What Does a Musical Score Mean? Second Movement

Onwards to the second installment of What Does a Musical Score Mean? If you are here for the first time and wish to view the first article which starts at the very beginning you can check it out here. For everyone else we are going to build on what you’ve learned. If you need a quick review, go to What Does a Musical Score Mean? First Movement and scroll to the bottom for a summary.

If you are serious about learning music theory then I suggest you find a teacher in your area who can help you. For those who are ambitious, a good resource to learn basic through advanced theory is Mark Sarnecki’s The Complete Elementary Music Rudiments.

“Feel the Rhythm”

Today we’re going to delve further into rhythm. How is it expressed in the score? How is it counted and organized? How does it interact with other elements?

Now, rhythm involves a little bit of math but you won’t need your scientific calculator. If you can count to 4 you’ll do just fine today!

What is rhythm? How would you define it?

I like to think of rhythm as a musical pattern that dances atop a beat. It’s like a car driving down the highway. The road is the beat and is always there, but what the car does on top of it is up to the driver. Will he stay in his lane? Will he speed?

As we explored in the last article, there is a heart beat underlying each piece of music. The rhythm is built on top of this pulse. Sometimes the rhythm feels like it’s directly in sync with the pulse while other times it’s not (that’s called syncopation). Regardless of where it falls, good composers will always write good rhythms.

When writing out rhythms, composers use different symbols to show how short or long they want a note to sound for. Sometimes they want no sound at all in which case they use rests.

Observe the excerpt below. You’ll notice many different kinds of notes. Some are shaded black. Some are white. Some have dots beside them. Some are attached to neighbouring notes.


Each kind of note is held for a different length of time.  Here are the basic rhythmic values:

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In North America we refer to each note as a fraction. A whole note is worth 4 beats. The half note is worth 2 beats or half the value of the whole note. The quarter note is the shortest duration in this example and is worth 1 beat. (Yes there are shorter note values. In the minuet there are also eighth notes but we’ll discuss that another day).

Then there’s the dotted half note which is worth 3 beats. You’ll notice that the dotted half note and the half note are nearly identical. The difference is that the one with 3 beats has a dot. This dot can be added to any note, not just a half note. It’s worth half the value of the note it’s paired with.

For example, a half note is worth 2 beats by itself. What’s half of a half note? 1. So when the dot is added it’s 2 + 1 which equals 3 beats total. Let’s say we put a dot beside the whole note. Remember, a whole note is worth 4 beats on its own. The dot adds half the value of the note which is 2. The whole note (4 beats) + dot (2 beats) makes 6 beats in total. In other words a dotted whole note. Those do occur quite often.

Now lets observe how these different note values work together by plugging them into a measure. (On a side note I want to thank Matthew Hindson for providing these very useful and free music fonts for writing out rhythms on the keyboard.)

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In this example we see 2 time signatures. Remember, a time signature tells us how to count or how many beats are in each bar or measure. In the top example the time signature is 3/4 which means there are 3 beats in a bar. The number on the bottom, in both cases a 4, tells us which note gets the beat or count. In both cases it’s the quarter note. It’s also called “3 quarter time.”

Take out your magnifying glass and inspect each measure of both examples to be sure the notes add up to the correct number of beats. Remember that the first example in 3/4 time must add up to 3 beats in each measure. The second example in 4/4 time needs 4 beats in each measure.

Now a little challenge for you. Mentally or on a piece of paper complete the following two rhythms. There is no one answer. As long as you have the right number of beats in the bar you’ll be fine.

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So far so good? Here’s one possible outcome. Compare it with yours.

