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Session 7: Writing rhythms

Note types

Written music uses a very small set of signs to show how notes relate to the beat and to each other. We’ll start by looking at three of them.

You’ll regularly see notes that look like this:

crotchet_up  or crotchet_down

They have a black filled circle (called the note-head) and a stem that goes either up or down. Depending on where you are in the world people might call this type of note a crotchet – for example that’s what it’s called in the UK. In other English-speaking countries (e.g. America) people call it a quarter note.

Then there are notes that look like this:

minim_up or minim_down

There’s an unfilled note-head and a stem going either up or down. This type of note is called a minim (UK etc) or a half note (America etc).

Finally (for now) consider this type of note:

quaver_up or quaver_down

Like a crotchet (or quarter note) this has a black note-head and a stem, but it also has a “tail”. This is a quaver (UK name) or eighth note (American name).

What’s important is how these are all related. In Session 6 we saw how the beat stays steady and constant, and how the rhythm of the nursery rhymes we looked at worked. Some beats had two notes, some had one. Sometimes a note lasted for two beats. Using crotchets, minims and quavers we can write this down. That’s essential, because a lot of music has no words so we have to have some other way of telling musicians the rhythm we want them to play.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re writing down a tune. You choose one of the note types to represent one beat (in other words to represent one footstep if you’re relating this to walking). It doesn’t matter which type of note you use – you just need to let the player know your choice (there’s more coming later on how you do that).

The most common thing is to show a beat as a crotchet (musicians refer to this as a “crotchet beat”). So if you wanted to write down the rhythm of your footsteps  – one for each beat – it would look like this:


 A minim is always twice as long as a crotchet. So if a crotchet lasts for one beat, a minim will last two beats. Easy! Here’s how that looks for Good King Wenceslas, which we looked at In Session 6.


There’ll be an example with quavers later, but for now let off the fireworks… we have a way of writing down rhythm and relating it to the beat!


To be honest though, it’s not the easiest thing to look at. Imagine trying to find your way through a page full of notes written like that! Luckily we’re not the first to have spotted that problem, and it’s been fixed.

Head for the bar

We humans love a good pattern. We search them out and find them everywhere. The way musical beats are organised is no different – we like them grouped into regular patterns. For example a lot of music has regular groups of four beats. It doesn’t have to be four – you can find music with regular groups of three beats, or two or any number.

You might wonder how beats can form a pattern as they’re all the same length. The pattern is formed not by changing the length of the beats but by changing the emphasis that each beat is given.

It’s like the way we emphasise certain syllables in speech. Words and sentences can completely change their meaning just by changing the way you stress the syllables, and we do it naturally, without having to think too much. For example the word “entrance” can have two completely different meanings depending on how it’s stressed:


Try saying this sentence out loud:

“Give me something hot that I can eat without delay.”

Ignore the possibility that someone kind is about to interrupt you with a bowl of soup. The natural way we stress that sentence looks something like this:sentence-stress1The syllables form a pattern of four beats. The first gets a strong emphasis or stress; the second is weak; the third is stressed slightly, not as strongly as the first; the fourth again is weak. This happens quite naturally – we don’t have to think about it or make a special effort to exaggerate the stronger syllables. I’ve put a vertical line | around each group of four to mark them off clearly.

A group of beats arranged in a pattern like this is called a “bar”. Traditionally, written music also marks off the bars with a vertical line: it’s called a bar line.

Here’s an important point to remember. The pattern is created by the beats, not by the number of syllables (i.e. not by the rhythm). You can see that in the following sentence:sentence-stressnumber2Here the rhythm of the syllables is more random. Some beats have two syllables, some have one. But still there is an underlying pattern of four beats, stressed 1 – very strong, 2 – weak, 3 – strong, 4 – weak

Try this

Try working out and writing down the rhythm of a well known nursery rhyme (they’re useful because so many people know them). Let’s choose Pease Pudding Hot.

