Reading Rhythm in Music IV: Half / Quarter Note / Rest

Updated on February 25, 2020

Recap and Catch-up

Now that the basic, single beats have been represented by several different ways of counting (in Part III), I will describe how each method counts longer notes in this Hub. In the next Hub, Part V, I will describe quick subdivisions of beats.

If you remember from part II, musical rhythm usually has some longer notes and some short, quick subdivisions. For now, we’ll stick with three specific longer notes. In notation, these are represented as a half note, a dotted half note, and a whole note. Their pictures or symbols are shown below, along with the already familiar quarter note. When a single beat is represented by a quarter note, the half note will last for two beats, the dotted half note will be three beats, and the whole note will be four beats.

The dot that follows a note has the effect of lengthening it by a specific amount of time. That added amount of time equals half of the note's normal value. So, when a half note receives two beats, the dot adds on one more beat. Therefore the dotted half note represents three beats. Those who are new at reading music notation should take care not to confuse the dot that follows a note (lengthening it) with the dot that is placed above or below a notehead, making it short, light, crisp, bouncy - the staccato symbol.

In addition to longer notes, the picture shows symbols called "rests"; these represent moments of silence that are equal in length to the corresponding note. So, when a quarter note represents one beat of sound, the quarter rest represents one beat of silence.

Accents and Measures

Two important concepts relating to rhythm have been glossed over in this series so far. One is the notion of stress or accent. In music, as in speech, some beats or pulses are louder or more strongly punched (accented) than others. Think of the sound of a drumbeat: often we might hear it as

BOOM - boom - boom - boom

BOOM - boom - boom - boom

BOOM - boom - boom - boom

BOOM - boom - boom - boom

Those loud "BOOM's" are the stronger accents. Musical rhythm includes alternation or variation of stronger and weaker accents, as well as of longer- and shorter-lasting notes.

Another very important concept is the idea of a "measure" (sometimes called a "bar") of music. A measure is simply a grouping of beats or pulses, such that each group (measure) has the same number of pulses in its underlying or True Beat as the others in that piece, and also such that the first pulse of the True Beat of the measure is the most strongly accented one.

The whole rest shown above usually represents the same value as a whole note (frequently four beats), but it is also used to indicate a rest for a whole measure, even if that measure is two, three, five, or six beats - or more - long.

The dotted half rest is actually not used as often as you might expect. When the complete measure is three beats long the whole rest is used, rather than the dotted half rest, to indicate a complete measure of silence. When a four-beat measure contains only one beat of sound and three beats of silence, the normal practice nowadays is to represent the silence with a quarter rest and a half rest, because that seems to be easier to read and grasp quickly than a dotted half rest would be.

Counting Longer Notes and Rests

Following are samples of the methods listed previously (in Part III) and the way they count longer notes. The Suzuki-based method is not included because I know so little about it.

As for rests, the various methods have different ways of “counting” them. Some classroom teachers might tap themselves on the shoulder to indicate a pulse of silence, without saying anything. In some methods, the rest might be indicated with a “sh” or “zah” sound, lasting for the appropriate amount of musical time. With young children, it can be fun and helpful to make a little “fish-face” and softly pop a mouth-bubble for each pulse of silence. (This is an expansion of an idea I found in the Alfred method books.)

In the following list, Methods V and VI usually will simply count the appropriate number out loud when counting rests, just the same as for notes.

Method II –Other Words

This method includes a great variety because it is based on finding helpful, known words to represent beats. Possible words (chanted with appropriate rhythm) might be:

Half Note = sit-down

Dotted Half Note = sit-and-wait

Whole Note = lie-down-sleep-ing

[With this group of words, an obvious choice for chanting the quarter note would be “walk.” That is doubly appropriate since the musical term andante – a moderate, everyday, normal speed of music – means “walking.”

Counting Notes and Rests, Continued

Method III – Kodaly-based

Half Note = Tah-ah

Dotted Half Note = Tah-ah-ah

Whole Note = Tah-ah-ah-ah

Method IV – Naming the Note-Value Names Rhythmically

Half Note = half note

Dotted Half Note = Half-Note-Dot

Whole Note = Whole-Note-Hold-It

  • or Hold-That-Whole-Note
  • or Whole-Note-Hold-Down

Method V – Giving Each Note-Value a Specific Number

Half-Note = One-Two

Dotted Half Note = One-Two-Three

Whole Note = One-Two-Three-Four

Method VI – Counting Numbers in Sequence

In this method, as long as no notes are subdivided, the person counting simply continues saying one-two-three-four (or whatever the actual number of beats per measure is) and matches up the appropriate note with whichever number it happens to match in that particular measure.

"Yesterday," by The Beatles—Counted

Click thumbnail to view full-size

A Last Caveat

As you read through the (above) screens that show various ways of counting rhythm for The Beatles' song "Yesterday," you may notice that some numbers or words are closer together and some are stretched farther apart.  It is pretty obvious here that the reason for that is the number of letters used in different words; that affects the spacing.  But the beat remains the same.  The "1 2 3 4" does not move any faster, just because of the fact that the numbers are closer together - or more slowly, when the numbers are stretched apart. 

The same thing is true in printed notation.  Sometimes, for various reasons, the notes may be somewhat closer together and sometimes they are farther apart.  The reason usually has to do with trying to make the print layout as cost-effective, as pleasing to the eye, and as easy to read as possible. But it may be confusing to the less experienced musician.  Just remember that a half-note is still a half-note, even if it is a little closer to its surrounding notes than in other places.  The same is true for other types of notes.   The length of the note is expressed by the shape and style of the note symbol, not its spacing either close to or far from the surrounding notes.

Music for Learning and Enjoyment

You can practice reading and play the various rhythms you have learned, as the soloist with a band or orchestra or as one of a duet. The Music Minus One series, available from Sheet Music Plus, is a great resource for learning and for enjoying what you have learned.

Questions & Answers


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      • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


        8 years ago from Indiana, USA

        Thank you, Deborah Brooks. I always enjoy explaining the things that I know about music, and I enjoy hearing or reading questions from others. Let me know if you have any specific questions that I can try to address.

      • Deborah Brooks profile image

        Deborah Brooks Langford 

        8 years ago from Brownsville,TX

        wow wish you were my music teacher... thank you..voted up

      • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


        8 years ago from Indiana, USA

        Thank you, trecords0! I'm glad to hear that it was useful in some way. I look forward to checking out your writing. I hope you have some Hubs about orchestration.

      • trecords0 profile image


        8 years ago from DeLand, Florida

        I studied a lot of orchestration back in college and I think you just inspired me to get back into it, at the very least, start writing about it. Thank you for your hub.

      • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


        9 years ago from Indiana, USA

        Thank you Daniel! I am long overdue for continuing this series, and I hope to use your comment as an impetus for moving along. I always appreciate your encouragement. :)

      • Daniel Carter profile image

        Daniel Carter 

        9 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

        Excellent, excellent! Thanks for such great hubs!

      • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


        9 years ago from Indiana, USA

        CMCastro, thanks for reading and for your kind words!

      • CMCastro profile image

        Christina M. Castro 

        9 years ago from Baltimore,MD USA

        You are a GOOD Music teacher!


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