Music Theory for Beginners: Part II (Rhythm)

Post was created on March 30th, 2011

My first #idevblogaday post! If you don’t already know me, you might recognize my music in Tilt to Live, Super Stick Golf, Chicken Balls HD, or the upcoming Casey’s Contraptions.

You may have read my first Music Theory for Beginners post. If you didn’t, I highly recommend going back and checking it out first. I will probably incorporate some of the things covered in that post into this one. That post covered some basics of melody and harmony. This post is going to build off of that and cover rhythms.

Rhythms, and all things related

In this post, we will be discussing rhythm basics and all things related. As the title said. Here are the things I’ll be explaining:

  • Beat
  • Measures
  • Quantization
  • Divisions of whole note
  • Time signatures
  • Syncopation, swing, and tuplets

First, a disclaimer: I’m not going to use much traditional musical notation. Instead, I’m going to use GarageBand’s MIDI piano roll interface and/or various non-traditional diagrams to demonstrate concepts. This is not because I don’t think traditional notation is important. Anyone interested in going deeper into music theory should definitely learn notation. But like my last post, I want this to simply be a primer. I want you to be able to see immediate results, with the possible result of you not quite understanding everything at first. If you want to get a real understanding of theory rather than a just a practical introduction, I strongly recommend

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get started.


What is a beat? Wiktionary defines it as “A pulse on the beat level, the metric level at which pulses are heard as the basic unit. Thus a beat is the basic time unit of a piece.” The first sentence is pretty confusing and unnecessary. This is the important part: “A beat is the basic time unit of a piece [of music].” You know that feeling you get when you stomp your feet to music? Or when you start clapping to a song? Or when you are fist pumping down at the Jersey Shore? That is your natural inclination towards moving your body to the beat.

The Jersey Shore guys are excellent at fist pumping to the beat:


Almost all music is split into manageable units, called measures. Measures are just groupings of a certain amount of beats. The most common measure length is four beats. Some other pretty common groupings are three or two. Groupings other than these are less common, but can create a nice disjointed effect, especially if they are odd numbers (e.g. five and seven).

Here are eight measures, each with four beats:

Let’s stop talking and start making some music! If you want to follow along, open up GarageBand and create a drum track (I like “Studio Tight Kit” because it sounds like a real set, but feel free to pick any kit you want). Before you record anything, navigate to Control->Metronome and Control->Count In and make sure they are both checked. The metronome will give you a steady beat while you are playing so you can time your recording perfectly. The count in gives you four beats of prep before the recording starts. When you click the record button (or press “R”) the metronome will click four times, and you will start on the fifth (which will be the actual first beat of the first measure of the song). Also, since I’m assuming most people reading this don’t have external MIDI keyboards, you’re going to need to turn on Window->Musical Typing, which will give you a virtual piano keyboard to play:

Now that we’re all set up, let’s find our first drum – the kick drum. I like starting with the kick drum because it is usually the most grounded in the beat. If you have the Musical Keyboard open, you should see an “Octave” section on the bottom left. Hitting “z” lowers the octave and hitting “x” raises it. Set the octave to C1. Now play a C1 note (which corresponds with the letter “a” on your computer keyboard). You should hear a kick drum.

Now it’s time to record. I want you to record four kick drums, one per beat (i.e. a click of the metronome). Once you’re done, stop the recording and open up the MIDI piano roll (if it’s not open already) by double clicking the recorded region or by clicking the scissors icon on the bottom left. Your recorded section should look like this (you may need to zoom in or out by dragging the zoom slider on the bottom left if the grid doesn’t look the same):


Look at that picture of the four notes on the grid. As you can see, there are tick marks on the top of the grid, indicating different divisions of the measure. The taller tick marks are the actual beats, and the shorter tick marks are further divisions of the beat.

Here’s the zoom slider:

If you zoom in or out, GarageBand automatically adds or subtracts tick marks to keep things uncluttered. If you zoom all the way out, you will only see tick marks on every beat. If you zoom all the way in you get to 16 divisions per beat! If you’re confused by what this means, just know that this is very fast.

Look at how many ticks there are in one measure when zoomed way in:

Anyway, look at the picture of the kick drums again and notice how although I recorded them close to the beat, they aren’t exactly on beat. Unless you are super-human, I doubt that your kick drums will be exactly on beat. This is where quantization comes in. Quantization allows us to snap the notes to a specific rhythmic division. Since we need to understand rhythmic divisions a bit more before we delve into this, let’s move on and return to this a little later.

Divisions of the whole note

This is where math comes in (very very simple math). Basically, all rhythmic values are based on the whole note. The whole note, by definition, contains four beats. Remember that a very common grouping of beats in a measure is four? That means that a whole note takes up an entire measure. Further divisions are all based on fractions of a whole note.

