And so we come to the third edition of our blogs about reading music. In the last two, we covered the C-Major scale and the Minor scale, which hopefully gave you a better idea of how to read notes on a stave. We also showed you how to find all of these notes on a piano, keyboard, and guitar. If you’re a drummer, you can find some helpful tips for reading drum notation in our blog, Drum Notation 101. In this blog though, we’re going to cover the mystery surrounding rhythm, tempo, and measure. Of course, if you understand all of this already and want to dive a little deeper, then feel free to check out our written-for-purpose music books.

Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure


In Short

What’s the difference between measure and rhythm? Or between measure and tempo? First, we’ll give you a quick explanation of each before going a little deeper.


Since it’s the easiest example, have a listen to pretty much any pop song that has a clear beat and you’ll immediately be able to count along. With most pop songs, you’ll be able to count along to the beat up to four – ONE – two – three – four, ONE – two – three – four, … Most pop, rock, and pretty much all electronic dance music follows this count of four. Sometimes, you’ll also come across beats that follow a count of three: ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three, … A really clear example of these three-beat songs is a waltz – mm-pa-pa, mm-pa-pa. The measure therefore, is based on this count – the count of the beat.


A more jolly sounding song will usually sound faster than a slow, maybe sad ballad. This speed is determined by the tempo. To get an idea of how tempo is measured, simply look at the hands of a clock. The second-hand, or longer hand is ticking through the seconds within a minute and therefore moves through 60 ticks, or beats per minute. In short, we can say that it moves at 60 bpm (with ‘bpm’ standing for ‘beats per minute’). Double the speed and the tempo becomes 120 bpm. Sometimes, the tempo can be found noted at the top left of a piece of sheet music and using convenient tools like a metronome can help us understand exactly how fast a particular tempo is in practice.


So, now that we have a basic understanding of measure and tempo, what’s rhythm? Take a simple song (and a timeless classic) like The Wheels On the Bus. You can quite comfortably count four beats along to it, giving you a measure of ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four, … While the tempo is simply the speed at which the measure is repeated. By following the measure and tempo, everyone can sing along in time together. But where does the rhythm fit in? Rhythm is definitely different to the measure since it refers to the use of longer and shorter notes – so the way in which the song is sung or the melody is played. Listen closely to the difference between the line, ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’, and the line, ‘all day long’. The first line is full of quite short notes, while the second line has fewer but longer notes, even though both lines follow the same measure and tempo. This is because the two lines follow a different rhythm. A composer or songwriter can therefore make a note as long or short as they want, and when it comes to writing a rhythm into a piece of music notation, there is a very special way of doing this.

Rhythm: Note Values and Rest

Below, you can see the most common way of writing note values: the whole note (Semibreve), half note (Minim), quarter note (Crotchet), and eighth note (Quaver). A half note lasts around two times as long as a quarter notes, and so on.

Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure

But how long should a whole note last? When reading or writing music, this is something you choose yourself. So, if you decide that a whole note lasts for two seconds, then a half note will last for one second, a quarter note will last for half a second and so on. The faster the music is played, the shorter the notes will be.

Things to note!

  • Sometimes, you’ll see a dot placed next to the ‘ball’ of a written note (which can be seen in the image below). This means that the note is lengthened by half.
    • A quarter note with a dot = a quarter note lengthened by half: a quarter note + an eighth
    • A half note with a dot = a half note + a quarter note.
  • We also have sixteenth notes (with two little flags sticking out of the top) and thirtysecond notes (with three little flags), and so forth.
  • The notes written with little flags, like the eighths, are often notated in groups. The little flags of the single note are replaced with thick bars to group the different notes together (see the image below).


Well known measures or time signatures include 4/4 , 3/4, and 6/8. Please note: These are not fractions! In fact, the whole system time signatures is far from logical and has little to do with maths, so try not to take this road in your head.

