Basic Music Theory 101

How Music Works – Time & Rhythm and Notation

Basic Music TheoryIn this first post in our “Music Theory” lesson series we’re going to go over how time in music works. What’s a bar? What’s a beat? How do you “count” in music?

We’ll answer all these questions right here in this guide on musical rhythm and time.


All music follows what’s called a tempo and a time signature.

The tempo of a song is how fast it moves forward. It’s described in beats – or a single unit of musical time – per minute (beats per minute, i.e. BPM).

So for something with a tempo of 60 BPM you would count one beat every second.  A tempo of 120 BPM would be two beats every second, and so on.

The total length of a song is determined by the tempo and the number of “measures” or “bars” in a song.

A measure or bar is a single phrase of music that includes a certain number of beats or notes. For example, there may be 32 measures (phrases or “bars”) in a song and each measure may have 4 beats/notes in it. If the song gets played at 140 beats per minute, it’d be less than one minute of music.


The rhythm of a song or piece of music is all about how it flows across time.

It is determined by time signatures and the types of notes/beats used in each measure.  By types of notes I mean how short or long the notes/beats used are. There are a few different types of notes that can be played, regardless of the type of instrument you’re playing.

Here’s a list:

  • Whole Notes (1)
  • Half Notes (1/2)
  • Quarter Notes (1/4)
  • Eighth Notes (1/8)
  • Sixteenth Notes (1/16)

You also have thirty-second (1/32) and sixty-fourth (1/64) notes but those are rarely seen or used, except in very difficult or advanced pieces of music.

Now let’s talk about how these types of notes are used and organized with time signatures.

Time Signatures

A time signature is a measurement that tells you how many beats are in a measure. A time signature is shown at the beginning of a piece of music (if you’re reading sheet music). It normally looks like a fraction like you learned in school – for example, 4/4

The top number is the number of beats that are in each measure of music – in this case 4. So for every measure you would count out 4 beats – 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.

The bottom number is used to describe which type of note (from above) actually gets 1 full count. Since our example is 4/4 time this means that a quarter note (1/4) gets one full count. So you could fit 4 quarter notes, 2 half notes or 8 eighth notes in one measure.

If the time signature was 4/8 it would mean that an eighth note (1/8) would get one full count in a measure of 4 beats. You could fit 4 eighth notes, 2 quarter notes or 1 half note in a measure of music. If the time signature is 3/4, there would only be 3 beats per measure, but a quarter note would get 1 full beat.

Most of the popular music you’ll come across will be in a time signature of 4/4. This is also known as common time. I’m a producer and musician as well so for this blog, I’ll probably only (or mostly) deal with 4/4 time.

How to “Read” Music

So how do you read music? And how do you organize and write out all these different types of notes? Well, you’d use a music staff, shown below.

Music Staff

You’d write out the different notes on the above “staff” in a series of measures. And it’s not just instrumental music that gets written this way. If you’re a singer, your vocals/lyrics can be written in a music staff as well. It lets you know what notes to sing for each word.

I’m sure you’re wondering what those weird symbols are at the beginning of the staff. Those are called clefs.

The top symbol is called the treble clef, and will show you the notes you play on the top half of the piano with your right hand. The bottom symbol is called the bass clef and will show you the notes you play on the bottom half of the piano with your left hand.

When you combine a staff with a time signature and some notes/beats in different measures, you have a playable piece of music. Here’s an example:

Sheet Music

So how do you read something like that?? To be honest, I don’t know how to sight-read piano sheet music, but I do intend on learning it one day. My focus right now is being able to play piano by ear, without having to read sheet music. But it’s still important to know the basics of how to read music and have a good sense of timing.

For now all you have to know is that when playing music, you count everything out so that it flows properly. So remember our time signature of 4/4? Where there are 4 beats in a every measure and every quarter note (1/4) gets the count of one, single beat?

Here’s how you would write that out on a music staff.

Quarter Notes

Here’s how you would count that out – “1, 2, 3, 4.” How fast you count that all depends on the tempo of the song. Simple enough right?

Now if you have a bar of eighth notes, here’s what it would look like:

Eighth Notes

No if you count at the same speed/tempo as the last example (4 quarter notes) here’s how you would count out the eighth notes – “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and.”

Here’s what sixteenth notes look like written out (notated).

Sixteenth Notes

You would count these as “1-e-and-uh, 2-e-and-uh, 3-e-and-uh, 4-e-and-uh.”

Even though the number of notes on the staff doubles each time, the speed or tempo at which you play the notes remains the same. That means sixteenth notes are played faster than quarter notes.

Now what about the different sounds (pitches) when you play different keys of the piano? How are they written out? Here’s a little chart for you


It will take some time to memorize all those notes and be able to read them fluently. I still can’t read piano sheet music fluently, but like I said, I’m more interested in learning to play by ear for now. Once I’ve gotten a good grasp of that, I’ll start to memorize notation and practice reading piano sheet music.

That’s it for the basics of how music works. Some of the stuff on this page may have gone over your head, especially with timing and note types. Another great resource to learn more about this type of music theory is

Their lessons are dope and I really recommend checking them out at some point.

Next up, we are going to learn about music notes, scales and chords.

Free Music Theory Cheat Sheets

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