Pease pudding hot, Pease pudding cold,
Pease pudding in the pot nine days old.
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot – nine days old.

Simply download this worksheet and write in the correct rhythm above each syllable. The first bar is done for you as an example.

Pease Pudding Hot excerpt

You can see that the first word has one syllable – Pease – and it lasts for one beat; so it’s shown as a crotchet. The second beat has two syllables forming the word pud-ding; the rhythm is therefore written as two quavers. Then the last word – hot – lasts for two beat, so it’s written as a minim.

When you’re done you can check your work here

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Session 6: Beat and Rhythm

Walking the beat

Imagine you’re walking down the street keeping a steady pace. Your shoes make a faint slapping noise as they land, or maybe a clicking, crunching or tapping noise depending on what the soles (and the pavement or road) are made of.

Left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right…
An even, regular slap (or click, or crunch, or tap).

You’re feeling good. The sun is shining, there’s a warm, gentle breeze… you’re having a good day.

For some reason a song remembered from your childhood comes into your mind and you start singing quietly to yourself as you walk along.

“London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down
My fair lady.”

All the time your feet just carry on with their even steps, and your singing keeps in time with them.

There is no effort needed to do this. It just happens all by itself, the melody and the footsteps in perfect time with each other. Of course the footsteps themselves aren’t part of the tune, but the tune fits itself around the footsteps. Why? Because it has a beat. Most music does. Whenever you find yourself tapping your foot to a tune, or clapping along to it, or dancing, or just bobbing your head up and down you are moving with the beat, the underlying pulse.

Some music is written especially to exploit this feature – marches for example. If you’ve ever seen a band marching to a piece of music you’ll have seen how their footsteps mark the beat of the music. And in case you haven’t seen a band marching take a look at this clip to see what I mean.

The music has a clear and steady beat, and the musicians are marching in strict time to it. You may also be able to hear the sound of the big bass drum which is being struck on each beat.

Ever heard someone count in a group of musicians (in other words calling out “one, two, three, four” before they start)? That’s not just a fancy way of saying “ready, steady, go”. The count is in time with the beat, so it lets the musicians know how fast the music will be and where the beats fall.


Some people confuse the words “rhythm” and “beat”. They are not the same thing – though sometimes they might seem to be. For example, imagine you’re singing the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas as we walk down that street again. (Not so warm and sunny now – Christmas is coming…)

Good King Wenceslas

Pretty straightforward – every syllable falls on a beat. But the word “out” lasts not just one beat but two. And look at the word “Stephen” – both syllables  also have two beats each.

Let’s go back to the nursery rhyme we started with.

London Bridge is falling down

This is a different picture. Now the tune means that some beats have two syllables, some have one, and the last word is stretched across two beats.

The beat remains steady, and the notes of the tune are set in relation to it. The way the notes are arranged against the steady beat is called the rhythm of the music. There may be one note to a beat, two notes to a beat, three notes, four notes etc. Or a note might last for one beat, for two beats, for three beats etc. And even the simplest music is made up of a combination of these different note lengths, as we can see in London Bridge is Falling Down. That’s one of the main ways of making it interesting.

You only have to walk down the street singing London Bridge in time to your footsteps to understand the difference between rhythm and beat. In fact I strongly recommend that you try it.

You can picture the beat as the steady footstep of a parent, while the rhythm is like the running skipping and jumping of a young child walking alongside. Or imagine that the marching band in the video had a group of dancers moving along with it – the foosteps of the band are the beat – steady, regular – while the footsteps of the dancers are like the rhythm of a melody.

Try this

Try singing another nursery rhyme while you’re walking – Yankee Doodle.

Then download this worksheet and, above the correct syllables, mark in where the beats (i.e. your footsteps) fall.  Here’s how:

It’s traditional in marching bands to lead off with the left foot. So the first beat is marked by the left foot, the second by the right etc. That’s why you sometimes hear the band leader shout out “Left, Right, Left, Right”, not “Right, Left, Right, Left” (you can hear this in the marching video above, around 1:20).

