Keeping time is essential to playing any musical instrument. In the absence of good rhythm tunes become unintelligible. Keeping time allows us to play with other people. Music that has good rhythm is easy to dance to and hum along with. It is easy to find rhythm in the human body. The sound of our own footsteps as we walk is rhythm. The heart that beats in your chest is all about rhythm.
In order to talk about rhythm very much we need to develop some concepts and build up vocabulary. Sometimes it can be handy to be able to discuss a tune in the abstract terms of musical language. We won’t dive deeply into music theory, but it is helpful to use some of the terminology to explain basic concepts.
The most basic unit of rhythm is a beat. Sometimes we may say “the beat” to refer to the over all rhythmic characteristics of a piece of music. Don’t let this confuse you. A beat is a unit of time. One beat all by itself doesn’t really mean or say anything musical. It really takes several beats to establish a rhythm.
Not only are the sounds that mark the beats important to creating a rhythm but the time between the beats is essential to making a rhythm. The time between each beat makes the music feel fast or slow. The less time that passes between beats, the faster the music feels. The more time that passes between each beat, the slower the music feels. The speed at which beats follow each other is called the tempo. Tempo is typically measured by how many beats can fit into a minute.
Tunes, melodies, or larger pieces of music can be divided into smaller portions to make them easier to understand and work with. These portions are called measures. Measures may also be called bars. A measure or bar is made up of a set number of beats. In tablature measures are marked by vertical lines that run perpendicaular to the lines that represent the six strings of the guitar.
Tunes have time signatures. The most common time signatures in old time music are 4/4 and 3/4. The time signature has two numbers divided by a slanted line. The top number tells us how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number indicates which note gets the beat or emphasis.
4/4 time has four beats per measure and is the time signature that is heard in most dance and hoedown tunes. You can emulate 4/4 time by counting 1, 2, 3, 4 over and over again. In tablature 4/4 time can be represented like this. Each number seen above the tab indocates one beat.
3/4 time is waltz time. You can emulate 3/4 time by counting 1, 2, 3 over and over. Tap your foot as you count. Waltz time indicates that there are only three beats per measure. In tablature waltz time looks like this.
In any tune or melody some notes may be held longer than others. So, notes have a rhythmic value. If a note lasts for two beats and is found in a measure that has four beats, that note is called a half note because it has used up half of the beats in that measure. In tablature half notes look like this.
If a note endures for all four beats of a four beat measure, it is called a whole note because it has used up all of the beats in that measure. Whole notes look like this.
If a measure with four beats has four notes in it, all of them must be quarter notes. The length of a quarter note is one beat. Quarter notes look like this.
A four beat measure can also be divided into eighth notes that look like this.
The four beat measure can also be divided into sixteenth or thirty second notes. A 4 beat measure may also have any combination of fractional notes that add up to 4 beats.
The great majority of old time music will fit neatly into measures with phrases that begin and end within the confines of measures defined by four beats per measure. However, there are some tunes that fall outside of this structure. Some tunes will carry on within the four beats per measure structure and then, with out any indication they will add an extra beat to a measure. Some other tunes carry on within the four beat per measure structure only to omit a beat from a measure, possibly half way through the tune. Such tunes are loosely classified as “crooked”. Tunes can be crooked in a variety of ways and I continue to be surprised by their unique and unpredictable structure. Crooked tunes are challenging as well as unique. If you want to start an old time music cliché crooked tunes are a great tool to have in the arsenal.