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 reading rhythm!

In this WebRhythms lesson, you’ll learn about changing time signatures. 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!


It’s time for a little rhythmic review, but with a twist. So far, WebRhythms has covered all the basic figures that can be written using the sixteenth as the shortest note value. Taking a look at example 1, you see all the various combinations and permutations that are possible within a single count.

This example is broken up into five lines. The first line (the figure of a single quarter rest) is a full count of complete silence. In other words, there are no strokes during the count. The second line shows all the possible figures when there is only one attack point within a count. Since a single count is comprised of four sixteenths, there are only four variations. A stroke can be placed on the first sixteenth, the second sixteenth, the third, or the fourth.

The number of rhythmic figures increases in the third line. There are six different rhythms that can be formed by placing an attack on any two points within the count. The fourth line shows the rhythms that can be created if three of the four sixteenths are played, and the last line is the only possible figure if all four sixteenths are to be attacked.

Notice that the first line and the last line are opposites. While line one shows the rhythm when no notes are played, line five is the figure that is used when all notes are played. Lines two and four are also related. Line two contains the figures that result when a single sixteenth note is struck, while line four includes figures when one sixteenth is a rest (or simply not attacked).

Even though there are only sixteen possible rhythms, there can be many more visual symbols. The third rhythm on the second line (eighth rest followed by an eighth note) may appear in several different disguises.

You might see this same figure as an eighth rest followed by a sixteenth note and a sixteenth rest, or as two sixteenth rests followed by an eighth note. It could even be two sixteenth rests with a sixteenth note and one more sixteenth rest! This rhythm’s notation can vary, but they all mean the same thing to a percussionist playing instruments without duration: to play a stroke on the “and” syllable of the count.

A quick way to master the additional figures would be to write out all the various ways that any particular rhythm might appear. Then, drill yourself on the visual symbols so that they become more familiar.

This lesson’s reading exercise utilizes rhythmic figures that have been covered in previous lessons, but in different time signatures. The time signature (also called meter) is indicated at the beginning of the first line, and the two numbers that make up the meter have different functions. The upper number indicates how many counts are in each bar (we’ll deal with the bottom number next lesson). So, if the upper number in the time signature is two, then there are two counts to each measure. In a meter of 3/4, the quarter note still receives the value of a full count, but there are now three counts to each measure. The most common meters are 4/4 (of course), 3/4, and 2/4. Less common meters are 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, and 10/4.

Why might a composer write in a meter of 3/4 instead of 4/4? Different meters have distinctive phrasings based upon their strong and weak counts. Every meter has a slightly different feel to it. If you listen to a waltz (almost always in 3/4), you can hear that the first count of each measure seems to have a stronger pulse or accent than the others. Triple meter has a phrasing of ONE two three, ONE two three. While 4/4 time also has its strongest pulse on the first count of each bar, this heavy stress happens every fourth count instead of every third (ONE two three four, ONE two three four). Isn’t 4/4 meter the same as two measures of 2/4 time? Not really, as the stresses happen twice as often in 2/4 than in 4/4 (ONE two, ONE two).

Different types of stressed and non-stressed rhythms have been used for centuries in poetry and speech as well as in music. The terms of iamb (weak-strong), trochee (strong-weak), dactyl (strong-weak-weak), and others may have a familiar ring depending on how much time has elapsed since your last high school English class. Three-four meter is dactyl, while four-four meter is trochee in character. But, how can a meter with four counts be trochee?

Rhythms can exist on several different levels at once. In addition to the strong and weak pulses of individual counts, combinations (or groupings) of counts can have their own pulse relationships. Four-four meter can be thought of as two groups of strong and weak pulses that are combined together. At the basic level, the four counts set up a pattern of strong-weak, strong-weak. But, at a deeper level, the second group of counts is actually a little weaker than the first grouping. This creates a phrasing of ONE two THREE four, ONE two THREE four. In other words, beat three is strong, but not as strong as beat one.

Meters such as 5/4 and 7/4 can be grouped in different ways depending on their musical material. Example 3 shows how a meter with five counts can be phrased as 3+2 or 2+3. A measure with seven counts (as shown in example 4) can be phrased as 3+2+2 or 2+2+3. In both phrasings, the dactyl style pulses are still retained (strong-weak-weak), but the lengths (or duration) of the strong and weak pulses are varied.

In those measures where the beams don’t offer clues to larger beat groupings, you can group counts together visually. For example, if 5/4 measures look similar to example 5, you can visually (and mentally) group the first two counts together and then the last three counts together. In essence, this is an interpretation of a bar of 2/4 with a bar of 3/4 for each written measure of music.

If you’re wondering how all this pulse business and discussion of poetic meters relates to music and drumming, think about the song “America” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I’m sure that you know the song… “I want to live in Amer-i-ca. OK by me in Amer-i-ca”. Even though each measure is the same length, their phrasings alternate between ONE two three FOUR five six, and ONE two THREE four FIVE six. It would be almost impossible to play this song in the correct style without thinking of these two pulse groupings.

In this lesson, there are four different time signatures used in the exercise: 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, and 7/4 (each separated by the double bar line). Since these rhythmic figures are familiar, playing them should present no real problems. As you practice, try to listen for the pulse points. Which are the stronger and weaker counts of the bar? By feeling which counts are stressed, the structure of the meter will become more clear, and the exercises will “click”.



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