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You’re “Under a Rest”

Just as composers have symbols for sound they also have ways of writing silence. For every note value there is an equal rest value. Observe the chart below:

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Like the note values you’ve already learned that the rests can be worth 1, 2, 3, or 4 beats. You’ll notice the quarter rest appears different than the other 3 types of rests. It’s easy to recognize but does take a bit of practice to draw. The other rests look rather similar to each other. I use little tricks to remember them. For example, the half rest aways reminds me of a top hat. So if I see a hat on the musical staff I’ll know it’s worth 2 beats. The whole rest on the other hand is slumped down as if someone filled their top hat with stones and it’s hanging inside out. So the “heavier” one has more beats. This trick has been helpful for myself and my students. A note about the whole rest: when filling an empty bar you always use a whole rest regardless of time signature. And then there’s the good old dotted half rest which is worth three beats. Dots can be added to rests too.

Let’s make things more interesting now in our rhythms.

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You’ll notice a new time signature, 2/4. 2 beats in a bar and again, the quarter note gets the beat or count. You would count it “1 2, 1 2, 1 2″ etc. Observe the two examples and make sure that each measure has the appropriate number of notes or rests. Remember, the whole rest is used to fill empty bars regardless of metre. Enjoy how creative you can be. There are limitless combinations!

Now it’s your turn!

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How was that? You’re becoming a bona fide composer 😛 Here is one possible solution.

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You may have found that trickier now that you have more elements to work with. But these are the foundational tools so give yourself a pat on the back for learning some music today!

At this stage in the game if your notes and rests are adding up to the right number that’s all that matters.

For the more curious learner I’m going to add one more element.

We’ve already discussed the beat and how some beats are more “important” than others. In the minuet you learned about the downbeat (first beat) and how it was emphasized more strongly than the other two beats, 2 3, 2 3, etc. The way beats are emphasized also affects how we notate our rests.

When completing your second round of rhythms you may have made one of these 3 errors:

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You may be wondering what’s wrong here. First, take a look at how the beats are stressed in 4/4 and 3/4 time:

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Remember Classical Music is a tradition and has lots of funny customs that have evolved over the centuries. In this case we need to be aware of what we are building a rest on. If a rest is being built from a stronger beat as in beats 1 or 3 in 4/4 then we can build a rest of any length off of it. However, you cannot build longer rests (longer than 1 beat) off of weak beats!

In the first example in red, there is a quarter note on beat 1 followed by a dotted half rest on beat 2 which fills the bar. This is incorrect because it is starting on a weak beat. The correct version would be: quarter note, quarter rest, half rest. This way the half rest begins on beat 3, a strong beat.

In the second example the same thing is true. In 3/4 time the only strong beat is the first one. Here there is a half rest beginning on beat 2 which is a weak beat. To be correct in would need to be: quarter note, quarter rest, quarter rest.

Lastly, when possible group all your rests together. In example 3 I’ve placed a half rest on beats 1 and 2 and then a quarter rest on beat 3. While this isn’t technically a huge issue can you think of what would make more sense?

A dotted half rest! That way your score would look lest cluttered.

Well that’s all folks! Before I depart here is a quick summary from today’s lesson.


  • notes and rests are expressed by different symbols;
  • quarter note/rest = 1 beat;
  • half note/rest = 2 beats;
  • dotted half/rest = 3 beats;
  • whole note/rest = 4 beats;
  • adding a dot (.) to a note adds half its value;
  • every measure or bar must have the right number of notes/rests so that they reflect the number of beats in the time signature;
  • the kind of rest used is determined by its placement on a strong or weak beat;
  • rests should always be grouped efficiently;
  • a whole rest is used to fill an empty measure.

Next time you will learn about the musical staff and note naming. As always, feel free to send me a message or comment below if you have any questions!

2 thoughts on “What Does a Musical Score Mean? Second Movement

  1. Fiona Cockling says:

    Hi I’ve followed a link from PTC and started reading your posts as they looked interesting! Here in UK we teach that an empty bar should have a semibreve (whole note) rest regardless of the time signature. I’m interested to know if this is different in Canada? As you seem to be saying that 3/4 has a dotted minim rest for an empty bar?

    • darrylspiano says:

      Hi Fiona! Pardon the delay. What is PTC? You are in fact correct. We do the same here. I think I was thinking so literally that it slipped my mind. So thanks for pointing it out.

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