Here is a pie chart I made to help explain. The entire pie represents a whole note (or a measure of four beats) and each piece of pie shows that type of note’s length:

A half note takes up half a whole note, or two beats. A sixteenth note takes up a sixteenth of a whole note, or a fourth of a beat. You could keep this chart going forever if you wanted, making smaller and smaller fractions with powers of 2. 32nd notes, 64th notes, and 128th notes all exist, but the shorter/faster you get, the rarer it is. 16th is the shortest note that is still extremely common. The three most important rhythmic divisions (arguably) are 1/4 note, 1/8 note, and 1/16 notes, at least when it comes to recording rhythmically accurate phrases.

Here are the rhythmic divisions, as shown with traditional notation (along with the programmer’s “==” symbol for all you developers out there):

This is what these same divisions look like on the MIDI piano roll:

Now that we understand note divisions a bit, let’s return to our tune. In GarageBand, quantization is controlled in the edit pane under “Auto Align to”:

Before we correctly quantize, let’s experiment a little bit. First make sure the recorded region is selected by clicking on it once, then in the “Auto Align” drop box, select “1/1 Note”. This squashes all four kicks together onto the whole note division. Since the whole note doesn’t have any divisions, it just puts them all at the beginning of the measure:

A “1/2 Note” quantization takes the notes and snaps them to the closest 1/2 note tick:

A “1/32 Note” quantization gets close but aligns some of them a tick or two away from what we want:

What we want is a “1/4 Note” quantization, which snaps all four of them exactly to the beat.

If something went wrong (e.g. the notes snapped to the wrong tick marks), then that means your notes were so far off rhythm that the computer couldn’t figure out which divisions to snap them to (it just picks the closest). This is what the kick drum loop should sound like:

Audio MP3

Let’s finish this drum loop. Put snare hits (D1) on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure. Then put closed high hats (F#1) on every 1/8 note. You can do these things in two ways: 1) create a new drum track for each and record them, then quantize them 2) Create new MIDI notes and just draw/drag them into their spots (do this by option+dragging one of the other notes already there to copy it). Once you are done, the drum loop should look like this:

Once you’ve done this, loop the measure four times:

It should sound like this (note: this recording only loops twice):

Audio MP3

An Experiment

The nice thing about quantizing things to exact rhythmic values is that it has the potential to make almost anything sound musical. Let’s try an example. I’m going to literally smash my hands down on the keyboard on a new piano track. Then I’m going to loop it. Here is what the result looks like:

And here is what it sounds like:

Audio MP3

It sounds pretty terrible. Now, all I’m going to do is quantize this to 16th notes. This snaps the totally random notes to their nearest 16th and gives them some semblance of organization:

Audio MP3

Not Beethoven’s 5th but not nearly as unmusical sounding as before. With a simple bass line added, it starts sounding even more musical:

Audio MP3

I would hope you put more effort into thinking of a melody and harmony than this, but the point is that rhythm makes a gigantic difference, even if everything else is messy.

Time signatures

These next three sections are going to be quick because they get into some deeper concepts. I just want to introduce them to you.

A time signature is the symbol that represents the meter of the piece of music. Think of it like a fraction. The numerator represents the beats per measure. The denominator represents the value of the beat.

So far we have only been working with measures with four beats each. The time signature for the examples so far has been 4/4 – there are four beats per measure (numerator) and the quarter note gets the beat (denominator). Thus, there are four quarter notes per measure.

What would happen if we had a 5/2 time signature? There would be five beats per measure, and the half note would get the beat. Thus, each measure would have five half notes.

A 7/8 time signature? Seven beats per measure; eighth note gets the beat. Each measure has seven eighth notes.

There are many complexities of time signatures that I have glossed over, but hopefully you get the basics. Here are some of the most common time signatures (source: Google Images):

Syncopation, swing, and tuplets


I can’t define syncopation better than Wiktionary: “The quality of a rhythm being somehow unexpected, in that it deviates from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong and weak beats in a meter.” Basically, syncopation is when you have notes fall in unexpected – but still rhythmically accurate – spots. Listen to the hi hat in the following drum loop. It is very formulaic and expected. They are all grouped around the main beats:

Audio MP3

Now I’m going to move some of the high hats away from the main beats and half-beats to give it a jumpier syncopated feel:

Audio MP3


Swinging rhythmic values gives them a long-short relationship. For example, swung eighth notes makes the first eighth of every pair a little longer than normal and the second eighth of every pair a little shorter than usual.

