I want to learn how to write music notation, but first I want to learn the rhythmic aspect of it so I’m only trying to work out rhythms on single staves.

What are the key things I need to work on?

Some things I’ve already thought of are:

  • Learning how to write note and rest values, which I already understand pretty well.
  • How to properly count — I’m having trouble with this one beyond 16th notes. I’m thinking that this is the reason it is hard for me to comprehend how to write the rests.

I was thinking to buy some books on drum notation and work on counting those, but I’m not sure that’ll even help without first understanding how to count, more specifically, how to count the past 16ths and the rests. I understand up to sixteenth 1 e + a but I never learned past sixteenth.

Essentially, my current goal is to translate my rhythmic ideas onto paper.

  • 1
    Quick point: If you find yourself writing an unreasonable number of triplets, you may be in the wrong time signature When Pete Seeger transcribed Minuit, he did so in 4/4 and it's quite hard to read. Rewriting it as 12/8 makes it much easier to understand.
    – keshlam
    Mar 21 at 13:31

6 Answers 6


The thing about music and rhythm and the connection to writing is that most musicians, amateur to pro have an innate sense of rhythm and are able to conceptualize, copy and create things that are very complex. What a lot of musicians can’t do is bridge the gap between being able to hear, feel and play something and explain it in concrete terms like music notation. This seems to be what you are trying to do.

For now I would put a limit on subdivisions at 16th notes until you have a strong grasp of the rhythms that can be created using whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes and their triplets. Anything beyond those basically uses the same concepts and is just simple math with smaller fractions.

Writing is not a one way street. You need to be able to read and understand rhythm and written notation in order to be able to write your own ideas so yes, get yourself some books, preferably accompanied by audio examples. You may want to start with a book that only teaches rhythm and is not necessarily drum specific. Read and play rhythms. This will give you a lot of insight on how to write what you hear.

Once you start writing, the things you need to focus on are:

Accuracy: Make sure you are presenting the rhythmic notation in a way that represents exactly the notes you want to hear and when they are played.

Clarity: This includes neatness. Make sure your notes are grouped and beamed together properly. Use imaginary par lines. In 4/4 time that means on beat 3 for eighth notes or on every beat for 16th notes. Space your notes so that they are representative of their appropriate value in relation to other notes within each bar.

Simplicity: This goes hand in hand with clarity. Basically if there are two or three ways to write something, pick the way that is the easiest to digest quickly. Imagine you are writing for someone who is sight reading and want to make it as easy as possible for them.

Transcribing is also a great tool to help you understand and assimilate rhythms, start with simple 8th note music and move up from there. It can be any instrument, not just drums. You can transcribe the rhythm of a melody, guitar, bass, horn parts, etc. If you can’t write it out right away at least try and be able to play it and it will start sinking in over time.


It can be tricky to know exactly what your rhythm "sounds like," but to figure out how it's written. I'd suggest letting some technology help. If you can sing or clap or tap your rhythm, then record it (preferably while running a metronome so it stays stable). So first of all, this prevents you from forgetting or altering it while you work on transcribing it. Then, you can use various tools to slow the recording down, so you can hear and think about it better. You can count aloud, "1 e & a" or etc., and notice how the recorded values align with what you count.

For small note values, try "doubling" everything in your mind. For instance, there's no real difference in the way these two things sound: enter image description here enter image description here With the metronome set to 60 for the first example and 120 for the second, these notes go by at the same rate. The only difference is how "big" a note you "feel" to be the beat—or in other words, what the metronome is doing. (This raises the question, which one is the "right" choice? That's not an easy question, and has been covered elsewhere here. It comes down to what you like and what's practical.) But even if the first version is what you choose to go with, sometimes for small note values it helps to "pretend" for a little bit that a smaller note value is in fact the beat. (Helps when reading them, too!)


1e&a is fairly safe. But the trouble with mnemonics is that they aren't as 'intuitive' as we like to think. For instance, these two readings of 'Elephant' are equally possible and equally learnable. But you HAVE to learn them! Invent anything you like, but don't kid yourself they'll be 'standard' or 'intuitive'. enter image description here

  • 3
    In my teaching experience, every time anyone encounters the concept of triplets for the very first time, what comes out is the second example. "Oh, easy! One two threee, one two threee!" (Which reminds me of the joke "Maestro, do you find it difficult to conduct in seven?" "Certainly not! One, two, three, four, five, six, sev, en.") Mar 19 at 17:26

For notes "smaller" than sixteenths, there's no standard counting mnemonic. The best option I've found is to change the beat note and then divide the count accordingly.

For example, consider a piece in 4/4 time with a 32nd-note passage. I would count as though the piece were in 8/8 (i.e., eighth-note beats) and then use the 1-e-&-a (or other) counting method for the 32nds.

Illustration of above technique

Triplets are typically 1-&-a or tri-pl-et or el-e-phant or ta-ki-da or ....

  • Glad to see el-e-phant is far more universal than I would have imagined! Trying to find a French equivalent right now.
    – Tim
    Mar 19 at 17:23

Can't speak for everyone, but I'd split each crotchet (say) into two, and count 1e&a for each quaver. Don't think there's an 'industry standard' for those, but each would have their own trick.

Triplets - 1-trip-let, 2-trip-let, etc works well. Kids like el-e-phant el-e-phant too!


One help could be a good note writing program on your computer. The note program will always fill a bar with notes + rests and notates complicated rythms correctly. It will allow you to see the notes and playback the rythm. Dorico SE is free to use is one example of a program as there are other programs (some programs will allow you to write free from the limitations of standardized note writing, ie having to many or to few beats in a bar, maybe best to avoid at the stage you are right now).

  • Yup wrote, "The note program will always fill a bar with notes + rests and notates complicated rythms correctly." This has not been my experience. They frequently do not notate things correctly, but we tend to trust the computer and so we don't notice the mistake and then learn it wrong.
    – nuggethead
    Mar 20 at 15:38
  • 1
    @nuggethead - as I wrote programs differ. Which program is your experience from? If the answer is FInale then it generally does not nudge you towards using correct notation as it is designed to allow you to do what you want (not what the program wants).. My experience is from Dorico where you can force it to not follow the standard notation rules , but it takes some special steps..
    – ghellquist
    Mar 21 at 6:47
  • Awesome! Thanks for this suggestion I didn’t even think about it. What do you think about Sibelius and the rest of the avid notation applications? The first thing that stuck out to me is that I can use Sibelius on my iPhone but not Dorico (I don’t have an iPad and would rather not buy one right now).
    – Emotion
    Mar 22 at 18:58

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