What is rhythm in music? The simplest definition for what is rhythm in music is – the arrangement of notes of different lengths. A different way of thinking about what is rhythm in music is how the notes are measured in the length of time that they sound in a piece of music. For most people, they think of the “rhythm” of the music as how fast or slow the music is, or how short or long are the notes. But there is much more to this important Element of Music.
In Western European musical tradition, the rhythm is the underlying structure that all the other elements of music are held together by. You could say that the rhythm in music is like an egg in a cake recipe. It is what holds and binds everything together in time. The rhythm, and its musical features, determines the speed of the music, the type of beat, and then how the notes of each instrument perform rhythms and connect to make the whole.
There are several musical terms that can help you to develop your understanding of what is rhythm in music. These come under the broader headings of length of notes, tempo, ostinatos, time signature, accents, beat and phrasing. These terms will all be explained in further detail in this article.
What is Rhythm in Music Definitions?
Rhythm in Music – Length of Notes.
To begin your understanding of what is rhythm in music, you will need to know what are the names and symbols of the notes in the written music. These note and rest symbols all have a different meaning, and will help your rhythm music theory knowledge as a musician.
In the European musical tradition, there are several types of notes, rests and their symbols that when written, let the musician know how long to play a note or hold a rest for in the music. Depending on where you live, the symbols are the same, but might be called something very different! In the charts below you will see note and rest symbols with both their USA names and UK names. These charts cover the basic notes and rests needed to understand simple rhythms and will help you understand what rhythm is rhythm in music.
USA Note Names, Rests, Symbols and Definitions
UK Note Names, Rests, Symbols and Definitions
How long a note is played or held, can also be altered by other symbols such as the fermata. This musical symbol means to hold the note for as long as you want! It is often a chance for a vocalist, especially, to show off for how long they can sustain the note.
Other ways to describe the length of a note include the ones listed below
Staccato – short and detached
Legato – smooth and well connected
Sustained – held notes (like using the “sustain pedal on the piano – it holds the note for longer)
Tenuto – playing the note for its’ full value or time
Rhythm in Music – Tempo
Tempo simply means how fast or slow the music is performed. To describe the tempo of the music, you first need to listen for the beat or underlying pulse. Once you can either hear or feel the pulse, you can determine the pace or speed of the music. This will help to better appreciate how and what the rhythm in the music is based on.
There are many Italian Music terms that can be used to describe the tempo of a piece of music. Going from slowest to fastest, some of the more common music terms for tempo are:
Largo – slowly and broadly
Adagio – slowly
Andante – at a walking pace
Moderato– at a medium speed
Allegro – fast
Vivace– fast and lively
Presto – very fast
Prestissimo – as fast as possible
In music, the tempo does not always stay the same, it can change. Below are some other terms that can be used to describe the changes in tempo
Accelerando – gradually getting faster
Ritardando/Ritenuto/Rallentando – gradually getting slower
Rubato – free and flowing, or literally “robbing of time”
A tempo – to return to the former speed.
A great example of tempo changes is in the 80’s hit song by Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen. Overall, the song is performed in a moderato tempo, but at approximately 2:20, the songs suddenly slows down. The tempo then gradually increases (accelerando) until it finally returns to its original and former speed of moderato (a tempo).
Rhythm in Music – Ostinato
The musical definition of an ostinato is a repeated musical pattern. There are three main types of ostinatos – melodic, rhythmic and chordal. When discussing the rhythm of a piece of music, the main thing is to concentrate on the rhythmic patterns in the music.
Another name for an ostinato is a riff. A riff is also defined as a repeated musical pattern. The only difference between an ostinato and a riff is that a riff is a repeated musical pattern heard and performed in popular music. A good example of a popular guitar riff is in the rock classic “Smoke on the Water”. Funny story, I teach students from grades 7 to 12 here in Australia. In Year 7, I tell my kids that if they choose to play “Smoke on the Water”, then they owe me a dollar! When you have been teaching for over 20 years, there are certain “riffs” that you do not want to hear or teach. Ever. Again.
A rhythmic ostinato is a repeated rhythmic pattern. These types of ostinatos can be performed by any instrument, either with or without pitch. More commonly though, instruments that perform a rhythmic ostinato are those without pitch and can be classified as an idiophone (instruments that are hit, shaken or scraped to make a sound), a membranophone (instruments with a skin or membranophone) or can be classified as part of the Percussion Family.
In African Music, rhythm is a more important feature than melody, harmony and tonality. In the clip below, after the balaphon/marimba player performs their solo and introduction, the drummers start a rhythmic ostinato. Watch closely to see the djembes, dun duns, bougarabou and shakere all perform their own ostinato. Try performing each ostinato, then get a group together and see if you can play these intricately woven rhythms in time together. It is much harder than you think!
Rhythm in Music – Time Signature
A time signature is made up of two numbers. Each number has a different meaning, depending on if it is on the top or bottom. The bottom number tells you what TYPE of beat the music is counted in, and the top number tells you how many of those beats are in each bar of the music. For example, if the two numbers were both a four, the bottom number four means quarter (crotchet) note beats, and the top number four means that there are four beats in the bar. The definition of this time signature would be – four quarter (crotchet) beats per bar. In the charts below you can see the most common time signatures and what they mean.
