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Reading Rhythm in Music V: Eighth and Sixteenth Notes

Updated on October 3, 2011

Previously in this series, the demonstrated note values have been rather basic. But musical rhythm is far more interesting, complex, and enriching than just these four basic notes (whole, dotted half, half, and quarter) normally represent.

In the same way that a whole note can be divided into two half notes and a half note can be divided into two quarter notes, a quarter note can be divided into two eighth notes and an eighth note into two sixteenth notes. (In fact, a sixteenth note can be divided into two thirty-second notes.) The principles are the same as before. In a given piece of music, one note value will form the basis of counting; it will represent one beat of the steady beat. Other note values will represent musical time that is proportional to the basic beat.

These new notes - eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second - look like a quarter note (filled note head with a stem) with flag/s or beam/s at the end of the stem farthest from the note head.  The eighth note has one flag or beam; the sixteenth has two; the thirty-second has three.  When the flag is used (for stand-alone notes), it flows from the tip of the stem towards the direction of the note head, always on the right side of the stem (i.e., no matter whether the stem moves upward or downward from the note head).  Beams are used in place of flags to join several beamed notes together.  The beamed notes do not all have to have the same value.  Eighth, sixteenth and thirty-second notes can all be beamed together, but they will have the appropriate number of beams (or even portions of beams) to indicate their value.

In general, the whole note, half note and dotted half note represent tones that move more slowly and that are sustained for a longer time; the quarter note is usually considered the “average” for most pieces, and the dotted quarter can be considered average as well. Eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes, along with their dotted counterparts, represent the quicker and shorter sounds. But the bigger concept to grasp is that of proportion or ratio. In tapping a steady beat, two of a smaller valued note will fit in the same time – or the same beat – or same portion of a beat – as one of the next higher value.

Just as with the other notes, there are methods of counting the eighth and sixteenth notes to assist the musician in maintaining the right proportions. Using the same methods mentioned in Part IV (again omitting the Suzuki Method), the counts would be as shown next.  (The thirty-second note is not included here, since it is used so seldom and since anyone who is able to perform it would most likely not need to use a counting method to figure it out.)

Method II – Other Words

Possible words (chanted with appropriate rhythm):

  • Quarter Note = walk
  • Eighth Note = run-ning
  • Sixteenth Note = quick-ly speed-ing  or  quick-ly run-ning

In this method, it can be helpful to use words that describe the speed of the note, but there are numerous other words that can be used with equal effectiveness.

Two eighth notes can be represented by

  • pic-nic,
  • pan-cake,
  • sim-ple,
  • foot-ball,

and by a host of other two-syllable words that are generally pronounced with equal time and equal weight or stress on each of the two syllables.

Four sixteenth notes can be represented by

  • wa-ter-me-lon,
  • Min-ne-so-ta,
  • Mis-si-sip-pi,
  • ef-fer-ve-scent,

and numerous other four-syllable words. Be careful to find words that have even time and stress for all of the syllables. A word like “ac-ci-den-tal” would likely not be a good choice, because in everyday use it is normally pronounced with noticeably greater stress and somewhat greater time on the third syllable.  (That's also true of some of the words I have listed, depending on what region of the country or of the English-speaking world you are in.)

As students develop their skills in counting, it can be an excellent exercise to help them write rhythmic notation for familiar words, including names of friends and family members. This helps them to develop an ear for accent/stress and for longer and shorter sounds.

Method III – Kodaly-based

  • Quarter Note = tah
  • Eighth Note = ti-ti
  • Sixteenth Note = ti-ri-ti-ri (or ti-ka-ti-ka)

Method IV – Naming the Note-Value Names Rhythmically

  • Quarter Note = quarter
  • Eighth Note = two-eighths
  • Sixteenth Note = ?

Because it is difficult to pronounce “sixteenth” quickly, it is probably ineffective to use its name in counting, exceptwhen practicing slowly. In that case, the musician might say “six-teenth-sixteenth” or “ra-pid six-teenth” (for four consecutive sixteenth notes) – and it would probably be necessary to forget about the "–th" at the end – but a better solution would probably be to use one of the other methods for sixteenth and faster notes. It’s generally likely that, by the time a musician has been introduced to sixteenth notes, they are ready for another counting method anyway.

Method V – Giving Each Note-Value a Specific Number

  • Quarter Note = one
  • Eighth Note = one-and
  • Sixteenth Note = one-ee-and-uh (one-are-and-uh; one-are-and-er; one-ee-and-er)

Method VI – Counting Numbers in Sequence

The same breakdown of the beat is used as with Method V, Giving Each Note-Value A Specific Number. The difference is that in this method the “one” is replaced by each number in sequence (1-2-3-4), whereas in the previous method, each beat begins with “one” (with the exception of some tied notes – explained below and demonstrated in the video). The video presentation below helps show the difference between these two methods.