So, write an “L” to show where the first beat falls, an “R” above the second beat, “L” above the third beat, and “R” above the fourth and so on. To make it clearer the first four beats have already been filled in.

When you’re done you can check your work here

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Session 5: Playing the G Major Scale

Session 4 was all about the way that major scales are built. (If you haven’t read Session 4 it would be good to do so before carrying on.) It showed the pattern of tones and semitones between the notes:


That’s useful if you simply want to play up and down on a single string (which, by the way, is a brilliant exercise to keep doing).

But to play flowing, connected lines we want to find ways of playing across the strings as well, without the hand jumping around too much.

Taking a scale of G major, it’s easy to see how this can be done. Start with the open G, the 3rd string. We already know that we’ll find the next note, A, at the second fret.


The next note is B. We could go up another two frets for this. But rather than stay on the 3rd string we can skip over to the 2nd string, open B. The next two notes, C and D, are also played on the 2nd string, at frets one and three.Ex2_150701_Play_Major_Scales

E is the next note, and it could be played two frets above the D we’re now on. But the 1st string will also give us an E, and we don’t have to change hand position to play it. So we skip to the first string, where we can also find F# and G at the second and third frets.Ex3_150701_Play_Major_Scales

And that’s it! A one-octave scale of G major in open position. All we need now is to decide which fingers to use. The most efficient and obvious way to do this is to apply the “one finger per fret” guideline.

  • 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret
  • 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 1st finger plays the first fret
  • No finger needed for the open strings (!)


Scale practice tips:

  1. When you practice this scale, don’t always start from the low G and work your way up and down – it’s a good idea to start from the high G and work down and up.
  2. Get into the habit of saying the name of each note at the same time as playing it. That way you quickly start to know your way around the fretboard.
  3. Better still, SING the name of each note as you play it. That really helps to develop your musical skills. You’ll soon recognise the sound of a major scale as easily as you recognise the sound of your own name!

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Session 4: Major scales

For a video explaining this lesson, click here or scroll to the end

In Session 2 we looked at the natural notes on the second string, starting from C:

Natural notes on the B string

Did that sequence of notes have a familiar sound to you? What you heard was the sound of a MAJOR SCALE. When you start at C and play all the natural notes in order you create a C Major scale.

The major scale is pretty fundamental. In the West most of our music relates somehow to this particular pattern of notes.

  • Question: What makes a major scale sound the way it does?
  • Answer: The pattern of tones and semitones (i.e. two-fret and one-fret steps).

Here’s the pattern for a major scale:

Step In C Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 C – D Tone
Notes 2 – 3 D – E Tone
Notes 3 – 4 E – F Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 F – G Tone
Notes 5 – 6 G – A Tone
Notes 6 – 7 A – B Tone
Notes 7 – 8 B – C Semitone

So, that’s Tone-Tone-Semitone, Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone.
Or T-T-S, T-T-T-S


It just happens that in C major you don’t need to sharpen or flatten any of the notes to follow that pattern. How about building a major scale starting from other notes? Here’s how it looks starting from G – in other words a scale of G major.


Step In G Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 G – A Tone
Notes 2 – 3 A – B Tone
Notes 3 – 4 B – C Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 C – D Tone
Notes 5 – 6 D – E Tone
Notes 6 – 7 E – F# Tone
Notes 7 – 8 F# – G Semitone

Notice that instead of F we need an F# to keep to the pattern. In the scale of G major, you sharpen the ‘F’s.

Here’s the same pattern starting on F – the scale of F major.


Step In F Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 F – G Tone
Notes 2 – 3 G – A Tone
Notes 3 – 4 A – Bb Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 Bb – C Tone
Notes 5 – 6 C – D Tone
Notes 6 – 7 D – E Tone
Notes 7 – 8 E – F Semitone

This time following the pattern means you have to play a Bb rather than a B. In the scale of F major, flatten the ‘B’s. There’s a critical point here: Every letter name from A through G must be used, and used just once (ignoring octave repeats such as the F at the start and the end in the example above). That’s why in F major the fourth note is called Bb, not A#. And in G major the seventh note is F#, not Gb.

