How to Read Basic Rhythms (Quiz Included)

Is rhythm something you struggle with? Do you find time signatures confusing? Does counting trip you up when you’re sight-reading? Then read on to learn all about time signatures, note and rest values, how to count and how to read basic rhythms.


how to read basic rhythms


Let’s dive right in!


Note and rest values

Note values represent the duration of a note, the white ones being longer than the black ones. Each note value has its corresponding rest value as shown in the table below.


note and rest values


Dotted notes/rests

To represent more note and rest values, we put a dot after the note or rest. This dot extends the duration of the note or rest by half its value. For example, a dotted minim or rest is 2 beats + 1 beat = 3 beats.


Most common dotted notes with their corresponding rest


dotted notes and rests


Time signatures

To arrange notes and rests in an organised manner, we use time signatures and bar lines. It would be very hard to follow a score without either of these!

time signature and bar lines


The top number of a time signature tells us how many beats there are in each bar and the bottom number tells us the type of beat.


top and bottom numbers of a time signature


For example, 2/4 means 2 crotchet beats in every bar, 3/8 means 3 quaver beats in every bar and 4/2 means 4 minim beats in every bar:

time signatures example


Notice how the bigger the bottom number is, the smaller the note value. Also, note that the names of the note values in American English directly correspond to the bottom numbers of the time signatures. For example, 16 = sixteenth note beat.


bottom number of time signatures


Simple and compound meters

The time signatures fall into two categories: simple and compound meter. It’s important to know the distinction between the two because this will help you know how to count.

In simple meter, we simply count up to however many beats there are. So in 2/4, count to 2, in 3/4, count to 3, and so on. Each beat is divisible by 2 which means that, if necessary, we would subdivide the beat into 2 equal halves. For example, in 2/4 meter, we would count “1 + 2 +” (1 and 2 and) when subdividing.

simple meter examples


In compound meter, the top number of the time signatures is 6, 9, 12, 15 and so on (multiples of 3 except 3), which are too big to count. Instead of counting every single beat, we group the beats into lots of 3’s to make up main beats. So in 6/8, we have 2 lots of 3 quaver beats, which means 2 main beats. So we’ll count each bar as 1, 2 and subdivide each beat into 3.

compound meter examples


Duple, triple and quadruple time

As you may have noticed from the examples given above, the most common time signatures in both simple and compound meter have 2, 3 or 4 main beats in each bar. We say they are in simple duple/triple/quadruple time or compound duple/triple/quadruple time. For example:

simple and compound time examples

The noticeable difference between the time signatures in simple and compound meter is that the top number of time signatures in simple meter will be 2, 3 or 4 whereas in compound meter, it will be 6, 9, 12, respectively.


Top number of time signatures in simple and compound meter


top number of time signatures in simple and compound meter


Most common time signatures in simple meter


simple time chart


Most common time signatures in compound meter


compound time chart


How to count

Always count each bar in the same manner, no matter what happens within a bar, whether you have a mixture of crotchets and quavers, or a tied note, For example, the correct way of counting the following rhythm is:

correct way of counting

And NOT:incorrect way of counting


In other words, if you’re in 4/4, always count the first beat as 1, the second beat as 2, the third beat as 3 and the fourth beat as 4, no matter the rhythm. And always count each bar from one. Avoid doing what some of my beginner students do and keep counting past four and count five, six, seven, etc. You’ll get completely lost if you do that!


Tied notes

This means that for tied notes, count them the same way as you do any other bar. For example, the correct way of counting the following rhythm is:

correct way of counting tied notes 

And NOT:

incorrect way of counting tied notes


Tip: Try to stay aware of your downbeats (first beats of the bar) to avoid getting lost.



When you come across dotted rhythms or note/rest values smaller than the beat (quavers, semiquavers, etc.) it may help to subdivide the beat by adding extra words like “and” (represented by the + symbol) for quavers, and “e and a” for semiquavers. For example, we could count the following example in this manner:

correct way of subdividing

subdividing semiquavers example


Upbeats / rests

When the piece doesn’t start on the first beat of the bar but after it or starts on an upbeat (last beat of the first bar), count from the first beat as usual and come in when indicated.


For example, if you have an upbeat like in the following example, count in this way:

counting an upbeat


Or if the piece starts with rests like in the following example, count in this way:

starting with rests


Time signature changes

Sometimes, you’ll come across pieces with different time signatures. It will start in 4/4 then go to 3/4 then back to 4/4 etc. If the type of beat remains the same, count as normal. For example:

easy time signature changes


Tip: Emphasise the first beat of each bar to help you keep track of the beats and to help you feel the change in meter (a 4/4 bar should feel different to a 3/4 bar).


It gets a little more complicated when the type of beat (the bottom number of the time signature) changes but there is a trick to making it easier: count with the lowest common denominator, that is, the smallest common note value. For example, if the piece were to alternate between 4/4, 3/8, and 2/4, like in the following example, then the smallest common note value would be quavers. So the easiest way is to count or feel the whole piece in quaver beats (as shown by the vertical lines), as opposed to switching back and forth between crotchet and quaver beats.

hard time signature changes


Final words

That’s it for this week. Congrats for making it this far! If you want to know how much you’ve understood, why not try this short quiz:



Next time, in How to Read Complex Rhythms, we’ll tackle complex rhythms such as cut common time, composite time signatures, polyrhythms, syncopation, and other ways of counting rhythm, so if you thought this was a breeze, wait until next time!


As always, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.


Happy counting!


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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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