The Basics of Note Values & Time Signature

Being able to read and write rhythms can be the one thing that saves you at the next gig or recording session.  If you are anything like me, relying on your memory for parts can lead to one place… Disaster!  I have been in the strict habit of taking notes during rehearsals for several years and it has proved itself time and time again as a worthy habit.  I have found that if I can write down what the time signature is, the approximate tempo and the starting groove for each song, I can be prepared to play a song anytime, no matter how long it has been since I have heard or played the song.  I would challenge you to do the same.

The ability to write out rhythms can also help when charting out complex parts or tag lines within a song.  No matter what genre of music you are playing, from Jazz to Metal, writing out these rhythms from the other instrumentalists such as guitarists, bass players and horn sections can help you be better prepared to set up their part and/or play along with them.  Needless to say, this skill will certainly be nothing less than a great addition to your musical abilities.

Musical notation has taken on many shapes over the past 1200 years.  Fortunately for us, we now live in an age where we have a simple set of symbols for both pitch and rhythm.  In this article we will be focusing only on rhythm, and more specifically note values.  Our current system of rhythmic notation uses two different sets of symbols that represent either playing or resting for a specific amount of time.  Most of these symbols are sub-divisions of a previous one.

The most common of these symbols are as follows:

As I referenced before, most of the notes are sub-divisions of a previous one.  The chart below shows you what this looks like visually from Whole Notes through Thirty-Second Notes.  To read the chart appropriately, you must understand that one note on each line lasts half as long as the note above it.  Therefore, it would require twice as many notes to last the same amount of time as the note above it.  For example: a half note lasts for half the amount of time as a whole note.  Therefore, it takes two half notes to last the same amount of time as a whole note.  One quarter note lasts half as long as a half note and a quarter as long as a whole note.  Therefore, it would take two quarter notes to last same amount of time as a half note and four quarter notes to last as long as a whole note.  This of course continues on into the depths of madness and is much easier to understand when viewing the chart below.   It is important to also note that this chart could continue on to Sixty-Forth Notes and so one.  However, for our purposes the chart is going to stop at Thirty-Second Notes.

Now we have seen the majority of notes and understand how long they last.  The challenge now is to figure out how it all goes together.  When reading and writing rhythms we rely on one important piece of information, the time signature.  The time signature consists of two numbers, one on top of the other.  They will be located immediately at the beginning of the first staff on the first line.  The top number indicates how many notes are in a single measure.  The bottom number tells us what type of note the top number is referring to.

2 = Half Note

4 = Quarter Note

8 = Eighth Note

16 = Sixteenth Note

So, if you have a time signature, it means that you will have four quarter notes in a measure.  Ex. This is the most common time signature used.  It is also important to note that all time within a measure must be accounted for.  For example: if you play only two quarter notes in a measure, then you must put in rests appropriately so that all the time is allocated to playing or resting for four quarter notes worth of time.

Now that you understand note values and time signature you are ready to start reading and writing rhythms.  This is definitely the point that I would highly encourage those of you that are genuinely interested in learning to read music to seek out some form of instruction in a private or classroom setting.  Learning to read music is like learning to read a new language.  It is possible to do this on your own.  However, you would greatly benefit from consistent instruction from an experienced instructor.  It is extremely beneficial to use a metronome that is capable of playing subdivisions when learning to read and practicing music.

This article just scratches the surface of reading music.  There are many other resources that you can find on the Educational Resources Page and elsewhere to help further your studies of reading and writing music.  Please do not hesitate to e-mail me with any questions at  I thank you for your time and wish you the best on your musical endeavors.

Here are some other great resources for learning to read rhythms:

Louisville Drummer

Miguel Monroy