Dansm's Musical Notation for Guitar
Measures and Meter
The definition of music is organization of pitches in time. Well, in my introduction to standard notation you learned the names of the pitches, so the "time" part will be covered here. This is perhaps the most complicated part of music, but there is less memorization. Good luck!
Music is divided into measures. Measures are marked by bar lines. The example below shows two measures of music. The time signature tells you how many beats occur in one measure:



Listen to this example (it's actually the opening to the Eagles' The Last Resort):

Measures are divided into beats. The time signature explains the number of beats in a measure and specifies how long each beat is. This is shown in the diagram below. In this measure a quarter note gets one beat (as shown by the bottom number: 4), and there are four beats in the measure (as shown by the top number: 4). Each stack of notes represents one beat:

Listen to this example:

OK, but what is a quarter note? Are there any other notes? You bet there are, and they are shown in the images below. Go through this list slowly because this is very important to music and rhythm. The general rule is this: the more black you see in a note, the shorter it is.

quarter note The quarter note is the basic unit of musical time in most popular music. In 4/4 time, the quarter note receives one beat (one-quarter of a measure), so this example shows 2 beats.
half note The half note is twice as long as the quarter note. In 4/4 time, the half note receives two beats (one-half of a measure), so this example shows 4 beats.
whole note The whole note is four times as long as the quarter note. In 4/4 time, the whole note receives four beats (one whole measure), so this example shows 8 beats.
eighth note The eighth note is half as long as the quarter note. In 4/4 time, the eighth note receives one-half of a beat (one-eighth of a measure), so this example shows 1 beat.
sixteenth note The sixteenth note is one-quarter as long as the quarter note. In 4/4 time, the sixteenth note receives one-quarter of a beat (one-sixteenth of a measure), so this example shows 1/2 beat.


Now I am going to use some examples of different rhythms in 4/4 time. These are all midi files and consist of only one note. Their only purpose is so you can hear rhythms. The first measure of each file gives four beats. During the next measure, the beat continues and the rhythm shown in the image is played. While you listen to these, make sure you go back and check the note values so you know why each example sounds the way it does.

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Up to now the only examples I have used have been in 4/4 time. However, there are many other common time signatures in popular music. This example shows just a few. They all follow the same pattern as shown above: top number shows the number of beats, and the bottom number tells what note receives one beat:




I have talked about note values and measures. What happens if you don't want to play? To indicate silence, musicians insert rest signs. These have the same values as their corresponding notes and are shown below:

quarter rest In 4/4 time, the quarter rest receives one beat (one-quarter of a measure).
half rest The half rest is twice as long as the quarter rest. In 4/4 time, the half rest receives two beats (one-half of a measure).
whole rest The whole rest is four times as long as the quarter rest. In 4/4 time, the whole rest receives four beats (one whole measure).
eighth rest The eighth rest is half as long as the quarter rest. In 4/4 time, the eighth rest receives one-half of a beat (one-eighth of a measure).
sixteenth rest The sixteenth rest is one-quarter as long as the quarter rest. In 4/4 time, the sixteenth rest receives one-quarter of a beat (one-sixteenth of a measure).


One final topic related to note and rest values: ties and dotted notes. If you tie two notes together, as shown in the diagram below, it means that you should hold the note for the full duration of both notes. In effect, the tie is the musical equivalent of the addition sign:



The first "note" in this example consists of three beats (a half note plus a quarter note). The second "note" consists of five beats (a quarter note plus a whole note). One thing to realize: rests cannot be tied.


A dotted note looks like one shown on the diagram below. The dot is very similar to a tie, with a very important difference. A dot means you should take the note length and play it for 1 times that length. So a dotted quarter note (normally one beat) should be played for 1 beats, and a dotted half note (normally two beats) should be played for 3 beats. This is shown below:



You may also see dotted rests, which operate on the same principle.
That does it for time signatures, measures, and meter. This is a very complicated part of music for newcomers, so spend a bit of time trying to figure this out, and it will help you a lot. Rhythm might be the most important part of music, so be sure you understand this. Good luck, have fun, keep playin', and if you have questions please e-mail me!
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1997 Daniel E. Smith. Last updated 4-25-98