Rhythm is King! You can play the wrong notes at the right times, and people can still usually know what song it is! I’ve tested this concept with hundreds of people now and have yet to find anyone who does not agree! Check out a fun story about this here.
If you do not yet know how to read staff notation (often mistakenly called “music”), then you can sort of cobble your own system together and get a lot of information about how a tune goes on your own, just by using either “Fiddler’s Tab” or “Note Names and Finger Numbers” AND gleaning at least one important element from the staff notation… the RHYTHM. You see, neither Fiddler’s Tab or the Note Name systems tell you anything about how long to hold each note. That’s a pretty big lacking in my opinion!
Without knowing how long to hold each note, you are completely dependent on hearing someone else play it first. …which is kind of anti-jamming, or at least not as creative, and long-term, tends to turn you into a copycat with no voice or style of your own. Here at FJI we always want to keep creativity in the picture.
The way we write or notate rhythms has developed over the past 300 years or so into a pretty comprehensive system. Though it is a bit quirky at times in my opinion, I will attempt to explain the simple basics here. Don’t worry, in general, all you have to know is some very simple math; either multiplying by two, or dividing by two… twice as fast, or twice as slow. Not so bad, right?
The main unit of rhythmic measure is called a “quarter note.” Now, that might seem weird at first, like why not call it a “unit” or a “one” or “om” or some other more sensible or cooler name?… but there it is: “Quarter note.” Now before I go further, I think that it will probably be a good idea if I remind you what music is all about right about now: and that’s “emoting” and/or “feelings.” Huh? I thought this was a rhythm lesson? Yep. Still is. Read on.
You see, what many musician’s forget is that every system that we’ve developed around music is ultimately in the service of that one idea or concept: that a musician’s main job, prime objective, is to give and get feelings of some sort… preferably of the goosebump variety! If the way we write our music notation is too hard, or complex, or changes too often, it tends to make us think more, and ultimately distracts us from our prime directive (to use a little Star Trek lingo). You will hear me say it many many times on this site: thinking too much, with too much of the logical part of the brain, tends to make us sound worse, not better.
So, to support that idea, every system that has anything to do with reading or understanding music, is based on, not the most logical, but the most common SOUNDING stuff! This IS music after all. It kind of makes sense that it would. Doesn’t it?
So, back to that lonely quarter note. A quarter note is called a quarter note simply because it is one quarter of the most common kind of measure, or meter, in music: a FOUR beat measure/meter. 4/4 time, or “common” time as it is often called, has a repeating pattern to its beats where the first of every 4 is a little heavier than the others. We’ve all felt this, and heard it, and have most likely now played it. 4/4 time represents about 90% of ALL music in EVERY style! …from Classical to Heavy Metal and everything in between! “Common” time is a pretty good name for it.
So, if our quarter note is 1/4 of the most common kind of measure, wanna take a guess at what a “half” note is?… A half note is HALF of that four beat measure, or a note that is held for two beats. Starting to get it? Following that line of thought, a “whole” note fills all four beats, or the whole measure. Multiply by 2. Easy!
Students sometimes get a little confused when we take the values in the opposite direction. “Eighth” notes are equal to 1/8 of the common 4 beat measure. It’s a pretty good name for them too, as 8 of them would then fill a whole measure of 4 beats. A little confusion sometimes creeps in when you first figure out that an eighth note is actually 1/2 of a beat, and NOT the same as a “half” note which equals two beats. This confusion is usually short lived though when you SEE what these note values look like, so lets jump to visual learning now: the general rule is, the more sparse a note looks, the longer the note holds, and inversely, the darker and more complex it looks, the faster it goes. I myself might have gone with the opposite treatment if it was me inventing this system, but it “is what it is.” Not much sense in changing it now!
Here’s what they look like (see below). You’ve no doubt seen them before. The round dots are called the “heads.” The hollow ones last longer… like they have more air in them or something. The sticks are called “stems.” You will sometimes see the stems pointing upward, as they are here, but they can also point downward. Either way they mean the same thing. The second line below starts with a single eighth note. It has a “flag” attached to its stem. Whenever there’s more than one of them, we usually “tie” the flags together to create what is called a “beam”…like in the “8 eighth notes” measure. Eighth notes are usually counted “one & two &…” with the “&’s” falling on the exact half-way point of the beat (usually …remember, I mentioned that there are a few quirks to this system now and then. You can learn about things like “swing feel” later). The third line shows a double flagged note, or “sixteenth” note. 16th’s then, in the same fashion, have a double beam when there is more than one of them in a row. They are usually counted with further sub-divisions of the beat with the “&” still landing on the half-way point but “e” and “a” fall between them, fitting four per beat, and 16 in a whole measure. Of course, music would be pretty meaningless and uninteresting if we just kept playing and playing and never stopped (a common mistake for newbee improvisers actually). Here’s the same rhythmic values in “rests” or silent spaces. Quarter note rests are quite distinctive looking I think… kind of like a bird flying in a windstorm or something. Contrary to that, half and whole rests are easy to confuse. As a young piano student, my mom taught me that half rests have a much easier job… 1, 2, and they are done; whereas whole rests have to hang on and almost fall off the staff as they have to last for the whole measure! Thanks mom. I still visualize that to this day! Eighth rests look like a little number 7 with a dingle ball attached. Kind of cute maybe. In similar fashion, the 16th rests have double dingle ball thing-y’s.
Hopefully, all that will be enough to get you started with at least gleaning the rhtyhm from the staff notation lines you see in the charts throughout the site. Now if you want to try to tackle learning to read standard staff notation, you’ll already be half way there! And, if you are ready, I recommend Hal Leonard Corp.’s “Essential Elements 2000” book. With it, a focused adult learner could learn to read within a few weeks time! It’s a good deal too for only $8.99 that includes a CD of backing tracks and free software (like tempo adjustment and more)! Hope that helps!