2.1 Introduction to Rhythm Notation

If you’re a lyricist, you need to know a little music theory. But don’t panic. The stuff we’ll talk about here is pretty simple.

We’ll use a special notation when writing music to denote rhythms. Let’s start with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If you tap your foot each time you sing a new syllable in that song, you’ll notice that you tap your foot seven times for each line, and then once more in between lines.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8
Twin- kle   twin- kle   lit-  tle   star,

You’ll notice, furthermore, that each foot-tap—which we’ll call a “downbeat”—is the same distance from the downbeat before it as from the downbeat after it. That is, the “beat” is “steady” or “constant.” The only strange part of the whole thing is the last word of each line, the one that happens on beat 7. You don’t just keep going, and charge right into the next line. Instead, you pause for one extra beat, and then move on.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8
Twin- kle   twin- kle   lit-  tle   star,
1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8
How   I     won-  der   what  you   are

To make this even clearer, we might use the “Alphabet Song” instead, which has the same melody:

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8
A     B     C     D     E     F     G

But things change when you get to the second line:

1     2     3     4     5  +  6  +  7     8
H     I     J     K     L  M  N  O  P

To make all the letters fit, whoever wrote this silly song had to cram in two extra letters between beats 5 and 6, and beats 6 and 7. This is good for us, however, because it gives us a chance to introduce the “upbeat.” The upbeat occurs halfway between each pair of downbeats, and is marked either with a “+” or an “&.” Whichever symbol you use for it, you read it “and.” So, if you read the beats of the second line above, you’d say, “one, two, three, four, five and six and seven, eight.”

But if you think about it longer, you’ll realize that you don’t even need to count up to eight to get all the downbeats in for each line. You can just count up to four, and repeat.

| 1     2     3     4  |  1     2     3     4
| Up    a-    bove  the|  world so    high
| 1  +   2    3     4  |  1     2     3     4
| Double-U    X        |  Y     and   Z

And since the basic rhythm of the song can be divided up into groups of four like this, we say it has “four beats per measure,” and therefore is “in 4,” or has a “4/4 time signature.” (We don’t need to worry about what the “/4” means, though. So just ignore it and focus on the “4.”)

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Featured image by Sven Scheuermeier

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