Rhythm Basics

Rhythm Basics

In music, rhythm is the anchor, the foundation upon which everything else is built. In much of Latin and Afro-beat music, rhythm is absolutely king. We carry it with us in the way we walk, talk, and even in the beating of our hearts.


The first thing to understand about rhythm is tempo. Tempo is the speed of music, and is commonly referred to in terms of beats per minute (bpm). The “beat” being referred to is not necessarily in time with the notes that are played, but rather the even pulse throughout a song. It is the even “tick” of a clock, or the steady thump of a musician’s shoe against the floor. A slow ballad may have a tempo of 50 bpm, while a snappy swing number may have a tempo of 180 bpm or higher. Of course a song’s tempo may, and often does, change throughout a song, but for now we’ll look only at rhythm in the context of constant tempo.

No matter how complex a song may be, it is important to always bear in mind the tempo. Even established musicians can at times be distracted and loose track of this pulse, and without it the whole song can fall into chaos.

Groups of Beats

With one’s shoe tapping out an even tempo on the floor, it is easy to count out the beats and to group the beats into various numbers of taps. Different songs use different groupings of beats, and this grouping is communicated among musicians by using time signatures. A common time signature is 4/4, meaning there are four beats in each group (or measure), and each beat signifies one quarter-note. Try tapping the foot to a slow, even tempo and counting 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4 … with each number spoken in turn as the foot hits the ground. This is counting in 4/4 time. A common variation on this is 3/4 time, counted 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3 … in the same manner. You may recognize this as the time signature of a waltz.

Length of Notes

So far, only notes one beat in duration, or quarter notes, have been discussed. If only quarter notes were used music would quickly get repetitive, and so a system has been devised to communicate different note lengths. The most common of these are whole notes (four beats), half notes (two beats), quarter notes (one beat), and eighth notes (half of a beat). One can see that the lengths of notes are named based on the fraction of a measure they take up in standard 4/4 time signature. These notes are written in different ways, with flags, staffs, and closed and open ovals used to distinguish them. On a musical score, this looks like the picture below. The vertical line between the notes signifies the boundary between two measures, or groups of notes. Recall that in 4/4 time, a measure will be four beats long.

More complex rhythms require even more divisions of notes. These include dotted notes. When a note has a dot after it, this indicates that the note should be held for 150% of it’s original value. In other words, a dotted half note is held for three beats, while a dotted quarter note is held for a beat and a half. Another common division of beats is the triplet, where a length of time (be it half a beat, a full beat, two beats, or more) is divided into three parts. This is indicated by writing a 3 above the group of notes, and is commonly counted by saying the phrase “tri-po-let”, evenly spacing the syllables in the length of time given. Lastly, ever shorter durations of notes can be written by adding more flags to the staff of the notes. For every flag, the duration of the beat is halved. Note that these shorter notes, when written in groups, do not have the curvy flag as above, but rather a solid black line as below.


Equally important in music to notes are rests, or spaces of silence. Like notes, rests can be many different lengths. Some of the most common are whole rests (four beats), half rests (two beats), quarter rests (one beat), and eighth rests (half beat). The same concepts of adding dots to signify 150% of initial duration and and flags to signify ever shorter duration applies to rests as well. An image of these rests is shown below.

Common Rhythms – Clave

Now that the hard work of defining the notes is done, a few rhythms can be learned. One favorite of the Carnival Band and fans of Afro-Cuban music worldwide is the clave (pronounced clah-vey). The most common of the clave rhythms is the son clave. Written out, it looks like this:

One new piece of notation is shown above. At the end of the phrase there is a symbol with two vertical lines preceded by two dots. This symbol means to repeat. Written this way, the two measures of the clave are repeated once (or played twice). In common practice, the clave is often repeated over and over again throughout a song. While it’s nearly always easier to learn these rhythms from another person, it can be useful to count out this rhythm, first at a very slow tempo, and then gradually speeding up to a faster tempo. No matter how fast the clave is played, however, ensure that all beats are clear, particularly the second beat, known as the “bombo”. This beat is so important that a special type of big bass drum is built and given the same name, and played only on this beat throughout South America.

Common Rhythms – Samba

Another common beat is that which accompanies samba music, one of the most popular forms of music in Brazil. This rhythm is written out below:

In this score there is yet another new piece of notation, which is the curved line under pairs of notes. This is called a “tie” and is used to symbolize a case where the duration of the tied notes are added together and the notes are played as one.


Although these two rhythms form the basis of many songs, they are by no means the end of the story. As one becomes more comfortable with these rhythms, one may notice variations creeping in; a note left out here, or a pair of quick notes played where before there was only one. This is the fun and the draw to rhythm. One important guideline, however, is that when variations are used, they should be often be repeated and accented a few times so that the variation comes across as a musical statement, rather than a random departure or mistake.

This has been a very quick overview of rhythm, and is meant as an introduction to a world which can take a lifetime to explore. Enjoy!