Time Signature Symbols and Definitions with USA Note Names
Time Signature Symbols and Definitions with UK Note Names
There are a few ways to describe a time signature. If the time signature in the music remains constant, and does not change, then it is music written in an isometric time signature. If the time signature changes, for example from 4/4 to ¾, or from common time to waltz time, then it would be multimetric. A great example of this in the Beatles classic “We Can Work It Out”. The majority of this song is performed in a 4/4 time signature, but during the chorus, starting at 38 seconds, it goes from common time to waltz time on the lyrics “… for fussing and fighting my friends”, then it returns to the 4/4 time signature and then back again to ¾ on the lyrics “…so I will ask you once again”. It is important to note that the tempo slows down a little during the chorus as well! Watch the clip to hear the multimetric time signature.
PLEASE NOTE – time signatures are NOT fractions! They should not be written with a “/” in between the numbers, but, for convenience in this post they have been.
Rhythm in Music – Accents
An accent in music means a stress or emphasis on the note, chord or passage. There are several musical terms that can be used to describe an accent in a piece of music. Sometimes these accents are regular, and they occur repeatedly, sometimes they are sporadic and only occur to emphasize a note, chord or passage in the music.
Sforzando – played with prominent stress or accent
Subito – immediately or suddenly
Marcato – a note, chord or passage to be played loudly and with force
Syncopation – accent on the weaker or off beat. The “off” beat is in between where the natural beat occurs in the bar.
Rhythm in Music – Beat
The beat in a piece of music can be either definite or indefinite. This means that, if there is an instrument performing on the beat, then the music has a definite beat. If there is not an instrument performing the beat, then it has an indefinite beat. An indefinite beat can also be described as the pulse of the music.
In most popular music, in almost culture around the globe, the beat is what holds everything together. The beat, and how it is played is what drives the music forward. In traditional European music, the time signature, and the beat work closely together. Each time signature has its own arrangement of strong and weak beats in each bar of the music.
For example, in a waltz, each bar is made up of three beats. The “waltz” feeling comes from the arrangement of strong and weak beats – strong, weak, weak, or ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, etc… In classical music with a 4/4 time signature, the arrangement of accents on the beats is as follows – ONE, two, THREE, four. The first beat of each bar has a slightly stronger accent than the third one, but, the third beat is still stronger than the second and fourth beats.
In most popular music today, the music features a type of syncopation called a backbeat. Syncopation in music is an accent on the weaker or off beat. This means that the second and fourth beat of the bar are accented in opposite fashion to what is written in classical music. If this beat were to be played on a drum kit, it would be Bass, SNARE, Bass, SNARE, etc… We know these drum beats as a rock beat. Watch the video below to see a backbeat explained further
Rhythm in Music – Phrasing
A musical phrase can be either melodic or rhythmic. A phrase is like a small musical sentence. To begin to hear a phrase, try listening to a singer performing the melody. When they take a breath, or there is a slight pause, that is the end of the phrase. An instrumental phrase can often go longer than one that is sung, simply because the instrument, such as a violin, does not need to take a breath!
When describing a phrase first listen for how many bars in length it is, is it being performed in 2,3,4,5,6,7, 8, or any number of bars long? To do this you firstly need to work out the time signature. Once you know how many beats are in the bar, you can count the phrase length.
Another way to describe a phrase is by using words such as even, balanced, or symmetrical. A phrase that is even can be divided in half and each half is the same. Phrases that are uneven, unbalanced, or asymmetrical are different on either side. These types of phrases might start high, then end low, or they might be heard in the first bar of the phrase, and then there is a longer pause before the next phrase.
Why is Rhythm Important in Music?
Rhythm is an especially important element of music. Without the underlying beat, time signature and tempo, the members of an ensemble would not be able to keep in time together. Rhythm is an important part of everyday life. Our heartbeat, and its own tempo, lets us know if we are relaxed with a slow pulse, or even frightened or scared with pulse and heartbeat racing!
In any given piece of music, the different lengths of notes and how they are arranged, can give a quite different “feel” to the music. If the music has a slow tempo, lots of sustained notes, and simple rhythms, then the music might be more calming. But, in contrast, if the beat is driving and with a fast tempo, with lots of complex rhythms, then the music be what you need to get up and moving!
As a musician, to have a good “sense of rhythm” is especially important. If you can feel and maintain a steady tempo, then you are halfway to becoming a great musician.
Music Appreciation and Rhythm
To appreciate a piece of music, or to study and analyze a piece of music, it helps if you can understand what is rhythm in music. The beat, time signature, tempo and how each instrument interacts and supports these in the music, creates a framework for all the Elements of Music to work their musical magic together.
Next time you hear a piece of music, try concentrating on what rhythmic features are being used in the music. Try listening for the beat. Once you have worked out the beat, and what instrument is/is not playing it, try working out the time signature and then the tempo. Next listen for any rhythmic ostinatos, how are they played? What instrument performs them? Does each section of the music have a different treatment of rhythmic patterns? What type of accents are used? Even try to listen to each instrument and try notating their rhythms!
As a musician, try, in your next performance to think about how you can make it more interesting through your treatment and performance of the rhythmic features in the music. Could some parts be slower/faster? Could you have some parts with a definite beat, and contrast it with a section with an absence of beat? Or maybe, try adding in different accents to the music, try emphasizing different beats in the bar to give the music a makeover!
Watch the video of this blog below
Until next time
Julia from Jooya