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Note Lengths & Rhythm, Time Signatures & Rests in Music Theory

Updated on October 23, 2015

In today’s article we will be looking at how to identify different notes and their tone lengths, learning how to use them to create rhythm. Afterwards taking a look at the rest symbols and how to apply them to the staff as well as working with the time signature.

Using the information from my prior article on the Grand Staff and note placement, of which there is a link to the right, and the topics we are about to cover, you will be able to construct and read a basic piece of music by the end of this article!

I hope that you find the following informative and helpful in your quest to music theory success. Now let us begin…

Note Lengths and Rhythm

Music is made up of variations of short and long tones that we write out as notes on the staff. To create rhythm we must use combinations of tone lengths (notes) and rests.

Below you can see a chart on how we breakdown the notes according to their tone lengths. In this article we will be focusing on the Semibreve, Minim and Crotchet, moving on to the quaver and semiquaver in the next instalment.

Breakdown of Notes

The Crotchet

Also known as the quarter note in the USA, the crotchet note represents one beat. Clap your hands once; that is a crotchet beat. When playing crotchet notes they follow a consistent rhythm. See the below example:

Metronome - 85bpm

I have added the metronome video to the right with a speed of 85 beats per minute (bpm).

Listening to this video whilst clapping along when reading the following music examples will help you to better understand tone lengths and timing. If you're finding the pace of this metronome uncomfortable there are plenty more videos out there with different bpm speeds.

You may feel a little silly sat there clapping along, but I assure you that many musicians start off this way. In fact you will see me clapping in many of the example videos further down in this article!

Note Stems

When looking at the notes above you will notice that all the stems (the sticks attached) point upwards. Once the notes pass the line that the B note sits on (D line for bass clef), the stems change from the right-hand side of the note body (the round part) to the left and point downwards as so:

The Minim

Quite similar to the crotchet in it’s appearance but with a hollow body, the minim lasts for two beats, unlike the crotchet that we know only lasts for one.

If you look at the score (that's the piece of music) below you will see that we have used both crotchet and minim notes. I have added the video to the right to demonstrate how we count the beats for each note. Whilst listening to me clapping try to image that you're pressing a key on the piano or striking the string of a guitar. When playing a crotchet note you will strike the note once and let go. When playing a minim note you will strike the note and hold that note for two beats:

The Semibreve

The semibreve lasts for four beats and is equal to two minims or four crotchets.

Let's clap along to the following example:

Quick Look...

Time Signatures and Bar Lines

As free-flowing as music often feels it is still tied to timing. The timing is what helps the listener to make sense of what they’re hearing.

When a musician sits down to play a piece they can identify the timing of the music by looking at the time signature that is placed after the clef at the beginning of the score. In the below example we are using a 4/4 time signature:

Can you see the vertical lines on the staff above? They are called bar lines. These bar lines help us to split the music up into bars, also known as measures, so we can calculate how many of and which notes to use when building the rhythm of the piece.

In the above example we have a 4/4 time signature. This is informing us that we will be reading or writing our music based on four crotchet beats per bar:

  • The top 4 means we have four beats to a bar

  • The Bottom 4 means that a crotchet note gets one beat

So with a little bit of mathematics we can see that we will need to use either four crotchet notes, two minim notes, one semibreve note or a mixture to make four beats in a bar:

Time signatures vary depending on the movement of the piece. We have just covered the most common signature - 4/4, but here’s a couple more to take a look at:

A 2/4 time signature is basically a 4/4 time signature split in half. Instead of using four crotchet beats in a bar we only use two:

  • The top 2 means we have two beats in a bar
  • The bottom 4 means that a crotchet note gets one beat

You can see this in the music below:

Now take a look at the score below written in the 3/4 time signature and listen to how it differs from the the others.

Typically the 3/4 time signature portrays a waltzing movement.

Remember, the same rules apply, so for 3/4 time signature it is:

  • three beats per bar
  • crotchet note gets one beat:

3/4 Time Signature Metronome - 100 bpm

Bar Lines

Now I mentioned briefly above that the vertical lines on the staff are known as bar lines. You may have noticed that the bar line at the end of most of my examples has one thick line and one thin. This symbol signifies the end of the piece, like the very last full stop at the end of a book.

