In this tutorial, you'll learn or review the basics of musical rhythm, how to understand musical time, and learn the knowledge necessary to understand terms on this site and get the most out of it. Even if you have had experience with rhythm, this website treats it differently than traditional western theory does. Without further ado, let's begin!
Time is the space in which music resides. Time is one of the two fundamental aspects of music with the other being pitch. When only pitch is used you get harmony, when only time is used you get rhythm, melody is a combination of the two. While the aspect of pitch is heavily emphasized in western music, rhythm is not. Unlike the west, eastern music makes a much greater emphasis on rhythm and timing in a piece of music. While the west often uses highly repetitious "Beats" and strict, rigid time signatures, the east tends to favor droning and melody with very complex rhythm that is emphasized.
Time consists of three aspects: Duration and Division and Tempo.
Duration is how long a portion of time lasts, such as a song lasting four minutes and ten seconds, thus the duration is 4:10. Here, duration is expressed in a popular format that shows minutes and seconds, with a colon : dividing them.
Division is how we divide up that time. We may chose to divide up a portion of time into four equal parts: 1, 2, 3, 4. Sometimes, division can be measured in units such as measures (also called bars), beats, pulses and ticks. For example, 10:2:3:048 can represent the 48th tick, of the third pulse, of the second beat, of the tenth measure of a piece of music.
Tempo tells us exactly how fast the time is moving; it relates Division to Duration. Typically, this is expressed in beats per minute (bpm). If we say a piece of music lasts 4:10 and we know it has 358 beats, then its tempo is fixed; however, if I say that the tempo is 86 BPM then you don't know how long the duration is exactly - unless you also know how many beats it contains. You only know how fast it is moving. Tempo is more vague while duration is more rigid. (<- Please explain this statement!) In music, working with tempo is typically more useful than duration, because we don't necessarily restrict ourselves to a measure of time in minutes.
Meter or Time Signature
Meter indicates how time is broken up based on the division. Meter typically breaks a piece of music into smaller chunks which are as long as the division is set to at that point in the music. It can remain the same for the entire piece or change frequently. The most common meter is 4/4 which tells us that time is divided in four equal parts with a quarter note representing each beat. Time signatures are written with a / mark such as "6/8". The top number indicates the division while the bottom indicates the relative "weight" of the division.
While sometimes this is not true, it's generally thought that the smaller the denominator, the heavier the beat feels. 2/2 feels heavier than 2/4 which feels heavier than 2/8 which is heavier than 2/16. Generally speaking, meters which have a weight of 4 or 8 are most common. 2 has a heavier, march like feel while 16 is so light that it typically is used for odd divisions of a four based time signature such as 3 1/4 / 4 or "three and one-quarter four time" being written more simply as 13/16. 8 can also be used in a similar manner to divide heavier 2 based time signatures into fractional divisions.
Pulse is an underlying, internally felt beat regardless of what the other parts are doing. Pulse can be heavily emphasized which often occurs in club dance music or can be very subtle as heard in mathrock. Pulse generally helps us keep track of the tempo as the pulse slows down or speeds up when the tempo changes. The pulse doesn't need to be played at all in the music we are making but by feeling it, it helps us keep time.
Some music is considered "non-pulsing" music in that no pulse is felt but rather the rhythm is muddy without any distinct pulse. However, most western and even eastern music has some type of regular pulse which may or may not change tempo.
Notation of regular rhythms
Rhythms which are not polyrhythms cannot be notated with JI ratios. See Just Intonation. They use either numbers or standard notation to for notation.
Example of rhythm based in Numbers: 4/4, d16 | 3 3 2 4 4 |:
The | | represent the bar lines just like in standard notation. d16 tells us the division and the numbers between the bars tell us how many 16 notes are contained in each played component. To play this, you would tap and hold for 3 16th notes followed by another 3 16th notes then 2 16th notes then 4 then another 4. The colon at the end represents a repeat sign meaning the rhythm is to be repeated. You'll also notice that there is a time signature at the beginning which is optional but useful if you want to tell the meter.
In addition, Clave based rhythm notation is also very useful: 4/4, d16 : X . . X . . X . . . X . X . . . ||
the d16 is optional but again, it just tells us what value the dots and X's represent.
Alternatively, standard notation written in text can be used:
4/4 [ /. /. / | | ]: In this case O represent whole notes o represent half notes, | represent quarter notes, / represent eighth notes, // 16th, /// 32nd, //// 64th and so on.
The dot and double dot are also represented as . and ..
Where to go from here?
Check out the Just Intonation polyrhythm tutorial next!
Also check out accenting and scales!