Here’s a last example of the major scale pattern, this time making a scale of D major.


Step In D Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 D – E Tone
Notes 2 – 3 E – F# Tone
Notes 3 – 4 F# – G Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 G – A Tone
Notes 5 – 6 A – B Tone
Notes 6 – 7 B – C# Tone
Notes 7 – 8 C# – D Semitone

In D major both the F and C have to be raised to become F# and C#.

Try working out the major scale that starts on the open A string. Just follow the pattern (T-T-S, T-T-T-S) and write the note names down .

Now do the same thing on either of the E strings.

Once you’ve done that you can check your work here.

Check out the video


The major scale is at the heart of western music, and understanding how it works, being able to play it from any starting note, and recognising its sound will all be invaluable as you explore other aspects of music. We’re also starting to clear up some of the mystery about note names – when (and why) the note between A and B should be called Ab and when it should be G# for instance. Just make sure that you have the sequence Tone-Tone-Semitone, Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone burned into your memory!


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Check out our awesome guitar teaching website, where you can also book long-distance lessons by Skype or Zoom



Session 3: What key are we in?

What does “the key” of music mean?

Often as not when musicians get together to play you’ll hear the question: “What key is this music in?” But even when you know the answer, what does it actually mean?

The key of the music isn’t necessarily the first chord you play. “The first chord is A minor, so we must be in A minor. Right?” Wrong! You might be in A minor, but there’s no certainty about it.

Try playing these chords in order:


Or listen to them by clicking on the play button below:

When the G chord comes there’s a clear sense of arrival, of being home. G is the “home” chord. We’re in the key of G major – even though G wasn’t the first chord. (Don’t forget that calling the chord “G” is actually a form of shorthand; the full name of the chord is  “G major” – that’s implied when you see the letter name by itself. And that’s why the key is called G major, though again it’s often simply implied: “OK guys, we’re doing Baa Baa Black Sheep – in G”.)

In most music there’s one specific note or chord like this that gives the sense of being “home”. When you’re away from it you feel a tension. Returning to it feels like arriving back at base. That note or chord is the “key centre”.

Here’s an example in a minor key:


Here the A minor chord feels like the destination we were heading for. It’s our “home” chord, and the key is A minor.

Some short pieces of music may just stay centred around one base – in other words they stay in the same key throughout. But it’s common for pieces of music to add variety and interest by having sections that are in a different key for a while before coming back to the home key.

Some music even starts in a different key before establishing home (good examples are Beethoven’s 1st symphony and Jimi Hendrix’s song “Angel”). The music might even end in a new and different key if the composer wants to create a particular effect, but that’s unusual on shorter pieces (and even on longer ones). Generally, if the music is mostly in say A major but some sections are in a different key you would describe the whole piece as being in A major. And the pull of the key centre is so strong that the music comes back to it by the end. The home key is like the sun with its massive gravity. All the music seems to revolve around it and get swept up by it.

Why you need to know what key you’re in

Organising music around a key centre – what’s called the principle of tonality – is so much a part of Western music and feels so natural that you can play and even write music without being particularly aware of it, in the same way that a child can learn to speak without consciously studying grammar and vocabulary. But if you want to understand how music works, to develop your ability to work with it, to hone your craft, it’s essential knowledge. A child can get away without knowing about grammar, but if you want to be involved with writing in a serious way you need to dig in deep and get to grips with it. It’s the same with music –  you’re going to remain at a very simplistic level if you don’t understand the basic materials you’re working with.

At the very least, if you play music that’s entirely written (e.g. for classical guitar) knowing the key means that you know which notes to sharpen or flatten.

If you play music that’s not written down you need to know the key. Knowing the key tells you which chords and notes will work well together. You get familiar with the way they sound, so it tells you what chords and notes you’re hearing in your head before you play them. It tells you how to use more distantly related chords and notes. Without this you’re shooting in the dark.

