Principles of Rhythm Notation

Principles of Rhythm Notation

This section is to propose principles to guide the development of rhythm notation.

What is Rhythm

  • rhythm is a pattern in time
    • pattern is characterized by repetition, period
    • pattern is discerned holistically—the forest, not the trees
    • therefore layout is crucial to discerning visual patterns
    • analogy: poetry: layout in stanzas, lines, feet
  • rhythm is a “conversation” among multiple parts
    • it is inherently polyphonic,
      • separate parts may be represented by un-pitched timbres
      • as well as pitched voices
    • syncopation implies a regular background beat
      against which foreground melodies contrast
  • _


  • Music is poetry;
    It should not be formatted as prose
  • music should be laid out on a page in lines and stanzas
  • each line is a musical phrase
  • line breaks should match phrase breaks
  • page breaks should match section breaks
  • corresponding beats of consecutive lines should be aligned
  • _


  • elemental units (“letters”): contrasting stresses (unstress, stress)
    • duration: short, long
    • amplitude: soft, loud
    • timbre, e.g. drum, cymbal
  • “meaningful” units (“words”): beat-unit
    • contains one strong beat
    • analogous to poetic feet
    • notation should not connect (tie, beam) units of different “feet”
  • musical phrases consist rhythmically of integral beat-units
    • may or may not correspond to measures
  • _

Rhythmic Structure

  • Anacrusis is a symptom of beat-units that start on an un-stress:
    iambic, anapestic.

    • “anacrusis” is not just a property of the first measure
      but of every phrase
    • 3-time (compound meter) music typically begins phrases on an un-stress
  • phrase breaks will not necessarily occur at measure bars!
  • _



Rhythmic Patterns

  • the two “natural” rhythmic patterns are:
    • cadence of walking, marching: Left, Right, Left, Right
    • g. | q q q q | q q q q |
    • heartbeat: lub DUB – lub DUB –
      g. q | h – q | h –
      where q = quarter note, h = half-note
  • n-tuplets
    • “tuplet” rhythm inserts additional note incidence points into the typical beat interval,
      dividing the original interval into equal sub-intervals.

      • triplets: insert three incidences in the time-value normally filled by two
        example: e e with incidences 2/8, 3/8 (6/24, 9/24)
        replaced with 3(e e e) with incidences 6/24, 8/24, 10/24
    • syncopation
      • syncopation: a note incidence occurs before a beat or sub-beat
        and the note is held through the beginning of the beat
        example: typical incidcents 3/4, | 0/4, 1/4
        replaced with 3/4 , 7/8 | 1/4
      • swing: variation of syncopation in which the second half of a count
        is regularly delayed from the nominal rhythm,
        typically by 1/3 to ½ of it’s duration.
      • incidences notated as:
        0/8, 1/8, 2/8, 3/8,… (0/24, 3/24, 6/24, 9/24,…)
        played as: 0/24, 4/24, 6/24, 10/24,…


  • ISSUE: swing, being a global style, is typically not notated in TN.
    For otherwise complex rhythms, such as including syncopation and triplets, sophisticated calculation may be needed to convert the nominal rhythm into the performed rhythm.
  • mixed rhythm
    • clave is the basis of many “Latin” rhythms, consisting of alternating beat-groups, one counted in “two” and one counted In “three”.
      example: 0/12, 6/12; 0/12 4/12, 8/12; etc. or vice versa.
      In typical music, the actual incidences are distributed unevenly among these nominal incidence points.
  • _

Absolute vs. Relative

  • for sensing rhythm, occurrence relative to the beat-pattern (absolute time)
    is more important than “duration” (relative or differential time).
  • rhythm notation should primarily identify the beats and counts on which notes are struck (incidence)
  • duration is less effective for notating rhythm
    • requires calculation of cumulative sums to determine the count and beat
    • duration irregularly modified by dynamics of instrument and style
  • _

Mathematical Interpretation

  • An issue: “compound-meter” music is usually said to consist of “three quarter notes” per measure
    • This is mathematically untenable
    • Three counts in a measure should be called “three third-notes”,
      not “three quarter-notes”
    • (MIDI “solves” the problem by considering the “quarter-note” the unit)
  • TN names the counts of a measure starting with “one”:
    ”one, two, three; one, two, three.”

    • it would be more computationally convenient to start with “zero”;
      “zero, one, two, zero, one, two
    • then we could use standard modular arithmetic.