Navigation Menu >>

Reading Music - Learning Rhythms, Time Signatures and Counting

One essential part of learning to play a musical instrument is often sidelined - learning to count and to understand time signatures. Let's start with a basic foundation in reading music rhythms.

All commonly used time signatures consist of one figure over another at the start of a piece or section of a piece of music. The top figure represents simply "how many" of whatever value the bottom figure relates to, will be in each bar of music in that piece or section. To understand what the figure on the bottom refers to, we need to understand a western evaluation (mainly US based) of note-lengths. This system expresses the semibreve (an open note without a stem) as a "whole note", and can therefore be thought of as being represented by the number 1. The note half the length of a semibreve is a minim but referred to in this system as a "half-note." It is an open note but with a stem either up or down from it. If we think of one-half written as a fraction we have the number 2 at the bottom, and the figure 2 at the bottom of a time signature also refers to "half-notes." Therefore in a time signature of 3 over 2, there are three half-notes in each bar. 2 over 2 would be two half-notes in each bar, etc.

The note one quarter of the length of a semibreve is a crotchet, but referred to in this system as a "quarter-note" - a filled-in note with a stem either up or down. One quarter as a fraction has a 4 on the bottom and a time signature of, say, 3 over 4 means there are three "quarter-notes" in each bar. 4 over 4 is four quarter-notes to a bar, etc.

The note one eighth of the length of a semibreve is a quaver - a filled-in note with a stem in either direction but also with a tail from the stem. Following the same system a time signature of 3 over 8 means there are three eighth-notes in a bar. 6 over 8 equals six eighth-notes in a bar, etc.



Counting in Music

Now we understand what time signatures mean, we need to learn a little about how to count in music. Time signatures that have 2, 3 or 4 on the top are referred to as "Simple" times, where each beat of music could be divided into halves. These are counted using the number of each beat and an "and" for each beat that could be divided further, as in "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and" for a bar of 4 over 4 time. "1 and 2 and 3 and" is how to count a bar of 3 over 4 time.

Times that have 6, 9 or 12 at the top are "Compound" times, meaning each beat could be divided into thirds (not halves as in Simple time.) A bar of 6 over 8 has 6 eighth-notes in it but the eighth-notes are grouped in threes to form each beat. Therefore 6 over 8 is counted "1 and a 2 and a", showing us that this time signature has only 2 Compound beats in it, each beat being a total of three eighth-notes. To write one note equaling a beat in this case, we must write a dotted crotchet (a crotchet or quarter-note with a dot AFTER it.) The dot adds half the length of the normal value to the note. So a bar of 6 over 8 could have two dotted crotchet beats in it, or six quavers grouped in threes, or one dotted crotchet and three quavers, etc. A bar of 12 over 8 would be counted "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a" to represent all of the thirds available for each beat.

There will be more explanations of Rhythms and Times in the next article.

Copyright 2006 Brian Farley, All Rights Reserved.

Author Information:

Brian Farley has been a professional Musical Director and pianist since 1974 and worked worldwide in the top echelons of the entertainment industry. His duet sheet music website "Easy Duets, Sheet Music for Schools, Musical Instrument Students" provides original musical duets and trios for early level students to play together. It also has some good free "reading music notation" information.


If you wish to use this article for your website or newsletter, you may do so as long as the article is reproduced exactly as above and the Author Information paragraph is included, together with the active links contained within it. Any reproduction failing to comply with these terms will be deemed a breach of copyright.


If you go to our easy music pieces page you will find lots of simple but fun, original tunes to learn if you are beginning to play a musical instrument. This site also has these easy tunes arranged as duets for piano with many different solo instruments.