Grade 1 Music Theory – Rhythm

– Hi. Welcome to this session on rhythm, and more precisely, how we write down rhythm in music. And I’m hoping to explain everything that you would need to know to pass grade one theory when it comes to writing down rhythm. Although of course, you may not be interested in doing grade one theory, but you just want to know about rhythm. Well let’s start off with a note that we call the semibreve. If you are in America, you might know this note as the whole note, and it’s simply written like this. And that semibreve or whole note has four beats.

So it simply means, if I’m playing a piece of music, I am going to count four beats every time I see one of those semibreves. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. And so on. Now we don’t want to live in a world of semibreves, that would be rather boring, wouldn’t it? So how about this? If I write another semibreve, and this time I put a stem on it, that halves the value of the note, which in the American system is called the half note. We call it a minim, and it has two beats. Perfectly possible for the stem on this note to go up instead of down, and we’ll say a bit more about that later.

If the stem goes down, it always goes down on the left hand side of the note. And if the stem goes up, it always goes up on the right hand side of the note. I’ll just draw that so you can see exactly what I mean. So it could be written either way. The next note, we start with a semibreve again, we put the stem on it that we had for the minim, and now we’re going to colour it in. And this is called a crotchet, or in the American system, it’s called a quarter note. And it’s worth one beat.

