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Rhythm figures

The rhythm figures are graphical representations of the notes duration.

The basic figures

The rhythm figures represent the notes duration. This duration is not absolute, that is to say that it does not represent a fixed and immutable value. It depends on the beat value and the tempo, hence the work being interpreted.

Fractions of the whole note (1)

The whole note (notated ) is the base note that serves as a reference. By proceeding to successive divisions of this note, we obtain the other notes.

In the Middle Ages, notes were written as squares on a single-line staff. The rhythm was not precisely written but transmitted by mimicry during group learning. Over time, the notes became round. Then felt the need to accurately write down the rhythm. It was then that the base note, the whole note, underwent successive divisions to create the other rhythm figures.

By dividing the whole note in two equal parts, we get the half note (notated ). It takes 2 half notes to make a whole note.

By dividing the half note into two equal parts, we get the quarter note (notated ). It takes 2 quarter notes to make a half note, and therefore 4 quarter notes to make a whole note.

We can summarize what has just been stated like this:

= + = + + +

You may have learned that a quarter note is equal to 1 beat, a half note 2 beats and a whole note 4 beats. This is often true, but not all the time! If you are a beginner, you can retain these values because they allow you to find your way around at the beginning. However, if you have been making music for many years, it is worth remembering that the rhythmic value of notes is relative to other notes. In some cases, the beat will be equal to the half note, the whole note then lasting two beats and the quarter note half of a beat. The rhythmic value of a note figure is not absolute but depends on the context.

The "note" word in the expressions "whole note", "half note", "quarter note" are often omitted. We will talk then of a whole, a half or a quarter.

Fractions of the whole note (2)

Let's continue to divide the whole note.

By dividing the quarter note into two equal parts, we get the eighth (8th) note (notated ). It takes 2 eighths to make a quarter and, therefore, 8 eighths to make a whole note.

From the eighth, at each division, we add a flag to the stem of the note (the small line that starts from the rounded head of the note).

Thus, we obtain:

  • the sixteenth (16th) note (notated ), which is half an eighth note. It takes 16 sixteenth notes to make a whole note;
  • the thirty-second (32nd) note (notated ), which is half a sixteenth note. It takes 32 thirty-second notes to make a whole note;
  • the sixty-fourth (64th) note (notated ), which is half a thirty-second note. It takes 64 sixty-fourth notes to make a whole note;

And we could continue like this indefinitely but, in practice, you will very rarely encounter texts that go beyond the 64th note.

We can summarize what has just been stated by:

= 2 x = 4 x = 8 x = 16 x

Rhythm figures tree

FIGURE 1 - Rhythm figures tree

This tree allows to visualize the successive divisions of the whole note. To avoid overloading the reading, we stopped at the sixteenth notes, but it is possible to continue beyond in 32nds, 64ths, etc. The numbers on the right indicate the number of occurrences needed to match a whole note. Note that they correspond to the powers of 2, since the values are divided by 2 at each level. These figures are used for the time signature, so it is important to understand their meaning.

A table summarizing the notes and rests figures can be found on the course page dedicated to rests.

Beaming of eighths

When several eighths follow each other, it is possible to beam them together. The flags disappear in favor of a beam (thick line) crossing all the eigths from first to last. These two types of writing are strictly equivalent.

=

=    =

This speeds up the reading and writing of a song. Indeed, it is easier to write a single beam than to draw 4 flags for example. For reading, the grouping of eighth notes is usually done by beat, sometimes by 2 beats. Thus, it is much faster to locate the position of the notes relative to the pulse, which greatly facilitates the sight reading and understanding of the text.

It is also possible to beam the divisions of the eighth note (16th, 32nd, etc.).

=

Eighths beaming example

The following two rhythms are equivalent.

       

          

Despite their equivalence, the second rhythm is clearer. It can be seen at a glance that there are 5 beats in all, that the six eighths take 3 beats and that the last quarter arrives on the 5th beat.*

*considering that the quarter represents a beat.

Sixteenths beaming example

The following two rhythms are equivalent.

       

          

Despite their equivalence, the second rhythm is much clearer. The eighths and sixteenths are grouped by beats. We can see at a glance that there are 5 beats in all.*

*considering that the quarter represents a beat.

Stem direction

Putting aside the whole note, all notes have a stem (a vertical line that starts from the head of the note). The stem can be upward or downward depending on the position of the note on the staff. However, the direction of the stem does not affect the rhythmic value of the note which remains the same, whatever the direction.

=

=

=

=

etc.

The stem is pointed downward if the note is in the upper part of the staff (that is, above the 3rd line). On the other hand, the stem will be pointing downward if the note is in the lower part of the staff (that is, below the 3rd line). When the note is on the 3rd line, the stem will generally be facing down, unless the stems of adjacent notes are facing up.

FIGURE 2 - Stem direction
The notes are in the upperpart of the staff,the stems are orienteddownwards The notes are in the lowerpart of the staff,the stems are orientedupwards On the third line,the stem goes downwards... ...unless the noteis surrounded byupward stems

There are many rules for displaying stems, especially when notes are beamed by group. Nevertheless, these rules mainly concern the sheet music engravers and publishers and not the musicians themselves. If you regularly write music, it is good to know the basic rule of scoring stems.

Rhythm spacing

Notes spacing on a staff does not necessarily depend on the notes duration and is not proportional to the notes duration.

Rhythm spacing on a staff

FIGURE 3 - Two different spacing of a same musical text
The two bars in the figure above are strictly identical and should be executed in the same way, although the spaces are tighter in the first bar. Note also that, if the eighth note occupies more space than the sixteenth note, it does not occupy the double, just as the quarter does not occupy twice the eighth note space.

Spacing is not linear, which has the advantage of being able to write more notes on a single staff. The notes being closer, they are read more quickly and thus the sight reading becomes easier.

Last update on 2018/12/21

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