What are the Music Rhythm Symbols?

There are basically 3 categories of music rhythm symbols.

      1) The Notes
      2) The Rests
      3) The Time Signatures

This page focuses on:

  • what these symbols are
  • how many counts the symbols get
  • how to use them in the context of music. 

If you're not really sure what all this rhythm stuff is, check out the what is rhythm page first. Now onto the symbols. 

Foundational Music Rhythm Symbols You Need To Know (Video)

Music Rhythm Symbols: The Notes

First we'll start with the notes. Each note is written a specific way to let you know how long to hold it. Think of it in terms of a drum beat. Each beat of the drum is a count. You need to hold certain notes down for certain amounts of counts. 

Now before I get into which notes get how many counts there is one thing I need to point out. This is generally how we teach how many counts a note gets but it's not true in all circumstances.

We have time signatures that tell us which note gets 1 beat. And from there, we know how many counts all the other notes get.

We are going to learn these notes in the context of 4/4 time or any time signature with a 4 on the bottom. (There's more on time signatures further down the page.)

First Notes To Learn

A Quarter Note

quarter note

Name: quarter note

Beats: 1

Half Note

half note

Name: half note

Beats: 2

Dotted Half Note

dotted half note

Name: dotted half note

Beats: 3

Whole Note

whole note

Name: whole note

Beats: 1

Next Notes To Learn

The notes above are all "beginner" notes. When teaching piano to kids, we stay on the above notes for sometimes 2 years before moving onto the ones below. Adults usually learn these next notes within their first year of piano lessons. 

Dotted Quarter Note

dotted quarter note

Name: dotted quarter note

Beats: 1 1/2

Eighth Note

8th noteThis is one 8th note by itself.
2 8th notes8th notes can be joined together with a bar across the top.

Name: eighth note (8th note)

Beats: 1/2

Note: 2 eighth notes = 1 beat.

Sixteenth Note

16th note in musicThis is one 16th note by itself.
16th notes16th notes can be joined together with two bars across the top.

Name: sixteenth note (16th note)

Beats: 1/4

Note: 4 sixteenth notes = 1 beat

Note: there are faster note than these. What happens is more flags or bars are added. 

32nd notes have 3 flags off a single note or 3 bars across the top. 

64th notes have 4 flags off a single note or 4 bars across the top. 

Music Rhythm Symbols: The Rests

The next of the music rhythm symbols to learn are rests. Rests are the places where you don't play or hold a note. They are places of silence. 

(And again, we are measuring out our beats as if we were using a time signature with a 4 at the bottom).

Whole Rest

whole rest

Name: whole rest

Beats: 4

Note: This rest can also get 3 beats in 3/4 time. It is used to fill a bar of music. 

Half Rest

half rest

Name: half rest

Beats: 2

Dotted Quarter Rest

dotted quarter rest

Name: dotted quarter rest

Beats: 1 1/2

Quarter Rest

quarter rest

Name: quarter rest

Beats: 1

8th Rest

8th rest

Name: eighth rest (8th rest)

Beats: 1/2

16th Rest

16th rest

Name: sixteenth rest (16th rest)

Beats: 1/4

What Does A Dot Mean Beside A Note?

As you may have noticed, a note and a rest can have a dot beside it. And any note can have a dot beside it. 

To figure out the timing of these notes, you use this formula:

1. How many counts does the note - without the dot attached - get?

For example, with a dotted quarter note, the quarter note gets 1 beat in 4/4 time. 

2. Divide that number (the amount of beats) in half. 

A quarter note divided in half is 1/2 a beat. 

3. Add part 1 and 2 together. The note plus half of it's value. That's your answer!

For example, 1 + 1/2 = 1 1/2. 

Time Signatures

The final music rhythm symbols are time signatures. There is a full and complete page on time signatures but I'll also give a great summary here. 

The most common time signature is 4/4 time - which is hard to type out as it should look. It should be one number on top of the other. This one is also known as "C" (which stands for common time). 

The different numbers mean

4/4 time signature meaning

The top 4 means that there are 4 beats in a bar. A bar or measure of music has 2 lines on either side.

The bottom 4 means that a quarter note gets one beat.

The bottom number can be different. It can be a 2 which would mean a half note gets 1 beat. (Then a whole note would get 2 beats.)

If the bottom number is 8, then an 8th note gets one beat and a quarter note gets 2 beats. 

The top number always means the number of beats in a bar.

You can get a full explanation of time signatures in music and see a variety of examples here

Practice Your Music Rhythm Symbols:

Music Rhythm Games

Use these interactive games to learn more about rhythm.  We have created lots of games which are easy to use. 

Those are the basic music rhythm symbols. If you want to find out how to use them, check out the rhythm lessons next or how to play rhythm patterns with piano chords. Happy playing!

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