level to the most complicated, musicians at most all levels are required to read music notation. These skills are learned over many years and perfected by the most advanced players.

Take a Note!

Duration in music represents time and is displayed horizontally in music notation. These are called “Notes“ and are used to identify short and long durations of sound. The five-note values that we will be concerned within this series are:

  • Whole Note
  • Half Note
  • Quarter Note
  • Eighth Note
  • Sixteenth Note

The chart below illustrates these five notes and how they relate to each other.

Take a Rest!

This is the silence part of the music. And a very important part it is because without silences everything would be just continuous sounds and would be very boring. Just like the note values, we will be concerned with the following rest values as well.

  • Whole Rest
  • Half Rest
  • Quarter Rest
  • Eighth Rest
  • Sixteenth Rest

The chart below illustrates the five rest values and how they relate to each other.

Note Values Chart

Whole, Half, Quarter, Eighth, Sixteenth
Whole, Half, Quarter, Eighth, Sixteenth | Source

Parts of Music Notation

These are the different parts of music notation. A language by itself.
These are the different parts of music notation. A language by itself. | Source

Musical Math!

The Time Signature

The two numbers to the right of either the trouble clef or the bass clef are called the Time Signature. Its job is to determine the duration of time in music. What do these two numbers mean? Good question, I’m glad you asked!

The top number tells us how many beats in one measure.

The bottom number tells us what kind of note or rest will get one beat. ( whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth)

A Measure

Music uses “measures” to corral time according to the time signature. This is done by putting two vertical lines on either side of that measure. For instance, if the time signature is 4/4 it allows four beats in that measure, and a quarter note would equal one of those beats. With this, we could have up to four quarter notes in one measure. Let’s say the top number is six and the bottom number is still four. That would indicate six beats per measure and a quarter note would get one of those beats.

Bar Lines

A Bar Line is simply a vertical line that separates two measures. Simple! Right?

Listening Exercise #2 Finale to Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op 36

This exercise in listening features one of the most popular of all orchestral works. The Finale to Symphony No. 4 in F minor by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Written between 1877 and 1878, this symphony consisting of four movements was a work that Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate to Nadeshda von Meck. Madame Meck was a financial benefactor for the composer and his compositions.

Tchaikovsky wrote many classic works during the Romantic Period, some of which are annual events year after year today. Two Ballets - Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are performed worldwide by professional and amateur companies alike. Another composition performed by many bands and orchestras each year is the 1812 Overture.

This particular movement from Symphony No. 4 has been played by probably every major symphony orchestra world wide many times since the late 1800s. It also has been transcribed for the Band idiom in the form of Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band making it part of every major university/college music libraries for their performance purposes.

As this piece starts out you will hear a driving rhythmic force full of high energy from the orchestra with explosive rhythms outlining the opening theme. The composer incorporates a famous Russian folk song “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree” as the second theme.

I find this movement to be very invigorating and having had played it myself several times, it has become a favorite of mine to listen to over the years. Listen to how Mr. Tchaikovsky uses the brass instruments as that forceful sound exhibited by the full orchestra. He loves to write for the French Horn, a very colorful instrument and his use of percussion is wonderfully solid. I added this piece to my long list of favorite compositions that I listen to from time to time years ago and hope that you will begin to build your own listening list of favorites also.

To get the full benefit of these exercises, I do recommend that you listen to them on a good sound system or at least a very good pair of headphones. I have a link below that may help you look at a few types of good headphones.

Peter IIyich Tchaikovsky

Great Russian Composer
Great Russian Composer | Source

Rhythm is the "heartbeat" of what we see and hear in music!

Central Washington University Jazz Band 1

Listening Exercise #3 The First Circle.

The final listening example for this article will show you some of the extremes to the rhythm in music. The “medium for performance” is a Jazz Band”. The ”genre” is Jazz, and the composition is called “The First Circle” performed by the Central Washington University Jazz Band. It is a big contrast from what you just heard with the symphony orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky piece, but being able to listen for the different patterns and rhythms, we are able to understand how diverse the different genre and again, you may be getting into a medium you have never heard before.

This group of young musicians is performing at a very high level. When a group of this nature sounds this good it is because they are in sync with each other and understand the composers' intentions when it was composed. Not to take away anything from the director because he is a fine musician himself and without him and his guidance this group would not be sounding so professional.

Listen as this piece begins with a simple rhythm being set down by the entire group until the main theme is introduced followed by a building of layers of sounds from the different sections. The rhythm section is hard at work driving the piece forward throughout. Great piece!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Feel free to comment or ask questions about this article. In the next article we will explore Melody!

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    • Reginald Thomas profile imageAUTHOR

      Reginald Thomas 

      3 years ago from Connecticut

      Thank you Louise

      Glad you liked it.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      3 years ago from Norfolk, England

      Yes I agree, stereo headphones are really important. I'm always listening to music. Thanks for the article, it was really interesting to read.


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