Welcome to WebRhythms – an easy step-by-step method for learning to read rhythm, created by Vic Firth artist and educator Norm Weinberg. Starting at the very beginning, you’ll progress through 20 lessons where each introduces a new topic. By the end of the series, you’ll be a master at understanding and reading rhythms!

In this WebRhythms lesson, you’ll learn the basics of musical notation: the staff, time signature, and quarter notes and rests. The exercise you’ll be working on in this lesson will include audio play-along tracks in five different levels that you can use to track your progress!


The last WebRhythms Lesson covered both quarter notes and quarter rests. The lesson one exercise had a series of measures that contained four counts each, because the time signature (the very first thing you see on the first line) was 4/4. A time signature can also be called a “meter”. In this lesson, we are going to discuss what those two numbers actually mean.

Musical notation can express the length of each note, the pitch of each note, the instrument, the speed of the piece, and even how loud or soft to play. The music tells us when each note is to begin and indicates the duration or length of each and every note of the music. This indication of duration is determined by the note’s unique visual shape. This example shows the various parts of a note and labels them with their musical name.

At the beginning of every piece of music, there is a time signature that consists of two numbers. One number is placed on top of the other, but keep in mind that the time signature is not a fraction. Each of the two numbers represents a different piece of information.


The upper number in the time signature (in this case “4”) is an indication of how many counts are contained within the time span of one measure (remember that a measure is the space within two vertical lines that are called bar lines). Because the upper number is four, there will be four counts in every measure.

The top number of a time signature can be anything. A “3” in this position would indicate three counts per measure, a “17” as the top number would mean that there are seventeen counts per measure.


The lower number of a time signature is a different matter. It can only be one of the following: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. (powers of two). This is a type of code that stands for a particular note value. A “1” in this position would indicate a whole note, 2 means a half note, 4 means a quarter note, 8 means an eighth note, 16 means a sixteenth note, and 32 means a thirty-second note. Now that we know what the bottom number stands for, what does it mean? The bottom number tells you which note value (quarter, eighth, half, etc.) is equal to one of the counts in the measure.


In 4/4 meter, there are four counts per measure, and the quarter note is the note value that equals one of the counts. In other words, the time value of a measure is equal to four quarter notes.

In 6/8 meter, there will be six counts in every measure, and the value of one of those counts is the eighth note. In other words, each measure will have the time value of six eighth notes.

5/2 meter has the value of five half notes in each bar while a time signature of 3/16 would contain the value of three sixteenth notes in every measure.

If you are getting a little confused about these 3/16 meters, don’t worry. I just wanted you to know the reason why there are four counts in each measure of the exercise, and why we use the counting system of 1, 2, 3, 4 to keep track of them. Remember, that each measure doesn’t have to have only quarter notes. Each measure only has to contain the value of four quarter notes. This lesson will be dealing with other ways to notate the value of a quarter note.


A single eighth note is exactly 1/2 the value of a quarter note. In other words, if a quarter note equals one second of time, then a single eighth would equal 1/2 second of time. If a quarter note had the value of a dollar bill, then an eighth note would have the value of a 50¢ piece. The reason that I’m making all of these analogies to stress the point that an eighth note is always equal to half the value of a quarter note, no matter what the quarter note’s duration or length happens to be. Using these analogies, you can see that two eighth notes will always equal one quarter note (1/2 + 1/2 = 1).

Two or more eighth notes can be grouped together with a beam. In these cases, the beam replaces the flag. Why might a composer choose to beam eighth notes together rather than use flags? In most cases, eighth notes are beamed together to show the musician how the notes are grouped together into counts. Music is easier to read when counts are grouped together.

If eighth notes divide each quarter note in half, and quarter notes are counted “1, 2, 3, 4”, we’ll need to have some way to count the divisions of the quarter. We will be using the syllable “and” to do this.

In order to see how this works, go take a brisk walk. As you are walking, count the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4” every time your right foot hits the ground. Every time your left foot touches down, say the word “and”. If you are walking at a steady pace (tempo), then you will see the relationship between the quarter notes and the eighth notes.

Before you attempt to play the following exercise, listen to the “bronze” level audio file. As you count the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4” to the beat of the metronome (the cowbell sound), you’ll hear the 8th note rhythms played twice as fast — “1 AND 2, 3, 4”. Once you can count the first few measures out loud with the audio file, then you’re ready to play along!


In performing this exercise, be certain to keep the speed of the number counts even. Also pay close attention to the fact that you want the “and” counts to split the number counts exactly in half. The more accurately you make your counts, the more solid your playing will become. This lesson’s exercise mixes the pattern of two eighth notes with the quarter note and the quarter rest from the last article. Remember to play on the beat if you see a quarter note, don’t play on the beat if you see a quarter rest, and play the beat and the “and” when you see a group of two eighths.

It might also be a good time to review the helpful hints that we talked about in the last lesson:

1. Keep your counts steady.

2. If you can’t play it, you’re too fast.

3. Play each exercise several times (25-50 should be enough).

4. Count out loud.

5. Keep your counts short and crisp.

6. Keep your eyes in front of your hands. In other words, “look ahead”!

Reading music with WebRhythms is easy! Once you’ve mastered this, you’re ready to move on to the next lesson!


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