Here is what our basic drum beat looks like with an “1/8 Swing Light” quantization:

And sounds like:

Audio MP3

With an “1/8 Swing Heavy” quantization it looks like:

And sounds like:

Audio MP3

And for fun, here’s that jumbled mess of notes from before with a “1/16 Swing Heavy” quantization:

Audio MP3


Tuplets are created by cutting the beat into an equal number of subdivisions. The most common type of tuplet (and the simplest) is the triplet. A triplet is made when you take three of one rhythmic value and squash them to fit into the place of two. An eighth note triplet will take as long as two normal eighth notes (one beat). A quarter note triplet will take as long as two normal quarter notes (two beats). And so on. This is what a quarter note triplet looks like in traditional notation:

Here is that jumbled mess with an “1/8 Triplet” quantization:

Audio MP3

In Conclusion

Rhythm is tough. It’s possible to gain a thorough understanding of melody and harmony simply by studying it. With rhythm, the only way to truly understand it is to feel it. This article was quite difficult to write because there are so many different ways to do any one thing in regards to rhythm. My main suggestion is that until you truly understand the complexities of rhythms, stay in 4/4 time and use simple quantizations.

You should be excited, because next week I’m going to talk about PARTYMAN and what he’s all about (thanks to Craig Sharpe of RetroDreamer for drawing this):

10 Responses to "Music Theory for Beginners: Part II (Rhythm)"

  1. These are great, thanks! I’m looking forward to PartyMan next week!

  2. Thanks for taking the trouble to write this interesting introduction.

    I have a question – given the length of a note is undefined, why do you need the “bottom” part of a time signature? You seem to end up with two scaling factors (the duration of a note and the value of a beat) when you only really need one.

    Is the choice between (say) 4:4 and 4:8 just one of convention or convenience of musical notation?

  3. Amazed at that jumbled mess of notes when it is quantized! Perhaps I should spend less time practicing melody and more time on rhythm :) Thanks!

  4. @Iain This is an excellent question, and one that a lot of people get confused by.

    In a lot of cases, the bottom part of the time signature really doesn’t matter too much. Like you said, the choice between 4/4 and 4/8 is just one of convention. Time signatures with numerators and denominators that are powers of 2 are called duple meters because the subdivisions of the beat are grouped in 2’s, 4’s, 8’s, 16’s, etc. Where the denominator really is important though is with what are called compound meters. A time signature is compound when the numerator changes to a multiple of 3 (3, 6, 9, 12 are the most common). So some compound meters are: 3/8, 6/4, 9/8, 12/16, etc. The beat in compound meter is found in a different way than in duple meter. In duple meter, the denominator is what gets the beat and the numerator is the amount of beats per measure. But in compound meter, the denominator represents one third of the beat and the numerator represents the amount of notes in the measure that are equal to 1/3rd of the beat.. This sounds a bit confusing but think of it this way:

    In 9/8 for example, there are nine eighth notes in each measure, but the eighth note doesn’t get the beat. A beat equals three eighth notes. So a 9/8 measure would be: (1/8 1/8 1/8) (1/8 1/8 1/8) (1/8 1/8 1/8) where each parenthetical section is a beat.

    Now I don’t want to confuse you, but one more thing is necessary to say: most of the stuff I have said up there is convention. A 6/8 measure could be a duple time signature, where there are six eighth note beats in a measure, but usually it is a two beat measure with three-eighth-note beats. Having said that, due to convention, 3/4 is almost always a duple time signature with three beats instead of a compound time signature with one.

    Don’t know if I explained this very well, but if you’re still confused, check out Wikipedia’s take on it.

  5. @Alan / Falcon

    PartyMan is super excited too!

  6. I am completely impressed; I have never studied music properly in my life but you just managed in two articles to break down melody and rhythm for me such that I felt like I was reading a really good programming article. (I am a developer btw, I have been for quite some time, about ten years now I think) Suffice to say your ability to explain music well is unparalleled. Not only that but your progress in game design over the past six months was commendable and very well done (I saw on Reddit). Suffice to say keep up the amazingly good work and if you stick with it; as I have no doubt you will be able to do, then you are capable of going very far indeed.

    P.S. Despite being clueless about music myself I am actually surrounded by quite talented musicians. My point being that I have often suspected that anybody that is good at music will be able to pick up programming and vice versa. They will not be pros but they will be more likely to ‘get it’ faster. I think that the logic and the pattern construction abilities that the two professions require make the skills transferable between them.

  7. I am a self taugh guitarist, who reads tab and so rarely has to delve into time signatures. Great article, but i wanted to command you on the answer to the comment. Not only did you manage to explain it, but you managed to hit on the kinds of ambiguities that were causing me problems. Still not entirley sure as i have had about 2 years of self doubt 😉 But great job.

    Robert: I think the commonality between programming and music is this: both are as deep and complex as you want them to be, and both require a ton of bloody hard work (but are rewarding)

  8. I majored in music in college and I have my own business teaching piano, and I have to say you did a great job explaining rhythm. Plus, you managed to get my non-musician husband interested in learning more about music.

  9. Generally I do not learn post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and do so! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thank you, quite nice article.

  10. Very nicely assembled.
    Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply