Rhythm and Tempo

One of the basic building blocks of music is timing. It is important that we understand what these timing related elements of music are in order to better appreciate and understand what we are hearing as well as to become a better player of any instrument.


Clapping your hands (or any sort of tapping or clicking) is a commonly used tool to understand timing in a musical piece. For an example let’s consider the song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – without singing or playing it, try to just clap this song. Most people will be able to naturally clap this song and most people will be able to recognize this song through claps. This is how I would clap the first line –

Clap-ClapClap-ClapClap-ClapClap —-

Clapping is useful because our minds will naturally realize where notes are switching and clap at those points. Confirming that we already have an understanding of music in our minds and we just need to expand it. We can see that we clapped 7 times for the first line of this song. If you look at the sheet music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you will notice that there are 7 notes exactly for the first line – the same number of claps.

You can also sing the song using only the syllable ‘ta’ to get the same understanding. So instead of clapping you will sing something like ‘ta ta | ta ta | ta ta | taaa’.


Tempo is easily described. It is how fast a piece is supposed to be played, or how fast you are playing it. In sheet music, tempo is represented as BPM (or beats per minute) or using a descriptive word (like allegro, moderato, largo etc.). Notice that from the previous section – clapping, you can clap as fast as you like or as slow as you like, and it will still be recognizable as the same song. You will play on a slow tempo when you are learning a musical piece and then once you’ve learned it, you will play at the tempo intended for the song. Remember, in music, faster is not better. Each piece has a tempo at which it will sound it’s best or a tempo at which the composer intended it to be played.


Rhythm of a musical piece is how long each note (or rest) is played, in comparison to one another. Rhythm is one of the elements that differentiate between two musical pieces. Going back to the clapping example, you can clap Twinkle Twinkle Little Star faster or slower, but the pattern of clapping does not change. This pattern is what is called rhythm. If we wish to describe it in words, it might be like so – 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 1 long note. This is a pattern. The second line also follows this same pattern – or in other words, the second line has the same rhythm. So does the third line and the rest of the song.

But most songs we hear don’t have this kind of repeating rhythm. Yes, since Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is a song for kids, having a short rhythm that repeats for the entire song makes it easier to learn and repeat. Only a small number of musical pieces have this kind of simple composition. Even if not for the whole song, having repeating rhythms is part of music composing. The repetition just might not be as simple. For example, Row Row Row Your Boat is another simple song. The first line has the rhythm ‘taaa taaa taa ta taa’ but the second line doesn’t repeat this, second line goes – ‘taa ta taa ta taaa’. The third line goes different again. But notice the fourth line – it repeats the rhythm of the second line. If you understand how the second line and fourth line are similar from the other two lines, you have understood rhythm.

Constructing blocks of rhythm and repeating them creatively, is one of the factors that differentiate music from noise. Song writers almost write lyrics that have syllables matching the rhythm of the music, or vice-versa, use the syllable pattern in the lyrics as rhythm for the melody.

Photo by Scott Kelley on Unsplash

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