After that, we can get even faster with our rhythm. I could write another crotchet, and if I put a little hook on the bottom of it like this, that’s called a quaver, or in the American system it’s called an eighth note. So that’s worth half a beat. And I can carry on like that. So if I put another hook on the bottom of the note, there we are, two hooks, it’s now a quarter of a beat. That’s all you’d need to know for grade one theory on the basics of notating rhythm. But I’ll just let you into a little secret. If you put an extra hook on the bottom of that, so we have three hooks, it will be an eighth of a beat. If you put another hook on again, it would be a sixteenth of a beat, and so we go on. Now, what do those actually sound like? We started by thinking about the semibreve a few moments ago. If this is a semibreve, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. And then we move on to minims, you’ll see how it works. One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two. If we go on to crotchets, we’ll have one note on each beat. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. If we go to quavers, because they’re worth half of a beat, we would have two quavers to each beat. We’d have one and two and three and four and one, and so on. Semiquavers, there are going to be four of those to every beat, one, two, one, two, one. So you begin to see how these different rhythms will interact in any piece of music. Now let’s be sure about the spellings of these particular note values. So the first one we said was called the semibreve, S-E-M-I-B-R-E-V-E. This one, the two beat note remember was called the minim. M-I-N-I-M. And this one, is called the crotchet. Now be really careful how you spell this word because lots of people end up writing the word crochet when they really mean crotchet. So this is how we spell crotchet, C-R-O-T- That’s the letter that gets missed out, C-H-E-T. This one is the quaver, Q-U-A-V-E-R. And this one, the quarter beat note is the semiquaver, so S-E-M-I- and then you’d write quaver as before. Okay. Now, another thing we can do, is we can put dots after each of these notes. Now you may be wondering what on earth we would want to do that for. If you put a dot over a note, or underneath a note, that’s what we call a staccato marking. Which means that you’d play the note detached rather than smooth. If I play a group of notes smoothly, they’d sound like this. If I detached them, they sound like this. That’s a staccato. So if you put a dot above or below a note, it’s telling you to play staccato. However, if you put a dot after a note, it will affect the length of the note. So let’s have a little think about what that really means. Because when you put a dot after a note, it increases the value of that note by half as much again. This is beginning to sound like maths isn’t it? But if I had a semibreve, we discovered a few moments ago that a semibreve is worth four beats. But what about a dotted semibreve? You see I’ve just put a dot after it. So I’d have four for the semibreve and I’d have to add on half of four for the dot. So half of four is two, which means that a dotted semibreve would be worth six beats. Now six beats is actually quite a long time, so you’re very unlikely to come across a dotted semibreve. You’re much more likely to come across a dotted minim. So here’s a minim, with a dot after it, and we do just exactly the same piece of maths again. So we say we’ve got two beats for the minim, and the dot must be worth half of two. Half of two is one, so the total value of that is three. That was called a dotted semibreve, this is called a dotted minim. So you’re beginning to see how this works. It starts to get a bit more complicated soon because we have to get into fractions, but don’t panic too much. Here’s a crotchet, and we learned that a crotchet is worth one beat. So if I put a dot after that, and make it a dotted crotchet, I’m going to have one for the crotchet and then half the value of one is obviously a half, so the total value of a dotted crotchet is one and a half beats. Now you may think, “Well that must sound a bit strange when you play it “because how do you have a note “that’s one and a half beats long?” Quite often in music, you find you have a dotted crotchet followed by a quaver. So you have a note that’s worth one and a half beats and then you put it alongside a note that’s worth half a beat. So it sounds like this, if I put a whole series of dotted crotchets and quavers together. One, two, and one, two, and one, two, and one, two, and one. So that’s a rhythm you’ll have heard many times in music. Okay, let’s go a bit further. What about a dotted quaver? Well we know a quaver is worth half of a beat, so the dot must be worth half of a half. So that’s going to be a quarter, which means that the total value of a dotted quaver is three quarters of a beat. And again, that may sound slightly strange, but sometimes you find a dotted quaver in a real piece of music, has a semiquaver after it. So if a semiquaver is worth a quarter, you can see that the three quarters from the dotted quaver plus a semiquaver, gives you a whole beat. And that would sound like this, one, two, one, two, one. So they’re, again, quite common in music. Well you could go on, couldn’t you, and do a dotted semiquaver and so on. As long as you can deal with your fractions you’ve got the idea, as to how the note values actually work. Now the other thing we want to just say a little bit about, is that music is a combination of sound and silence. So we can plot those notes when we want to make sounds, but what do we do when we want silence? It can be very dramatic in a piece of music, can’t it, when everybody’s playing and suddenly, the whole orchestra stops or the whole choir stops. And there’s a silence before we go on. It can be a very effective, dramatic pause. So it could be a big rest, or it may just be a whole series of little rests. If you’ve ever been to listen to an orchestra, or a choir or a band, you’ll notice not everybody is playing or singing all of time. Sometimes some instruments play, then they have a rest while other instruments are playing. And so we have to have signs for these silences or for what we call rests. So we talked about the semibreve. Here are the five lines of music. And the semibreve rest looks like this. It’s a little box that hangs down from the fourth line of the stave. One, two, three, four, five. Okay, I just used that word stave. I should explain what that means. Music is written on five lines, one, two, three, four, five. The five lines of music are called the stave. So the semibreve rest hangs down from the fourth line of the stave. So that rest is a semibreve rest worth four beats. Not to be confused with this rest, which looks the same. So I’ve got my five lines of the stave again, and this time I’m going to draw another box just like the one we did above, but this time it’s going to sit on the third line. Do you see the difference? That one’s hanging from the fourth line, this one is sitting on the third line up on the stave, and that’s the minim rest. And the minim rest is worth two beats. We then have a crotchet rest, which is written in various ways, but there’s one way of doing it. That’s a crotchet rest and that of course is worth one beat. And if we go on from there, the quaver rest looks like a seven. So that’s a quaver rest, and it’s worth half of a beat. And just as we did with the length of notes, if I put an extra hook on that quaver rest, there’s a semiquaver rest, and that’s worth a quarter of a beat. And I could carry on. If I put a third hook on there it would be an eighth of a beat. If I put a fourth hook on it would be a sixteenth of a beat. And so we could go on. Two little things I need to say before we move on from here. This is how a crotchet rest is usually written. Just sometimes in older music, you’ll see it written as a backward seven. So if the seven is the right way around it’s always a quaver rest worth half a beat. If the seven is the wrong way around, then it’s another way of doing a crotchet rest and it’s worth one beat. And there’s just one more thing to say about the semibreve rest. We’ve talked about this one that hangs down from the fourth line that’s worth four beats. But it also has a second meaning, which is a little bit confusing. The second meaning is, if you have a whole bar of music that’s empty, you would use a semibreve rest. So it doesn’t matter if the bar’s got four beats in it, or three beats in it, or two beats in it, if the bar is empty you would use one of those rests. So it has two meanings, it’s either a semibreve rest worth four beats or it’s telling you that the whole bar is empty. Now we can put dots on these rests in just the same way as we put them on notes. So if I put a dot after that, it would be a dotted semibreve rest. Or if I put a dot after here, a dotted minim rest. Or a dotted quaver, quaver rest, or a dotted crotchet rest and so on. You get the idea. Exactly the same thing applies, the dot just adds on half the value of the note. The main confusion with rests is between the semibreve rest and the minim rest. So here’s a little way to try and remember it. Semibreve suspended, minim mounted. You see the semibreve rest is suspended from the fourth line. It hangs down from the fourth line. The minim rest is mounted on the third line. It sits on that third line. And that gives us the basics of what we need to know about writing down rhythm. Well, if you want to know more come back for lesson two.

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