Do you compose music? Being aware of the key opens those same possibilities for developing your ideas. What are the chords and notes that the listener will be expecting? How can I meet or upset those expectations? If you’ve ever felt stuck on the same few chords and don’t know how to progress you’ll see how useful that is. It’s like a roadmap – you don’t have to follow any particular route but at least you’ll be aware of the options.

And though it’s less immediately obvious there’s also a deep connection between tonality – the use of key centres – and the structure or form of music. Extended pieces use the principle of tonality to differentiate one section of music from another. For example a typical classical sonata movement will have a group of themes in the home key, followed by a group of themes in a related but different key. It will then move through a range of more or less related keys before settling back and playing all the themes in the home key. It’s a real journey, using the different key centres to help give a sense of direction.

The next session looks at the notes in major keys, and how the key defines which notes need to be natural, sharp or flat. Or – another way of saying the same thing – how the choice of notes defines the key.

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Session 2. Sharps and flats

For a video explaining this lesson, click here or scroll to the end

Session 1 looked at how to find the natural notes on the fretboard. As a reminder, the distance between adjacent natural notes is two frets, except between E-F and B-C, where the distance is one fret. Here’s how that looks on the second string.

Natural notes on the B string

Instead of talking about the “distance” between notes, it’s usual to call it the “interval“.

It’s okay to think of intervals as a number of frets if you’re a guitarist. But that’s not much use when you’re talking to other musicians who don’t play the guitar. To describe the interval between, say, C-D or between G-A to a non-guitarist you don’t talk about “two frets” – the agreed label for that interval is a “tone“. What about the interval of one fret? That’s called a “semitone” – literally half a tone.

Ex2_150216_tone and semitone

So to redefine our observation from Session 1 there’s an interval of a tone between most adjacent natural notes, and a semitone between E-F and B-C.

Where there’s an interval of a tone between natural notes, there are notes we don’t yet have a name for.

Ex3_150216_sharps and flats

These notes take their name from the neighbouring natural notes. You can think of them as a semitone (i.e. one fret) higher than the natural note immediately below. They take the name of that natural note with the word “sharp” added. So you can call the note on the second fret of the second string “C sharp“. You can call the note on the fourth fret “D sharp” and so on.

There’s a special sign used as a short cut for the word “sharp“. It looks like a hashtag: Ex5_150216_sharp signThe missing notes can now be filled in:

Ex4_150216_sharps and flats

But those five notes each have an alter ego, an alias, another name. That’s because you can also think of them as one fret lower than than the natural note immediately above. Now they take the name of that natural note with the word “flat” added. So you can also call the note on the second fret of the second string “D flat“. You can call the note on the fourth fret “E flat” and so on.

The special sign for the word “flat” is a bit like a lower case “b”: Ex6_150216_flat sign

Here are those notes now spelt as flats:


It may seem strange that each of these “between” notes can have two names, and you might feel uncertain which one to use. Usually only one version is correct, and it depends on things such as the key the music is in. But when you simply want to refer to one of these notes out of context it really doesn’t matter which name you use.

Try this

What is the note at the 3rd fret of the G string?

We know from Session 1 that we have A at the second fret and B at the fourth fret. But the third fret isn’t one of the ‘natural’ notes:

3rd fret G

We now know that the name of this note can be A# or Bb, depending on circumstances. And we can now work out the names of all the notes on the G string:

G string chromatic notes

We’ve looked at the notes on the B string and the G string. Try working up to the twelfth fret and back down on the remaining strings, naming every note. You can use the ‘sharp’ name going up and the ‘flat’ name coming down to keep things manageable.

Here’s a tip that might help. Remember from Session 1 that B and C are only one fret apart, as are E and F? Because of that, in this exercise B won’t have a sharp version and nither will E (i.e. we won’t have B# and E#). And C and F won’t have a flat version (i.e. we won’t have Cb and Fb).

