(For the purposes of this discussion it is assumed that the reader is already acquainted with the symbols used to denote the pitch and duration of musical sounds. For those who may not be familiar with music notation a visit to a music theory website will readily provide this necessary information. We have used American nomenclature to identify these symbols in place of minim, crotchet, etc found in British and Australian theory books.)

RHYTHM, in music as in life itself, is the ordering of time. The sequence and duration of events in our universe forms rhythms which we recognise in the rotation of the earth and, the beating of our heart, or the hoof beats of a galloping horse. The sequence and duration of musical events creates a pathway along which all other elements are borne. Rhythm is the horizontal dimension of music.

We shall consider Rhythm as having two fundamental components: TIME and RHYTHM PATTERN.


Time or, as it is known in the United States, metre, describes that felt regular pulse which is the heartbeat of music. 

Music is a temporal art in which engagement takes place in virtual time, not real time, just as space in a painting is virtual space,not real space. 

Real time is measured in regular units (seconds, minutes, hours, etc); virtual time is measured in regular units called beats or, less frequently, pulses.

Beats may be organised in groups of twos or threes; or in any combination of twos and threes. We call these groups bars (the American term is measures ).

An essential musical skill is the the ability to internalise and maintain a steady, regular beat; the integrity of the entire rhythmic structure of a musical performance depends upon this ability.

As with the heart the musical beat may increase or decrease in speed according to the degree of excitement or relaxation generated by the music.

Musicians use the word tempo when referring to the ‘speed’ of a piece. The faster the music the higher the pulse rate; the slower the music the lower the pulse rate.

Summary: Time, in music, is measured by a regular felt pulse which:

  • may be grouped in twos or threes; and

  • which may occur at various tempos or may increase or decrease in tempo according     to the expressive requirements of composer or performer.

Two Time and Three Time

Within our Western culture we tend to group the beat, mentally, in twos or threes.  Beats grouped in twos are good for marching since we only have two legs.  Beats felt in threes are useful for dances such as the waltz.

Two Time 

Recite or sing the line below.

This old man, he played one; he played nick-nack on my drum

In this line from the song This Old Man I have underlined the syllables upon which a regular pulse may be felt. Recite the line again while beating time by clapping on the underlined syllables. You will find that the beats are grouped in twos defined by the natural accentuation of the words This, he, he, nick and on. Thus we have four groups or bars with two beats in each bar.

Recite the line once more. This time accent only the first and fifthunderlined syllables when beating time. If you are beating time to the rhythm of the words you will again have a regular pulse but it will have half the frequency of the first ‘recital’. Four beats in stead of eight. We shall now have two bars with four beats in each bar. Essentially, though, the time is still two time since four is a multiple of two.

We can organise these eight beats or four beats (notice the ration of 2:1) in groups of two or four or even eight if we so desire. Whatever choice is made the ratio of one choice to another will remain the same.  The time will be two time.

Time is felt in twos or in multiples of two; hence two time

Let us now consider this little exercise using staff notation. We shall use a crotchet (or quarter-note) to represent the beat.




In both examples the grouping of the beat in twos is clear. Notice however that  the (a) will take twice as long to play as (b) if we assign a tempo of 72 to the crotchet. If we increase the tempo of (a) to 144, however, (a) will be aurally identical to (b).

The time-signature is quite explicit in its identification of how beats  and rhythm patterns are to be notated and grouped. The note values used to denote the rhythm patterns are different in each example but, given the tempo alteration suggested above  there will be no difference in rhythmic impact of a performance (apart from a possible relocation of accents). 

We could add to possible varieties of notating this short, simple melody by choosing another note value to represent the beat. 

Having troubled and confused our Old Man with all of the ways to organise and represent his rhythm we shall see that the example (b) is best suited to the lively nature of his character.

Feeling the Beat

Conduct an imaginary orchestra for each of the examples given below. In each case the notated score time-signature and the bar lines tell us that the beats are grouped in 4’s (. In performance, however, how we feel the beat and mark it (for example, be foot tapping, or conducting gestures) will depend on the tempo of the music.  At a moderate tempo we shall feel the beat most comfortably in fours;  at a much brighter tempo, in twos; and at a very slow tempo, in eights.