This video is actually another representation of the first part of “Yesterday” by the Beatles. In Part IV of this series of articles, the same portion was counted out, using only quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes and some of their corresponding rests. But very often the same piece of music can be represented with different note values – that is, using a different note as the basis for the beat. In this video, the rhythm is notated more like the original, with the word “Yesterday” represented by two eighths and a quarter note. In Part IV, the same word was notated as two quarter notes and a half note. The musical background here (and in the videos below) is an accompaniment for the song, not the melody itself.

The rhythm-teaching videos ("Yesterday") are not currently available, but they will be returned to this article as soon as possible. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience to all visitors who have missed them!

About Tied Notes

Many times a note’s length is not precisely as long as one of the notes shown so far.

Often, a new note length can be represented by adding a dot after the note itself; the dot adds on half the value of the original note.


  • if a whole note equals four beats, a dotted whole note equals six;
  • if a half note equals two beats, a dotted half note equals three;
  • if a quarter note equals one beat, a dotted quarter note equals one-and-a-half;
  • if an eighth note equals one-half beat, a dotted eighth note equals three-quarters of a beat.

When you have to read notes that are 3/4 or 3/8 of a beat, you will be very happy to have developed a good grasp of counting, no matter what method you used in learning. Who can just figure out how long 3/4 of a beat should last (that is, without hearing the music or the rhythm from someone else) unless they have learned how to “translate” the meaning of the printed note values into an actual performed beat?

Some time in the future (in intermediate and advanced level music, perhaps more frequently in older editions than in more recent ones), you may see a note with two dots following it. The first dot represents half the value of the note; the second dot represents half the value of the first dot. A quarter note followed by two dots would last for one and three-quarters beats (where the quarter note represents one beat).

In some instances, it is not desirable to extend the length of the note by using a dot. In those cases, we use a slur line between two notes that are on the identically same line or space (with no other notes between them) to tie notes together to create the length of musical time needed. The slur line in this case is called a tie, not a slur. With these tied notes, the first note is played or sung and then held out for the total time represented by the value of all of the notes that are tied together. A half note tied to a quarter note will give three beats (just like the dotted half note); an eighth note tied to a quarter note is equal to a dotted quarter note. Tied notes are useful in many situations; one very common situation is in a measure where the full value of the tone is intended to last longer than the measure will allow – that is, the note will continue over into the counting of the next measure.  A tie may also be used where the length of the tone is longer or shorter than just a dotted note.

Sometimes the tie is used simply because it can be read and grasped more quickly than the single note of a longer value would be. Compare these two bits of rhythmic notation:

Which is easier to read and perform quickly?

Same rhythm as that shown below, but notated with three eighths, a quarter, and three eighths.
Same rhythm as that shown below, but notated with three eighths, a quarter, and three eighths.
Three eighths, two tied eighths (a whole beat), and three more eighths.
Three eighths, two tied eighths (a whole beat), and three more eighths.

Many people would find the second option easier to read, simply because it provides a symbol for every half beat, even the one that is held, and that visual cue boosts the perception of the half beat that is held.

In the above video of counting methods, the notes at the ends of phrases were shortened, with rests between the notes that are sung. In the following video, the same notation is used as above, except at the end of most phrases; in those cases, the final note is held out, and in this video each of these is represented as a tied note.

Two eighths and a quarter (or longer) note for the word "yesterday" discover the most likely rhythmic notation of that song; but the rhythm can be represented in still another way. In the second video below, "Yesterday" is shown as two sixteenths and an eighth note (or longer); in some cases there, rests are used at the end of a phrase and in other cases the notes are sustained. The purpose of the video is really just to provide an example of how sixteenth notes can be counted. It is not really a likely way of notating the song's rhythm, for several reasons which can be explained in another article.

A lot of words have been used in this series so far to present some of the most basic concepts of counting musical rhythm. But rhythm is not only the most basic and universal element of music, it can also be very complex and rich. There’s more to come in exploring the wonderful world of rhythmic notation in music – the fun is just beginning!



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    • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Hi, anna, and thanks for reading this!

      I'm not sure I follow what you mean when you say "you guys" (I'm one person) or that we might be "wrong ... [or] ... true." These articles just provide some tips and hints from a whole bunch of different sources on learning how to count the rhythm.

      I hope that you have read, or will read, the series from the beginning, to fill in any questions you might have so far. Other articles are planned, but not yet available, and they are all aimed at helping people like you who are "not good at notes" to become more knowledgeable and more able to read the notes.

      If you have specific questions, I would be very happy to try to answer them for you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      i think that you guys might be wrong but also you guys could be true i don't know. but i have always wanted to be a singer but i'm not good at notes


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