Musical Figures (or rhythmic figures) are symbols used to represent the beats (time) of a song. Now that we learned the representation of the notes in sheet music, it is time to study how the beats (time) are written. The length of each note or chord in sheet music will be determined by the rhythmic figures below:
Main musical figures
Nice, but what is the length of each one of these notes? We will see this now. First of all, you need to know that we showed the notes in order, using the following logic: each musical figure presented lasts the half of the time of the previous one. In other words, Half Note lasts the half of the time of a whole note (or Semibreve – british). The Crotchet lasts, in its turn, the half of time of a Half Note, and so on. Let’s give you an example: if we assign any value to these figures, let’s say, for example, that the value of the crotchet is 1, we would have this:
Observation: We choose here the value of 1 to the Crotchet just as reference.
Let’s make this example more practical, like in real life. Let’s say that the value of a Crotchet is $ 1.00. This means:
– 8th note is $ 0.50
– Half note is $ 2.00
– 16th note is $ 0.25
This example was important to introduce the idea that in 1 Crotchet fits 2 8th notes or 4 16th notes or 8 32th notes, etc. Check below:
Observation: notice that the figures that are faster than the Crotchet appear connected, creating blocks that correspond to 1 Crotchet. For example, 2 8th notes, one beside the other, are connected in the following way:
In this diagram, it is easy to notice as the figures fit one inside the other. Notice as 32 x 32th notes fit inside of 1 whole note. So, if the 32th note would represent 1 second, 1 whole note would represent 32 seconds.
Ok! This example was given with for teaching purposes, but how can we know the real time (in seconds) that each one of the figures represent? How to know if the 32th note has 1 second, for example? Is there a definition for this?
Yes, there is! It is obvious that we need a time reference for these figures can make sense. This reference will be given by the song itself. For example, let’s say that you downloaded a sheet music. In this sheet music it will be written somewhere how much some figure values (generally it is informed the value of the Crotchet) and the (value) time of the other figures you will know by deduction.
This time is given in bpm (beats per minute), in other words, if it is written:
it means that the Crotchet has 120 beats per minute. Saying “120 beats per minute” means that the length of each beat, or note, fits 120 of them in one minute. As one minute has 60 seconds, this is the same as saying “2 beats per second”. Going farther, we could conclude that one beat/note lasts a half second in this case.
Ok, but why we don’t say that a Crotchet is a half second instead of saying that it is “120 bpm”? This is because the metronomes work with bpm. The best way of playing a song from a sheet music is having a metronome beside you where you can set the length of the beats. In this example we gave you, you would set the metronome to 120 bpm and you would use this time (listening to the metronome) for each crotchet of the song in the sheet music. If any note would appear with the figure of an 8th note, you would let this note sounding the half of the time of a Crotchet.
This is why it is important to train (with a metronome) the following: Set a slow tempo, for example, 30 bpm (one beat will last for two second in this case). Start playing one note at a time, in other words, play in your instrument, clap your hands, snap your fingers, tap your feet, whatever, each time that the metronome plays a beat. After that, play two notes at a time, in other words, clap your hands each time that the metronome plays a beat and also in the interval between one and the other beat in the metronome. In this way you will be doubling the speed of your clapping. After that, do the same playing 4 notes at the same time (clap your hands 4 times for each time the metronome plays a beat). Repeat this exercise for the other tempos (40 bpm, 50 bpm, etc.) and practice the other figures too. This is such good exercise.
With a little practice you will be ready to get the right length of some figure automatically while reading sheet music. We will give more tips of exercises later, but before this let’s learn more about symbology in sheet music.
Musical Figures Blocks
We already saw that the figures faster than the Crotchet (as the 8th note and the 16th note, etc) appear connected in blocks when there are two or more of these figures in sequence. But, many times some figures appear in a sequence that is different among them, like 2 x 16th notes + 1 x 8th note. In this case, we know that the one whole block (which is equivalent to a Crotchet) would be formed by 4 x 16th notes or 2 x 8th notes. Check it:
4 x 16th notes
2 x 8th notes
But and 2 x 16th notes are equivalent to 1 x 8th note, one block can also be formed by 2 x 16th notes + 1 x 8th note. And how would be the representation of this block? Check it:
Notice that the 2 x 16th notes are connected to 1 x 8th note creating a block of 3 notes that are equivalent to a Crotchet.
Very well, let’s make a mess in this block. Imagine that we are with these 2 x 16th notes and 1 x 8th note, but now the 16th notes are note one beside the other. Let’s say that the order is: 16th note – 8th note – 16th note, instead of 16th note – 16th note – 8th note. In this case we would have this representation:
Notice that the first note is connected to the second one with the half of the symbology of the 16th note and half of the symbology of the Crotchet:
This means that the first note should be played as 16th note and the second as a Crotchet. The idea is the same for the last note, that should be played as a 16th note:
Nice, so this is the way we represent the mixed blocks (with different figures). Now that we know the musical figures, the length of each one and the representation for different combination of these figures, it is time to learn what is a bar line.
Go to: Musical Bar Lines
Back to: sheet music guide