Table of Contents
Section 6: Bibliography
1. "Rhythm" refers to the elements of time in music.
2. "Beat" refers to the background pulse of the music which may or may not be audible.
3. "Tempo" refers to the speed of the beat.
4. "Meter" organizes the beats into larger units, called measures. The meter is usually indicated at the beginning of the composition by a "time signature."
5. The actual rhythm that one hears is usually referred to as the "surface rhythm." For example, when someone says that they like the "beat" of a pop song, they mean they enjoy the surface rhythm, which may simply be a rhythmic pattern on the drums.
Section 1-Rhythmic notation
Note values: Understanding rhythmic notation begins with the relative time value of each type of note. The relationship between notes is fractional, meaning that a half note is one-half of a whole note. If we assign numerical value to a note, one can easily figure the value of each type of note. For example, if the value of a whole note is 4, then the value of a half note is 2, and a quarter note is 1. Of course, confusion arises at the eighth note level, since its value would be one-half of a quarter note. Therefore, figure the whole note to equal 8, half note 4, quarter note 2, and eighth note 1.
Ties: The tie links two notes together to create one longer note. For example, if one ties a whole note to a quarter note, one gets one long note equal to five quarter-note beats. The second note of the tied notes is not attacked, it is simply held over. The above figure looks like this:
Dotted notes: The dot after a note adds half the value of the note to the note. For example, if, as in the first example above, a half note equals 2, the dot equals 1 and the resulting duration of the dotted half note equals 3. A useful way to figure these values, particularly at the eighth and sixteenth note levels, is to split the original note in half. For example, transform an eighth note into two sixteenth notes tied, then add another sixteenth note (half the value of the eighth), so now the two sixteenths become three.
Tuplets: A tuplet is the practice of playing a number of notes that does not fit into the prevailing beat division or metrical structure. The most common tuplet is the triplet, which is playing three notes in the time of two.
Notation of the tuplet provides some sort of grouping, either beaming together notes with beams (eighths, sixteenths, etc.), or bracketing notes without beams (quarters, halves, wholes). Then, the number of pitches within the beam or bracket is shown as displayed below. Unusual tuplets often use the ratio (for example, 7:8, meaning seven in the time of eight).
The common practice in deciding the note values of the tuplet is to squeeze the notes into the usual value (like 3 eighths playing in the time of 2 eighths) instead of expanding the notes (like three sixteenths in the time of four sixteenths). These two tuplets would produce the same rhythm, that is a division of a quarter note into three equal parts, but the common practice is the three eighths. An exception to this is the 7:8 above, where the numbers are relatively large. Group seven quarter notes into the time of four seems unwieldy.
Meter defines which note value equals one beat and organizes the beats into groups called measures. For example, 4/4 time defines the quarter note as one beat and groups four quarter notes into one measure.
Time signature: 4/4 is a time signature, the symbol that indicates the meter. Typically, when writing about meter, the time signature is shown as 4/4 or 3/8 (the upper number, slash, the lower number). Unfortunately, this way of writing a meter is confusing since 4/4 is also a fraction. One should not think of a time signature as a fraction, but as an upper number and a lower number.
The lower number of the time signature refers to the type of note that will be used as the beat (more on this below). The upper number signifies how many beats in a measure. 3/8 time, therefore has a duration of three eighth notes per measure.
Simple/compound meter: There are two common types of metrical beat division, "simple" and "compound." In simple time, the prevailing beat is divided by two. For example, 4/4 time has four quarter note beats per measure, each beat divisible by two eighth notes, etc.
In compound time, the beat is divided by three. In 6/8 time, the prevailing beat is the dotted quarter note (not the eighth note as the time signature might suggest). The dotted quarter note divides into three eighth notes.
Asymmetrical meters like 7/8 or 5/4 are typically simple meters. There are five quarter notes in a measure, but each quarter note divides into two eighth notes, therefore it is simple time.
Compound meters have multiples of three as the upper number in the time signature (6/4, 9/16, 12/8, etc.). Time signatures with three as an upper number are simple meters since the basic beat is divided by two.
Conventions of notation: Notes are grouped to reflect the prevailing meter. For example, 6/4, a compound meter, and 3/2, a simple meter both could have a rhythm as notated below. In 6/4, however, the second half note would be shown as two quarter notes tied, because the location of the second beat needs to be shown. In practice, one may see three half notes in a 6/4 bar, but the most correct characterization is the tied quarter notes.
Beamed notes, like eighth notes and sixteenth notes, are usually beamed according to beat. Therefore, in 4/4 time, two eighth notes will be beamed together if both fall within the same beat. In 2/2 time, four eighth notes may be beamed together. In practice, composers often beam long streams of eighth notes together to show a phrase or in an attempt to assist an interpreter how to articulate the phrase. Also, in vocal music, the beams usually carry over multiple notes on a single syllable. If each eighth note has its own word or syllable, the beams are usually absent.
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