Introduction: How Rhythm Works - a Lesson for Beginning Piano Students and Musicians

Rhythm is one of the main parts of music and learning how to play the piano.

Rhythm is totally different from learning your notes on the keyboard and on your sheet music.

You could say, that the notes in music are the words of the language...they tell us what the message is in the story that the piece is telling.

Rhythm, on the other hand, organizes those words or notes, to make sentences and paragraphs. They give structure to the message in the story, so it makes sense.

Let's take a look at the main parts of Rhythm so you can know how to organize the notes that you're learning and play them your music.

Step 1: What Is the 'Beat' in Music?

Put your hand over your heart. Do you feel it beating at a regular steady pace?

That's just what the 'Beat' is, in music. It's like the drumbeat in our playing. The Beat tells us when to play our notes and for how long.

Every piece of music has a steady flowing 'Beat' to it. The trick is, learning how to connect with that main Beat and play our notes in harmony with that Beat.

There are several parts of Rhythm that show us how to do that. One of them is Tempo. Let's go to the next step to learn what Tempo is and how it helps you understand the Beat in your piano music.

Step 2: What Is Tempo?

Tempo in music tells us how fast or how slow to play the piece.

It's just like using the speedometer in your car to make sure you are driving at the right speed.

Let's say that you have a measure of music with 4 notes in it, and 4 beats in it. (see image 2)

You know what the notes are, where to play them on the keyboard, and even what they are.

But how fast do you play them? This is what Tempo tells you.

Tempo doesn't take away the steadiness of the beat, just like your heart will still beat steadily if you are walking fast or walking slowly. It will match the speed of your walking by going either faster or slower, but it will still be beating at regular intervals.

There are a lot of different Tempos that piano music can be played in, and you'll begin to learn that particular vocabulary as you continue on in your studies.

Next, let's take a look at what Note Duration is.

Step 3: What Is Note Duration?

Note Duration simply means how long you play each note in your music.

This different from Tempo, so don't get them confused. Remember that Tempo tells us how fast to play the entire piece, or at least a section of a piece. It's more concerned with the big picture, not each individual note.

Note Duration is definitely about each individual note instead of the big picture focus. In fact, you can have several different Note Durations in one measure!

The 5 main types of Note Duration that all pianists learn in the beginning are:

  • Whole Notes = 4 beats/counts each
  • Half Notes = 2 beats/counts each
  • Quarter Notes = 1 beat/count each
  • Eighth Notes = 1/2 beat/count each
  • Sixteenth Notes = 1/4 beat/count each

Once you learn how many beats/counts each type of note gets, you'll be able to play them on the keyboard while counting them.

If you also notice, notes in music are grouped together with lines in between certain ones. These lines are called bar lines, and they show us where the measures are in our music. (see image 2 which shows a measure without any notes in it)

Measures help to organize the written music so that it is easier to read for the pianist and helps us to learn it easier. Measures can be numbered 1, 2 3, and so on throughout the entire piece; making it easy to go to a specific spot to work on something.

Each measure will have a specific number of beats in it. All of the different types of notes above can be placed in the same measure, as long as they add up to the number of beats that are supposed to be in each measure.

How do we know how many beats are in each measure? Go to the next step to learn about Time Signatures.

Step 4: What Is a Time Signature?

You guessed it!

A Time Signature tells us how many beats to count in each measure, and more!

The time signature is located at the beginning of the piece. There will almost always be 2 numbers, one on top of the other.

  • The top number tells us how many beats to count in each measure.
  • The bottom number tells us what kind of note gets that beat applied to it.

For example; a 4/4 Time Signature tells us that we need to count 4 counts in each measure and that the quarter note gets one beat.

In the second image, we have a 3/4 Time Signature. This means that we would count 3 beats in each measure and that the quarter note would get the beat.

Once you have learned how many beats each type of note gets, (whole note, 1/2 note, etc.,) you can put them together in different combinations so that together, they equal the amount of counts you need in each measure. This is how our piano music is written. You can combine quarter notes with 16th notes, 1/2 notes with 8th notes. Any combination works, as long as you still come up with the number of counts given in your Time Signature for each measure.

Now let's do a quick review of the basic components of Rhythm.

Step 5: Rhythm Review

  • The Beat gives us the big picture and provides us with the steady impulse that frames the notes into one large group that make up the whole piece.
  • Tempo tells us how fast or slow to play these beats throughout our piece.
  • Note Duration tells us how long each note is to be played. There can be any number of combinations of different note durations in a measure.
  • Measures group the notes into small segments that make the music easier to read and practice on. Each measure must have a specific number of beats in it.
  • Time Signatures tell us how many beats to count in measure and what kind of note gets the beat.

These main ingredients make up what we call Rhythm in music. Rhythm is the body of music; bringing notes from an unorganized and unrecognizable form into a visible structured format, so that it all makes sense.

Are you ready to practice with me and learn some of these key rhythmic techniques? Go to the last step for some real-time rhythm practice!

Step 6: Practice With Me!

This video takes you through each aspect of Rhythm discussed here plus you can practice with me on your own keyboard to get some first-hand experience in learning Note Durations, different Time Signatures, how to identify measures and bar lines, and much more.