The 8 Most Common Rhythm Patterns (and how to simplify a tricky rhythm)

Rhythm can be tricky.  What’s easy on the ears may look difficult on the page. And vice versa.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a good sense of rhythm is one of those innate skills that musically ‘gifted’ people seem to have.

But it’s not.

Once we understand the symbols (musical notation), rhythm patterns can be learned, just like most things in life.

But when we see all the different note values on a page (whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.) how can we make sense of it all?  It can help to tap or clap and count rhythms out loud.  But we need some knowledge of the rhythm note values to do that.

So here is a way we can learn new rhythmic patterns more easily.

We don’t need to delve too deeply into standard Western music theory to do this.  But being able to recognize rhythmic patterns is a vital practical skill for any beginning musician.

(And for those more experienced too. It’s amazing how many musicians have been playing for years, but have somehow skipped this process along their musical journey.)

But this system is not solely for those wanting to read notation.  If we strum chords along to a song, it’s just as important that we understand the rhythmic sounds of the syllables in the lyrics.  So we know how to strum in time.

So we’ll start by looking at the different types of note values.

(This article does not deal with triplets, anything triple meter, or mixed meter.  Nor polyrhythms. We’ll save that excitement for another time!)

Note Values (Rhythms) Like to be Doubled and Halved

The beauty of written rhythms is that each note value has double or half the next closest one ( we’re getting into basic music theory here, but don’t worry).

If we take the word “beat” here as meaning a count (1, 2, 3, 4 etc.) at any given speed, then:

  • A whole note (aka “semibreve”) gets 4 beats
  • A half note (aka “minim”) gets 2 (half of 4)
  • A quarter (aka “crochet”) gets 1 (half of 2)
  • And an eighth (aka “quaver”) gets a half beat (half of 1)
  • And on and on through 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, and beyond
Note Values rhythm

Note values are either half or double the next closest note value

In this way, musical rhythm is like a fractal.  It’s the same both large and small. If you zoom in on the small, it looks the same as the large.

We can use this to simplify how we think of complex rhythms.

Narrowing the Options, or Taking a Count

Western music is divided (on the written page) into “measures” (aka “bars”) and beats.

In any piece of music with a 4/4 time signature (also known as common time),  you have four beats per measure.

On a printed piece of music, we will see that the two numbers in a time signature are printed vertically one above the other.

The top number indicates the number of beats per bar, or measure.  The bottom number indicates what sort of beat they are.  Here, in 4/4,  the bottom number four means quarter notes.

So in 4/4 time, each musical beat gets a quarter note’s duration.  We say there are four quarter beats to the bar/measure.

And each measure has a finite number of possible note value combinations.

Using only whole notes, half notes, dotted half notes, and quarters, we come to eight possible combinations.  We see these often in common rhythm patterns.

We can tap or clap each line of rhythm in the chart below while we count out loud.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow we clap.  We’ll notice that each note is a ratio of the note or notes on the line above or below it.

The 8 Most Common Rhythms

common rhythms

In 4/4 time (common time) these are the 8 basic rhythms

The Second Tier of the 8 Most Common Rhythms

These eight rhythms in a bar of 4/4 can, like the notes themselves, be halved or doubled.

When we half each note in these rhythms, we get the next “tier” of rhythms, which include eighth notes:

common rhythms in music
The second column is a halving of the first. The rhythms sound the same, but occupy 2 beats instead of 4. When we recognize this, we can more easily count the 8th-note rhythms.

So with eighths as our smallest note value, every two beats will form one of our 8 most common rhythms.

The rhythms will sound the same as their double-value counterparts, if perhaps at a different speed.

The rhythms in the second column (tier 2) will sound the same as their double-value counterparts in column one, if perhaps at a different speed.

The Third Tier of the 8 Most Common Rhythms

When our smallest note value is a sixteenth note, our eight rhythms will all happen within the space of one beat.

There are only these eight possible rhythms within each beat, with the sixteenth note as the smallest note value.

  • The half notes become quarter notes
  • The quarter notes become eighth notes
  • The dotted quarter notes become dotted eighth notes
  • The eighth notes become sixteenth notes
how to play rhythm
Here, the 3rd column is a halving of the 2nd column. All 3 columns sound the same. But column 3 occupies just one beat (instead of 4 like the first column, or 2 like the second column)

Again, each possible rhythm will sound exactly the same as its double-valued “cousins”. It just happens within a smaller number of beats on the page (which usually means it’s played faster).

Click Here to download the PDF of the 8 common rhythms chart above.

How to Figure Out Tricky Rhythms

When we come across a tricky rhythm in our music, we no longer have to view it as a dense rhythmic stew.  We can use our eight common rhythms to simplify it and make sense of it.

Whether we are looking at time signatures we are familiar with or not, we can take a beat or two and compare it to the common rhythms to see which it resembles. From there we can figure out how to count it, and ultimately how to play it.

If we create memorable rhythmic patterns when we’re noodling around on our guitars, or writing our masterpiece Opus, we can use the same method to notate it and save it for posterity.

Double Everything, or Remove a Flag

One tactic we can use to simplify these different types of rhythm (especially those containing eighth and sixteenth notes) is to double everything.

This means that the eighths become quarters and the sixteenths become eighths.

In other words, we remove a “flag” from each note.

Once we recognize which of our eight common rhythms we’re working with, we can count it as written. And once we can count a rhythm, we can work on playing it.

How to Start Using This Today

To begin using this method of simplifying rhythm, do this now:

  1. Look at any piece of music. (Classical music, popular music, or any other genre.)
  2. Identify the smallest subdivision (eighth, sixteenth, whichever).
  3. Select any rhythm, and see how it divides into four.
  4. Compare the selected rhythm with the list of eight common rhythms.
  5. Wash, rinse, repeat. After a few times, you’ll improve your sense of rhythm, and recognize them more quickly (you’ll be picking up some of the basics of music theory as well).
  6. Click Here to download the PDF of the 8 common rhythms chart above.

All Beats are not Created Equal

The rhythm patterns we’ve explored here are the ones we’ll encounter the most.  We could go on to explore syncopated rhythms and more complex meters.  But if we are happy for the moment to stick with these basics, what can we do when we’re playing, to enhance our rhythmic performance?

Well, we can sprinkle a little magic as we play.   We can add musical accents.  We can stress some beats more than others.

Not all beats are created equal.  If we want music to move forward, then we have to make the movement happen. And we do this in part through strong and weak beats.

A great example of this is to sing or speak the lyrics in a song.  We’ll immediately notice the stressed or unstressed syllables.  And music will often mimic the feel of this.  Accenting some notes more than others creates energy, pushing us through the bar to make a long line.

For more on interpretation and phrasing, click here.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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