Rhythmic Notation

In standard music notation, time is notated from left to right. In this lesson I will explain the basics of rhythmic notation and then show you some applied examples. Rhythm is very important to study since bass is a rhythm instrument. Understanding rhythmic notation is essential to learning and studying rhythm.

The Beat

Music is based in time. Most music has a steady, recurring pulse called the beat. It’s the steady rhythm to which you want to tap your foot or dance. Think of any music you’ve heard in a dance club and you can quickly imagine the beat of the music. The element of time in a piece of music revolves around the beat.


To help keep our place in music, beats are grouped into bars, or measures as they are also called. In many songs four beats make up one bar. The steady pulse would be counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, … and so on. Beat one always marks the beginning of the bar. In other songs 3 beats will make up one bar. Any number of beats can be grouped into a bar. The structure of the song will decide how it is counted. This will be explained in later lessons concerning time signatures.


Barlines divide the musical bars. The space between two barlines is the measure or bar.

There are several types of barlines. Most barlines are a single, vertical line. A double barline marks the end of a section of music. A final barline is a double barline with a thick second barline and marks the end of a piece of music.

Bar and barlines diagram


Rhythms in music are based on fractions. Don’t be scared off when I say fractions. If you can cut up a pizza fairly, you know all the fractions you need for reading rhythm notation.

Since counting four beats to a bar is the most common, all rhythmic terminology is based on a bar containing 4 beats.

British-English speakers should read American-English music terminology.

Notes and Rests

Rhythmically, a note will tell you two things: when to play it, and how long to hold it. How long a note lasts is called its note value.

We also need to notate when, and for how long to be silent, or not play anything. For this we use rests. A rest tells you when and for how long to not play anything. Every note value has a corresponding rest value. Here are the simplest and most common rhythmic values:

The Whole Note and Whole Note Rest

Whole note and whole rest diagramA whole note lasts for 4 beats taking up a whole measure of 4 beats. It looks like a hollow football. This means you would play and hold the note for four beats.

A whole rest also lasts for four beats. A whole rest instructs you not to play for four beats. The whole rest looks like an upside down hat. To remember that it's upside down just think you can hold a whole lot of stuff in an upside down hat.

All the other basic rhythmic values are just simple fractions of the 4-beat whole note…

The Half Note and Half Note Rest

Half note and half rest diagramA half note lasts for 2 beats (half of a whole note). A stem is added to the hollow circle to form the half note symbol.

A half rest lasts for two 2 beats. This means you don’t play for two beats. It looks like a right-side-up hat.

The Quarter Note and Quarter Note Rest

Quarter note and quarter rest diagramA quarter note lasts for 1 beat (a quarter of a whole note). The quarter note looks like a half note with the notehead filled in.

A quarter rest lasts for 1 beat. This means don’t play for one beat. The quarter rest looks like a squiggly line. A really young student once told me to him the quarter rest looked like a seagull.

The Eighth Note and Eighth Note Rest

Eighth note and eighth rest diagramAn eighth note lasts for half of a beat (an eighth of a whole note). The eighth note looks like the quarter note with a flag attached to the stem.

An eighth note rest lasts for half of a beat. The eighth note rest looks like a slash with a flag on it.

Sixteenth Notes, Rests and Beyond

Sixteenth note and sixteenth rest diagramRhythms can be subdivided further by adding more flags to the note or rest.  Sixteenths have two flags. 32nd notes have 3 flags, and so on. In most music you won’t see note values much smaller than 16ths.

Note Beaming

Note beaming diagramSometimes, to make rhythmic notation easier to read, the flags of notes are connected with beams. Beams still have the same meaning as flags: one beam across a group of notes indicates 8th notes, two beams across a group of notes indicates 16th notes, and so on.

Note Stem Direction

Stem direction diagramYou may wonder why some stems point upwards and others point downwards. This is mainly done to save space above and below the staff so more music can fit onto a page of music. Typically the stems of notes below the middle line point upwards. Stems of notes above the middle line point downwards. Stems of notes on the middle line of the staff may point either direction.

Rhythm Notation Summary

That’s the basics of standard rhythmic notation. It’s just simple fractions of time. Learning about rhythm will be a big part of your studies as a bassist. Knowing rhythmic notation will help you out a lot in learning, hearing, thinking, reading and discussing rhythm. The best way to learn it is to practice it. I'll be posting some reading material for you soon. Here are some practice examples to give you a better sense of the different rhythmic values.