One thing we can say with certainty is that the lower number (so the ‘4’ of 3/4) refers to the kind of note; a quarter note for example, while the upper number refers to how many of these notes the measure can include. For example, a 3/4 measure is made up of three quarter notes. When counting along to the ‘beat’ of the measure, most of the time, you’ll actually be counting along to these notes – so, in the case of a 3/4 measure (like a waltz), you are counting three quarter notes per measure.

The lower number: the 4 stands for a quarter note (crotchet).
The upper number: the 3 means that the measure ends after three quarter notes (crotchets).
You count ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, … along to a 3/4 measure.

4/4-measure (sometimes notated as a ‘C’):
The lower number: the 4 stands for a quarter note (crotchet).
The upper number: the 4 means that the measure ends after four quarter notes (crotchets).
You count ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four, … along to a 4/4 measure.

The lower number: the 8 stands for an eighth note (quaver).
The upper number: the 6 mans the measure ends after six eighth notes (quavers).
You count ONE, two, three, four, five, six, … when counting along to a 6/8 measure.

Please note:

  • The measure or time signature is always stated at the beginning of a piece of music or a song (next to the key).
  • The end of each measure is indicated by a vertical line or ‘barline’ that divides up the stave into measures.

More About 6/8 and 3/4

It’s safe to say that the classic Queen song, We are the Champions, is pretty well known. Listen to it below and you’ll notice that you can count along with it in groups of three (One, two, three, ONE, two, three, …). Now, you might think to yourself, ‘Aha! A ¾ measure!’ But listen again and you should notice that on every sixth count, there is an extra, more prominent accent and a less prominent accent on the fourth count. Therefore: ONE, two, three, four, five, six. We call this a 6/8 measure.

Why Not 6/4?

So, why don’t we just call 6/8, 6/4? Sure, in some way it makes little difference if you say 6/4, 6/8, 6/2, since in principle, it’s all the same. As we’ve already figured out, note values have nothing to do with speed. Independently of the chosen tempo (the number of beats per minute), a note can be long or short – to the point where an eighth note in a slow song has the same duration as a quarter note in a fast song. But, if we were to write the notation for We Are the Champions, then we would write it in a 6/8 measure. And why would we do this? Out of pure habit – nothing to do with logic or maths. It’s simply the case that it’s tradtional to play a 6/8 measure faster than a 6/4 measure. Also, it’s actually quite common to divide a 6/8 measure into two groups of three and then count it in twos: 1 ( * * ) 2 ( * * ), 1 ( * * ) 2 ( * * ), …


Here are a few melodies written in different measures. First, take a look at the top melody and note the values of the measure at the beginning of the stave. So here, each measure is the length of three quarter notes. This is also true of the other two melodies and in fact, any notated measure so that the melody written with a measure of 4/4 means that each measure is the length of four quarter notes, and so on.

Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure


Try to tap out the rhythm below by tapping your finger or a pen on the tabletop. Maybe use a metronome set to a nice and slow tempo to help you keep time or install a metronome app on your phone. And as you tap out the notation below, remember that a 4/4 measure has the duration of four quarters notes, and that each quarter note is one click of your metronome. Eighth notes is half a click, whole notes are four ticks, and so on.

Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure

So, if you’re ready, here’s the rhythm:

click       click       click       click

click       click       click click click click

Want to try out some other exercises? Type ‘sheet music songs’ into Google and you’ll find more than enough to get you started. Try to pick out the sheet music for simple-looking songs that you’ve never heard before or flick through a music book. If this is all brand new to you, don’t worry! There are plenty of beginner books available that will take you through reading music step by step and, so you can practice your reading in comfort, you might need a good music stand. Try to enjoy playing as much as you can as you learn and good luck!

Also See …

» All Music Books
» Metronomes
» Musical Instruments
» Music Stands
» All Music Books
» Manuscript Paper
» Notation Software

» Drumnotation 101: Tips & tricks for Beginners
» Songwriting Tips for Beginners
» How To Tune Your Guitar Or Bass
» How To Record a Great-Sounding Demo
» What Do You Need To Produce Music?
» Recording and Amplifying Vocals for Beginners

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