What is Rhythm? A Complete Guide

All music that has ever been written is some combination of sound and time. You can’t have music without something (a singer, a violin, a stick) producing sound, and these sounds have to be made over a period of time.

The main aspect of music that deals with time is rhythm. It is, maybe behind melody, the most used word when talking about music. Every single piece of music you hear on the radio has a rhythm to it. 

In this article, we’ll give you a complete guide to rhythm – what it is, how it can be defined, and how it’s used in music. Let’s get started by looking at what is rhythm in music?

Definition of Rhythm in Music

Rhythm in all aspects of life is a regular recurring pattern over time.

Many things in our lives have rhythm.

For example, the Earth travels around the sun with a rhythm of about 365 days, and it rotates with a rhythm of 1 day.

Your heart beats at a specific rhythm, a watch ticks along at an exact rhythm of 60 beats per minute (BPM). 

In music, rhythm is specifically a regular repetition or grouping of beats, and specifically how unaccented beats are grouped around accented beats.

The term rhythm is closely related to the term beat, as well as pulse and metre.

To fully understand rhythm and the definition above, we need to unpack what each of these three terms mean.

What are Beats and Pulse?

A beat is the basic unit of time in music, and when repeated in a regular pattern it creates a pulse.

In our guide to time signatures, we discuss that a 4/4 time signature has four beats per measure, and that each beat is the length of a crochet (quarter note).

So if you listen to a piece of music with 4/4 time and clap along to it or tap your foot, you are following along with the pulse and clapping (or tapping) on each beat.

The Weekend – Blinding Lights

This song is in 4/4, and you can clearly hear the pulse of the music – the drums hit each crochet beat throughout the song.

Try tapping your foot and see if you can feel the pulse, even when there are other rhythms being played!

Accented and Unaccented Beats

So, a pulse is a regularly repeating pattern of beats.

However, a pulse is more specific than that, because it only deals with the beats of a song which are accented. Take this song for example:

Bastille – Pompeii

For the first 15 seconds or so, the pulse is hard to determine because a lot of the vocals are not being sung exactly on the beat, but then when the verse comes in (0:17) the pulse is more easily identifiable.

Here is another famous example: 

Coldplay – Viva La Vida

In this song, the first four notes played on the violins are all perfectly in line with the pulse of the song, but the next five notes are not lined up with the pulse.

When the first verse starts at 0:12, the drum keeps the pulse, while the violins and vocals play a different rhythm.

Both of these songs make use of accented and unaccented beats.

You might also see them called stressed and unstressed beats, or strong and weak beats.

The pulse – what you tap along with your foot when listening – is made up of the accented, strong beats.

However, the rhythm of a song or melody can be on strong and weak beats.

Iration – Falling

This song is an example of “reggae” music, where the guitar is played on the unaccented beats the whole time.

Listen along and try to feel the pulse of the song, in the beginning it’s hard because the pulse is in the ‘silent’ parts between the guitar chords.

In 4/4 time, there are four beats in each bar.

Usually, the first beat and third beat are accented (strong), and the second beat and fourth beat are unaccented (weak).

In the reggae song above, he’s playing guitar on the 2nd and 4th beats. 

In 3/4 time, there are three beats in each bar, and the 1st beat is still the strong beat, but the other two are both weak beats.

Listen to this famous waltz and see if you can feel the pulse at the start of each bar: 

Johann Strauss – The Blue Danube

Metre and Bars

So rhythm consists of regularly repeating patterns of accented and unaccented beats.

However, to make things a bit easier to read and follow along with a piece of music, we usually group the rhythm into bars (also called measures).

A bar is a grouping of a specific number of beats, and is primarily used to keep music organized and easier to read when writing it down.

Just like a sentence you read in a book would be hard to read if there weren’t any spaces or punctuation, bars keep certain notes separated with bar lines, which usually occur every few beats (almost always between 2 and 12 beats). 

Chopin – Prelude n E Minor

In this piano piece, the bar lines are useful because there are a lot of notes being played in a row, in the same rhythm (all quavers, or eighth notes), and the bar lines keep the notes separate so you can read them easier.

Metre (or meter in the USA), on the other hand, is more to do with how a piece of music feels, and it is determined by comparing the number of weak beats to one strong beat.

For example, with the “Blue Danube” waltz above, there are two weak beats after one strong beat, and that means the piece is in a triple metre or triple time (three beats).

There is also duple metre or duple time (two beats – one strong, one weak) and quadruple metre or quadruple time (four beats – one strong and three weak). 

A song can change its metre by changing the number of weak beats in between each strong beat.

Listen to this example in the song “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles: 

The Beatles – We Can Work It Out

The song starts in quadruple meter (4/4 – you can feel three weak beats for every strong beat), but at 0:15, when they sing “We can work it out”, the metre changes to a duple metre because they start playing only one weak beat per strong beat.

It then changes back to quadruple metre at 0:19.

Later in the same song, at 0:40, the song is again in 4/4 in quadruple metre.

However, when they start singing “Fighting my friends”, it changes to triple metre, and you can feel two weak beats for each strong beat.

After this, at the line “I have always thought”, they go back to quadruple metre.

Other Information

In music, we write notes on staff paper, and each one has an element of time to it.

A crochet is twice as long as a quaver, which is twice as long as a semiquaver. 

In this example, we have all the information we need in order to play this melody correctly.

We know the tempo, which is the speed of the pulse represented by the crotchet = 120 above the top left of the stave.

We know the time signature is 4/4, so there are four beats per bar and a crochet is one beat.

And we know the length and time value of the notes in the melody: 

  • Crochet: one beat
  • Quaver (and quaver rest): half a beat each
  • Semiquaver: a quarter of a beat each

The above melody is also an example of syncopation, which is when unaccented beats and off-beats become important in the rhythm.

Summing Up

Rhythm is to time what melody and harmony is to pitch or frequency; it divides the abstract concept of time into discrete and measurable segments.

It is often the least thought of major aspect of music, but it is just as important. 

We hope that in this article we were able to help you learn all about rhythm in music.

It is often hard to describe exactly what rhythm is, which is why this post had a lot of definitions and technical words in it!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask us in the comments below! 

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.

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