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What is music rhythm?

The music rhythm is the beat. It is the most important element in music. It drives the music forward. It is the gasoline of music. Rhythms can be simple or complicated.

Essential music vocabulary


It's the way we group the beats. We group eggs by the dozen. We group days by the week. We also group beats into two's or three's. That's meter.


The beat. The beat can be even or uneven, steady or unsteady.

Note Values

Long and short sounds in music are represented by notes. White notes have longer sounds than black notes.


This is the speed of the music.

Time Signature

This is a number that appears at the beginning of the music. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure (bar) and the bottom number tells you what kind of a note gets one beat. The most common times signatures are 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, and 6/8.

Whole music notes

These notes are whole notes. Each note is four beats long.

Click the image to hear the note value.


Half music notes

Here are half notes. Did you see the stems? These notes are twice as fast as whole notes. These note are two beats long.

Click the image to hear the note value.


Quarter music notes

These notes are black. They are quarter notes. Each quarter note gets one beat. How many beats are in each measure? If you guessed four, you'd be right!

Click the image to hear the note value.


Eighth music notes

These are eighth notes. Notice how the stems are connected by a beam. These notes move twice as fast as quarter notes. Two note are played for each beat of music.

Click the image to hear the note value.


Combining Note Values

In 4/4 time, different note values can be combined in each measure as long as they equal four beats. Click the examples to hear the rhythm patterns:


Music tempo

Tempo means speed. Musicians use Italian terms for different tempos. Here is a melody fragment. Click the image to hear the tune:

Click the words below to hear this tune played at different tempos.


Slow Medium Fast

Largo Largo is the slowest tempo.
Adagio Largo means slow or leisurely.
Andante Andante means a walking pace.
Moderato Moderato is medium. It is not too fast or too slow.
Allegro Allegro is fast. It means cheerful in Italian.
Vivace Vivace is quick and lively.
Presto Presto is very fast.



Meter is how we hear the groupings of beats in music. Music will be in an even meter (groupings of 2's or 4's) or an odd meter (groupings of 3's).

Even Meters Are Groupings of 2 Beats A march is played in a meter of 2, which makes it an even meter. That means you will hear the beats of the march move in patterns of two's.
Odd Meters Are Groupings of 3 Beats A waltz is played in a meter of three, which makes it an odd meter. That means you will hear the beats of the waltz move in patterns of three's.

Can you hear meter in music? Click the examples below to identify whether you hear the music moving in groups of two's or three's.

Example 1 Example 2 Example 3 Example 4 Example 5


Time Signatures

The time signature helps us group the notes so we don't get lost. It's the way we organize beats in music. It's like grouping eggs by the dozen or days by the week. The top number tells us how many beats we can have in one measure. In 4/4 time we have four beats in each measure. What was the time signature in all of all the examples above?

Remember this: A beat is not the same thing as a note. Notes can have more or less than one beat. A whole note in 4/4 time has four beats. A half note in 4/4 time has two beats. An eighth note in 4/4 time has just 1/2 beat. It takes two eighth notes to make one beat in 4/4 time.

Time signatures and meter: The time signature will tell you the music's meter. If you can divide the top number by two, the music is in an even meter. If you can divide the top number by three, the music is in an odd meter.

Let's look at some popular time signatures and see if we can add up the beats in each measure.


4/4 Time (Common Time)

Did you notice the number at the beginning of all the examples above? That's the time signature. It's 4/4. That means that there are four beats in each measure and the quarter note gets one beat. This time signature is also called Common Time because it is the most popular time signature in music.

Listen to Somewhere Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz. It's in 4/4 time. Each measure equals four beats. It is in an even meter.

3/4 Time (Waltz Time)

A 3/4 time signature would only have three beats per measure. Here is what it looks like.

Listen to America played in 3/4 time. 3/4 is also called waltz time. Did you notice the dots after some of the notes. Dotes make the notes longer. This song is in an odd meter because there are three beats per measure.

2/4 Time

A 2/4 time signature has just two beats per measure. It looks like this.

Listen to You're a Grand Old Flag in 2/4 time. Do you see the line connecting the last two notes. It is called a tie. What is the meter of this song? Look at the time signature for your answer.

6/8 Time

A 6/8 time signature has six beats per measure. The bottom number is 8. This tells you that the eighth note gets one beat.

Do you recognize the song Follow the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz? It's in 6/8 time. This song goes fast, making it sound like 2/4 rather than 6/8 time. This time signature can sound like an even or odd meter because you can divide 6 by 2 or 3.


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