Sometimes within a score we want the same bars of music to be repeated. Instead of painstakingly copying out what is required the composer can add the repeat bar line, it's symbol you can see at the end of the third bar in the following piece. This bar line is signified by the two dots that sit on the staff in the A and C note spaces of the treble clef (C and E for the bass) and is to show the musician to return to the beginning and play through once again:

When listening to me clapping out the tune above, follow the notes.

When you reach the repeat bar line, return to the beginning. On the second time through we will not go back to the beginning, but instead carry on and play the last bar of the music.

Later on in your studies you will see other repeat bar lines that may highlight only certain areas of the music, or volta brackets that change the ending of the repeated section, but for now I think we have enough to think about!

Rests

In music we need gaps and moments of silence between the notes to create the rhythm that we desire. To achieve this we can add rests to the music.

As with the crotchet, minim and semibreve notes, rests also represent a unit of time and correspond mathematically with the notes we've learned. Let’s take a look:

  • The Semibreve Rest - Lasts for four beats in a bar / this rest can be used to show a whole bar of silence in 4/4 time / Hangs down from the D line in the treble clef (the F line in the bass clef):

Clapping with the Rests

  • The Minim Rest Lasts for two beats in a bar / can be used as a whole bar rest when in 2/4 time / Sits on top of the B line in the treble clef (the D line in the bass clef)

Note it looks very similar to the semibreve rest. My tutor once taught me an easy way to remember the two apart - the minim rest is lighter than the semibreve rest as it is only two beats unlike the semibreve, which is four, thus it stays sat upon the line instead of sinking below it:

Guitar example for above Minim Rest

  • The Crotchet Rest / Lasts for one beat in a bar:

I will link a video showing you how to draw this rest below.

Guitar example for above Crotchet Rest

Arranging Rests

The more rests that you learn the more complex the rules, but everything is well for us as we only have a couple to remember for now!

Take a look at fig. 1 below written for the 4/4 time signature:

fig. 1

In the 1st bar we have a semibreve rest. It is correct for us to use this rest here as it lasts for four beats.

In the 2nd bar we have two crotchet notes, one on the 1st beat of the bar and one on the 3rd, so they are not next to each other, therefore the the two rests that accompany them are crotchet rests. We have placed the rests where the other notes would be if we had chosen to play them. Now, let’s look at the following example of bar 2 to see how it would look if we had placed the notes on the 1st and 4th beats instead of the 1st and 3rd:

You can see that we still use the crotchet rests and not a minim rest to represent the beats between the notes.

Looking back at fig. 1 we can see in the third bar that we have two crotchet notes and a minim rest. We can use the minim rest here as we don’t intend to use any more notes in the bar - I see the minim rest as a full stop.

If we do want to use more notes in the bar we will need to use the crotchet rests and not the minim:

And going back to fig. 1 let's focus on the fourth bar.

You will see that we have only chosen to use one crotchet note on the first beat of this bar. As we are using 4/4 time in the fig. 1 example that means that we are left with three unused beats in the bar.

As we know, the crotchet rest is worth one beat and the minim rest is worth two beats. The minim rest must come after the crotchet rest as per the rules above, so we must place the note and rests in the order shown in fig. 1.

Here are some examples of bar 4 from fig. 1 if we had decided to place the crotchet note on different beats of the bar:

The same rules apply for different time signatures and rest lengths.

Tip: When thinking of the crotchet vs minim rest, it helped me to remember the rule of order by imagining that the minim rest was the full stop in a sentence. If you know you are not adding any more notes and do not need to use any more rests to make up your beat count you are free to add the minim rest to the bar.

You're Ready to Read and Make Some Music!

The time has come to put your knowledge to the test!

Hopefully I have covered enough in this and my previous article to help you on your way with the basics. You now have a selection of notes, time signatures and rests to adventure with and I hope to hear from you in the comments below if you have any questions, if there is anything I have missed or if you have some success stories to share.

In the next article we'll take a look at how to break down and add to the notes that we now know, enabling us to make new ones including quavers, semi-quavers, dotted and tied notes. We will add some new rests and time signatures to our repertoire as well as introducing ourselves to the Circle of Fifths and learning the first couple of key signatures (sharps and flats). Fancy learning some Italian? Well that’s exactly what we’ll be doing when we dive into dynamic signs, terms and abbreviations!

Until next time, have fun and happy learning!

Bob says Good Luck and Keep on Smiling!

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