Here are some examples.  A simple,familiar melody, This Old Man, is used to indicate notation while excerpts fro Handel’s Messiah are used to illustrate real situations:

Moderato - in 4 (The chorus And He shall purify from Handel’s Messiah (time-signature 4/4) will normally be conducted as four-in-the-bar.)



Vivace  in 2  ( The allegro moderato from the overture to Messiah (time signature 4/4) will normally be conducted as two- in- the bar.)

Adagio in 8 (The tenor recitative Comfort ye My people from Messiah will normally conducted ‘in eight’).

The metrical basis for all three examples is two. How the pulse will be felt in rehearsal, practice routines or actual performance is a subjective matter in which a decision will be made by the performer or conductor. 

N.B Please note that in the Prout edition of Messiah all the examples given above use the ‘C’ -common time - symbol instead of 4/4.

Three Time

Let us now consider three time

Here are two lines from a well known traditional song.

Lavenders blue dilly-dilly, lavenders green. _ _

When you are king dilly-dilly, I shall be queen. _ _

Recite these lines aloud and you will discover a natural ‘three time’ feel. To enable correct scansion of these lines of verse we need to add two beats to the end of each line.  We shall therefore have a total of 24 beats. Note, as we have explained above, that they group naturally into threes.

We can notate the melody for these lines in either of the following ways:




Example (a) gives a clear indication of three time using a crotchet to represent a beat.  At a moderate tempo we can conduct our imaginary orchestra comfortable with three-in-the bar gestures.  Try doing so at a very fast tempo and you will discover that your arm will very soon tire of thrashing the air so vigorously. (So will your imaginary musicians!). The solution is to beat one-in-the bar.

Example (b) has two groups of three in each bar, marked by the additional bar lines in example (c);  hence the term compound time meaning a compound of threes. At a very slow tempo we would have to conduct six-in-the-bar and our subjective feel of the beat groupings would be in threes.  At up tempo markings we assign one beat to each group of three thus changing overall beat groupings to two time.

Compound time is therefore the bundling of two or more ‘three time’ groups into one ‘parent’ group. The number of groups in the parent group at tempi will define the number of beats in a bar; usually two (two time), three (three time) or four (two time). 

Mental processing of the concepts required to understand this organisation of metre is likely to cause considerable confusion and cannot readily be understood by children in the early stages of cognitive development (refer to  Piaget’s discussion of ‘concrete operations’). It is essential that concepts such as these be introduced and reinforced through practical involvement, e.g.  speech rhythms, movement and  body percussion (clapping and tapping).

Irregular Beat Groupings.

Time-signatures such as 5/4, 7/4, and so on indicate bars in which enclose groups of two and three.  The performer needs to work out how these groups are ordered.

The metrical grouping in the example below, taken from my piece Sevens and Eights,  is 3+4.  The ‘7’ in the time signature simply indicates the total number of beats in a bar.

In the next example, from my clarinet quintet in which the tempo is a bright allegro the three full measures are successively in two time, three time and two time. 

In this final example, again from my clarinet quintet, metrical changes (from 2’s to 3’s) occur within the bars shown. The rhythm patterns calibrate in the lowest common denominator,  the eighth note. The performer and, hopefully, the listener will be continually shifting, mentally, between two time and three time.

(To be continued)



Now it is time to introduce you to the mysteries which lurk behind our second main heading:  Rhythm Pattern.

Say aloud: ‘This old man, he played one, he played nick-nack on my drum.’

You will see that the rhythm patterns suggested by the words can be neatly notated as follows:

Now recite the words while beating time with two fingers of the right hand on the palm of the left. 

Now clap the rhythm patterns formed by the words  while beating time with your foot. (I have used the phrase ‘beat time’ deliberately in order to reinforce the concept of time as a regular pulse.

Here is a couplet from another well known traditional song:

Hickory, dickory, dock. 

