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:
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:
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:
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:The 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:Here 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 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.
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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