Notice I said “in this exercise…”. We’ll see in  a later session that we will sometimes need to use those names – we just don’t need to right now. Like knowing whether to use the ‘sharp’ name or the ‘flat’ name, that’s mostly driven by the key that the music is in. And the key of music is something we’ll start to explore in the next session.

Check out the video


Provided you first orientate yourself to identify the natural notes on the guitar, identifying the sharps and flats is easy. If you’re a semitone (one fret) higher than a natural note you know, use that note name and add sharp. If you’re a semitone (one fret) lower than a natural note you know, use that note name and add flat. Right now don’t worry too much about which of the two names you use.

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Session 1. Find the natural notes anywhere on the fretboard

For a video explaining this lesson, click here or scroll to the end

Many guitarists aren’t too sure about the notes on the higher parts of the fretboard, especially on the 4th and 5th strings. But it’s a simple matter to put that right if you just focus on the natural notes – i.e. ignore flats and sharps for now. Then you’re left with just seven notes to think about:


Here’s the secret that makes finding notes a breeze: with only two exceptions each note is two frets higher than the one before it. So…  if you’re on A and you want to go to the next note, B, just go up two frets.

Ex1_150214_natural notes

You’ve got to agree, that’s easy!

How about those exceptions? First B to C. Those notes are just one fret apart. Second E to F. Same thing, they’re one fret apart.

You now have enough knowledge to see where all the natural notes are on the fretboard. For example let’s look at the natural notes going up the second string for an octave, starting at the first fret.

You probably already know that our starting note is a C. The note after C is D. That’s not one of our exceptions, so it’s two frets higher:

Ex2_150214_natural notes

We now go from D to E. Again, it’s not one of our two exceptions, so we go up two frets:

Ex3_150214_natural notes

Next move is from E to F. Now, that is one of our exceptions, so we go up just one fret this time:

Ex4_150214_natural notes

Next we go from F to G, then from G to A, then from A to B. These are all moves of two frets, Finally we go B to C – as one of our exceptions that’s just one fret:

Ex5_150214_natural notes.fbd

As you can see, all the gaps are two frets, except B to C and E to F.

Now pick up your guitar and work out the natural notes on each string in the same way. Or print off this workbook and pencil them in (the second sheet gives you the correct answers to compare with your version.)

Make it easy on yourself

There are a couple of shortcuts that can speed up the process once you’ve got the basic process sorted out.

1. Work up from the fifth fret

Most guitarist are aware of the “fifth fret tuning method”. The fifth fret of the sixth (E) string gives the note A, so you can tune the A string to it. You can then tune the fourth (D) string to the fifth fret of the A string, because that gives you the note D. And so on. The only exception is when you tune the second (B) string, which requires you to play the fourth fret of the G string.


Are you already very familiar with this? If so these notes can act as your starting point – you don’t have to work everything out starting at the opening string.

For example, to find the notes B and C on the sixth string start at the fifth fret – that’s A, so B will be two frets higher at the seventh fret and C will be one fret higher again at the eighth fret.

Or, what’s the note at the sixth fret of the second (B) string? Well we know the note at the fifth fret is E. After E would come F, which would be one fret higher, which would be the sixth fret, which is what we want – so ‘F’ is the answer!

2. Work down from the twelfth fret

Once you’re really cooking with this you can even work backwards, especially when you know that the note at the twelfth fret of any string has the same name as the open string.

Example: what notes are at the tenth and ninth frets of the third (G) string?

Work down from 12th fret

We know the twelfth fret gives the note G. Working down, the note below G would be F, and the notes should be two frets apart – that takes care of the tenth fret. Before F would be E, at one fret’s distance, so that’s the ninth fret identified as well.

Check out the video


Once you’re familiar with the basic idea this is easier than you might have thought. Of course there are still a lot of frets we haven’t yet named and identified – the ones with sharp or flat in their names. That’s the subject of the next session.

Enjoy finding your way around the guitar!

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