The mouse ran up the clock.

The rhythm pattern suggested by this text is:

Again,  recite the words  clapping the rhythm patterns so formed while beating time while with your foot.  Repeat this exercise using found or invented phrases of your own.

Patterns in Twos and Patterns in Threes

In the examples given above we focus attention on both the rhythm patterns formed by the words and the beat which supports them by clapping the former and tapping the latter. 

It will be noted that, in the first example, the beat subdivides into twos while in the second example subdivision of the beat is in threes.

Traditionally, theory books classify rhythm patterns in which the beat is subdivided in multiples of two as SIMPLE TIME while rhythm patterns in which the beat is subdivided in multiples of three is known as COMPOUND TIME (a compounding of 'threes'.}

To obtain a visual representation of time and pattern we have chosen a quarter note to represent the beat. [‘Quarter’ clearly identifies the relationship of the series of note symbols from whole note to sixty-fourth note as an increasing or decreasing value in the ratio of 1:2. These durational values are, of course, in relative time, not real time.]

In our examples, then, the quarter note beat will supports rhythm patterns which are perceived as subdivisions of the beat in multiples of two while the dotted quarter note will represent rhythm patterns that are subdivisions of the beat in threes.

Time signatures which define the intended rhythmic structure of a piece consist of two numbers, one above the other. According to whether the rhythm patterns are in twos (SIMPLE TIME) or threes (COMPOUND TIME) these numbers will specify:

  • number of beats per bar over the note value representing the beat - SIMPLE TIME, or
  • number of pulses ofver the note value representing a pulse - COMPOUND TIME.

Please note that in this discussion the word 'pulse' is used to denote a third of a beat in compound time.  6/8 would therefore be interpreted as six quaver pulses six divided by two beats

Common Patterns Notated as Subdivisions of the Beat in Multiples of Two.  

Beat represented by a quarter note

Pattern 1:   1/2+1/2

Pattern 2:  1/4+1/4+1/4+1/4

Pattern 3:  1/2+1/4+1/4

Pattern 4:  1/4/+1/4/+1/2

Pattern 5:  3/4+1/4

Pattern 6:  1/4+3/4  (This pattern is sometimes referred to as the ‘scotch snap’)

Pattern 7:  1/4+1/2+1/4

Common Patterns Notated as Subdivisions of the Beat in Multiples of Three.

A dot must be added to the chosen to represent a beat so that it may be subdivided in multiples of three.  In the example given below the beat is therefore represented by a dotted crotchet.

Beat represented by a dotted quarter note.

Pattern 1:  1/3+1/3+1/3

Pattern 2:  2/3+1/3

Pattern 3:  1/3+2/3

Pattern 4:  3/6+1/6+1/3

Pattern 5:  1/6+3/6+1/3

Pattern 6:  1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6

Pattern 7:  1/3+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6

Pattern 8:  1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/3

Pattern 9:  1/6+1/6+1/3+1/3

Subjective perception of time and rhythm patterns.

The human mind likes to organise incoming visual or aural data in patterns.  Coloured beads strewn randomly on a flat surface will, when observed and consciously acknowledged, be organised into patterns.

Similarly, incoming aural stimuli is prone to the same subjective processing.

Confirm this phenomenon by tapping six even beats on any suitable surface. Do not use any accentuation.  Repeat this exercise consciously organising the beats in two groups of three.  Repeat once more, this time consciously organising the beats in groups of two.

Now, using any note value of your choice, write the six beats firstly in two groups of three and, secondly, in three groups of two.

Note that the beat here would be represented by a dotted half note.

You will see that the first example in two time and the second in three time. The conventional ‘theory’ descriptors would be ‘compound duple’ and ‘simple triple’.

Here is he first line of ‘Oh, dear!... treated in a similar way.

Which of these two ways of writing this rhythm pattern would be most appropriate for notating the song.  Does it need a ‘two-in-the-bar feel’ or a three-in-the-bar feel’? Would you conduct it in twos or threes?

The implications for confusion in the administration of aural tests is only too obvious.