Rhythm – How to Read Sheet Music
Rhythms – Notes, Rests & Dots
The vertical lines that appear every few notes are called bar lines, and they divide the music up into measures (also sometimes called bars), which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Here is what you’re looking at above:
- Bar (1): 1 Whole Note (4 beats)
- Bar (2): 2 Half Notes (2 beats each)
- Bar (3): 4 Quarter Notes (1 beat each)
- Bar (4): 8 Eighth Notes (1/2 beat each)
- Bar (5): 16 Sixteenth Notes (1/4 beat each)
In the audio version of this line of music we’ve added a percussion track to help you hear where the 4 beats in each measure fall as you follow along. It is very helpful to have an aid that will help you keep track of rhythm as you play. See our recommendation for our favorite violin tuner metronome.
Notice that every bar always adds up to 4 beats (1 whole note x 4 beats, 2 half notes x 2 beats each, 4 quarter notes x 1 beat each, etc.). Measures make it easier to keep track of where you are in the rhythm at a given time, because you always know how many beats are in the measure. This may seem like a lot of math, but it becomes intuitive very quickly with a little practice.
For most of the beginner violin music you’ll play, there will be 4 beats in the measure, but some pieces of music do it differently. We’ll talk about that in the next section, Time Signature.
But before we get there, let’s talk about counting.
Beginner violinists are often encouraged to count the beats in their head as they play. This is a useful technique, especially if you are playing with other musicians, so that you can keep track of where you are and sync back up if you get off in your timing.
For each measure, you will want to count in your head (or even out loud, or tap your foot) “One, Two, Three, Four.” In your counting, put some extra emphasis on the “One” because the first beat in the measure is often a beat that should be emphasized rhythmically (it is also called the downbeat because orchestra conductors usually signify it with a swift downward motion of their baton).
Counting while you are playing is one thing because you are making music in time to the rhythm, but it can be more of a challenge, surprisingly, when you have to not play. This takes us to the topic of rests.
The following line of music alternates between notes and rests. Rests mean “don’t play.”
This line of music contains:
- Bar (1): 1 Whole Note
- Bar (2): 1 Whole Rest
- Bar (3): 1 Half Note, 1 Half Rest
- Bar (4): 2 Quarter Notes, 2 Quarter Rests
- Bar (5): 4 Eighth Notes, 4 Eighth Rests
- Bar (6): 8 Sixteenth Notes, 8 Sixteenth Rests
One quick note about half rests vs. whole rests. It can be confusing to tell the difference at first. Here’s a good way to remember: whole rests (measure 2, above) last longer and are therefore “heavier,” so they lay on the underside of the staff line, while “lighter” half rests (measure 3, above) sit on top.
Also, if you get confused you can always do the math; see what else is in the measure. It all has to add up to 4 beats (in this case). You can always tell how many notes should fit into the measure by looking at the Time Signature, which we cover in the next lesson.
If you see something like the image above, it means you should rest for 5 full measures (so if there are 4 beats per measure, you would rest for 5 measures x 4 beats per measure = 20 beats). You probably won’t see this in much beginner music unless you’re playing in an orchestra or with a piano accompanist who has an intro before you start your solo.
Here’s a tip for counting multi-measure rests without getting lost: Normally when counting measures, you would reset the count back to 1 at the start of each measure. For example, if you were to count two typical measures you would count “One, Two, Three, Four, One, Two, Three, Four.” However, when you have to keep track of multiple measures of rest, it can be easy to forget how many measures you have previously counted, especially if you are resting for a high number of measures. So instead of counting “One, Two, Three, Four” every time, do this instead:
- Measure 1: “One, Two, Three, Four”
- Measure 2: “Two, Two, Three, Four”
- Measure 3: “Three, Two, Three, Four”
- Measure 4: “Four, Two, Three, Four”
- Measure 5: “Five, Two, Three, Four”
When you see a dot next to a note, its duration becomes 1.5x normal. So, if you have a half note (worth 2 quarter notes) it becomes worth 3 quarter notes when dotted. Similarly, a quarter note, usually worth 2 eighth notes, becomes worth 3 eighth notes when dotted. Any type of note or rest can be dotted. You can get a feel for this if you listen to the sample above while following along with the music.
The most common form of tuplets are triplets. This is a group of three notes that fits into the next largest type of note. So, a triplet of eighth notes fits into one quarter note (whereas 2 eighth notes would normally equal one quarter note), and a triplet of quarter notes fits into a half note (whereas 2 quarter notes would normally equal one half note). Tuplets can come in any odd number (usually 3 or 5). Listening to the above example should give you an idea for what this sounds like.
Just for fun, here’s a popular song (credit to Koji Kondo) that plays off of the contrast between triplets (3 in a beat) and regular eighth notes (2 in a beat):
One note: don’t be confused by the whole rests in the second, fourth, and sixth measures. There are only 3 beats per measure in this example (because of the 3/4 time signature, explained in the next lesson). Whole rests are often used as a shorthand to simply indicate that the measure is an entire measure of rest. So even though whole rests normally are 4 beats, if they’re the only thing in the measure, then assume they just mean the whole measure is empty, however many beats that is (in this case 3).
Sometimes you will need to count complex rhythms that are made up of many different types of notes. In these cases it becomes useful to subdivide the rhythm you are counting. Here’s what this means in layman’s terms:
Let’s say you need to count a bunch of 8th notes, each of which gets 1/2 of a beat. In normal counting you only count each beat itself “One, Two, Three, Four.” So if you need to keep track of 8th notes, you can instead count “One and Two and Three and Four and” where you actually say the word and each time in addition to the number. The and signifies the off-beat, or the half-way point between each beat. This can help you to stay in time for more complex rhythms.
Go to the next lesson, about Time Signature.
See a list all our lessons about How to Read Sheet Music for Beginner Violin.
Check out our favorite book/CD combo for How to Read Beginner Violin Sheet Music.
- The Best Beginner Violin Sheet Music
- Fingerings - How to Read Sheet Music
- Open Strings - How to Read Sheet Music
- Learn to Read Sheet Music Fast