[this is a preview from the upcoming course Making Theory Practical]
In the last lesson, we began mixing quarters & eighths.
We didn’t get far, though, because we’re missing an ingredient: silence.
Every note value has a matching rest.
(Don’t worry about memorizing these—we’re going to learn them in context.)
“Rest” is a crappy name for this. You’re not going on break, you’re playing silence.
A lot of people conflate musical rests with taking a rest. They check out, go slack, lose the count.
But time waits for no one. The song continues onward. The rest of the band keeps playing.
A rest is a quantifiable silence, not a message telling you to stop playing.
The important thing to remember:
- Rests are just as important as notes…
- …which means we have to “play” them with intentionality…
- …instead of going on a little mental vacation.
- Keep. Counting. During. Rests.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to some guitar parts with rests.
I Can’t Explain – The Who
You’ll notice that beats two & four have quarter rests, and I’ve written (2) and (4) under them.
(You might also notice that the snare drum plays on these beats—that’s the backbeat!)
We’re playing defined silences.
But look what the TAB shows—nothing. In TAB, rests are non-events!
I love TAB for what it does well. It shows us where to put our fingers.
You can see where this is going: music is so much more than where to find the next pitch on our fretboard.
Attention – Charlie Puth
We’ve got three rotations of a four-bar phrase. It’s mostly steady 8ths.
Then in the second bar of each four-bar phrase—on the Db chord—we have 1 + 2 + 3:
Again: you can play as many or as few of these examples as you like.
But: you should listen to all of them, counting along as you go.
We’re trying to fuse the three things together:
- the sound of the music
- the count written between the notation the TAB
- the notation symbols we use to express these rhythms
We’re using our eyes to train our ears. We’re getting smarter about rhythm.
Let’s look at some eighth rests.
Beat It – Michael Jackson
Eighth Rests & Single Eight Notes
The eighth rest tells us to play a half beat of silence.
- We don’t play on the downbeat of beat 1 or beat 4…
- …but we do play on the +.
- Single eighth notes don’t have a beam, they have a flag.
Ok, so an 8th note gets half a beat, and we don’t have to start them on the beat—they can be on the “offbeat.”
What about a single 8th note on the beat? Is that ok? Yes… ish.
In theory, this is perfectly correct. In practice, though, there’s a better way.
The textbook definition of staccato is “performed with each note sharply detached or separated from the others.”
In other words: play it short. Start the note where it says to, but cut it off so there’s a bit of silence between it and the next note. It’s… basically a rest.
Why choose this way over just writing a rest?
Believe it or not, the purpose of notation is to convey a musical idea *as easily as possible.*
And the first way isn’t easy enough. It’s ugly. Busy. I get a little crosseyed looking at it.
The second way is cleaner. Less likely to be misread. Easier to grok at a glance.
(I realize that neither one of them is especially easy for you to read just yet. Think of the first way like getting an email written in Comic Sans or Papyrus. Makes me want to stab my eyeballs out.)
A dot below (or above) a note tells us to play it staccato.
The verse of Beat It is also the first time we’re seeing a half rest:
It’s telling us to play two beats of silence.
Half rests & whole rests look very similar:
Back in grade school, they taught us:
- See how the whole rest hangs down from the line? It’s like a hole in the ground. A “hole” rest!
- The half rest looks like the hat you’d wear in a barbershop quartet. A “hat” rest!
That’s cute and all, but ultimately unnecessary:
- A whole rest fills a whole measure… so you will *never* see anything else in a bar with it. Never.
- A half rest fills half a measure. There will be other stuff in the bar with it.
Here’s Beat It again. Give it a listen while counting. Maybe whisper the count on the rests.
Naive Melody – Talking Heads
Just like I Can’t Explain, we have a little hole in the riff where the snare drum backbeat goes:
Do I think Pete Townsend & David Byrne sat around going “I think I’ll write a riff that has rests on 2 & 4…”?
Remember: theory is just our after-the-fact description of something that sounds cool.
Don’t confuse the description with the reasoning. The reason is simple: it sounds good.
Let’s talk about beaming
Notation is meant to be easy to read… while playing an instrument… and following the bandleader.
We do anything we can to make it more at-a-glance friendly.
Eighth notes can be written individually (with flags) or in groups (with beams).
The best, easiest way to group 8th notes is to beam them together by beat.
Good notation will group and/or beam notes together by beat 99% of the time.
Crappy notation (which is sadly all too common) will muddy the waters, obscuring the downbeats.
We’ll return to this idea in the future, but for now that’s more than enough said.
Rock You Like A Hurricane – The Scorpions
We’re seeing it all:
- two 8th notes beamed together on 1 +
- quarter notes on 2 & 4
- 8th rest-8th note combo
- (3) + in measure 1
- (2) + and (3) + in measure 2
- we’re even hearing the drums & bass slam that backbeat when they enter in measure 3
Something I cannot emphasize enough: listen to the riff and count along OUT LOUD.
It won’t be right away, but a strange thing begins to happen: you start to hear the structure embedded in the music.
Words cannot express how helpful this is in playing well.
- every note value has a corresponding rest
- whole note -> whole rest
- half note -> half rest
- quarter note -> quarter rest
- eighth note -> eighth rest
- A rest is a quantifiable silence…
- …not a message telling you to take a break.
- Which means you need to keep counting during rests.
- Single 8th notes have a flag instead of a beam.
- We usually see them in a specific combination:
- eight rest on the beat (1, 2, 3, or 4)
- eight note off the beat (the + of 1, 2, 3, or 4)
- We don’t usually see single eighth notes on numbered beats…
- …because it’s easier to write quarter notes with a dot above or below the notehead.
- That dot tells us to play it staccato: short and separated.
- Whole rests & half rests look similar, but they’re easy to discern:
- Whole rest = a whole measure of silence. You’ll never see anything else in a measure with one.
- Half rest = two beats of silence. There will be other stuff in the measure with it.
- Beaming notes together based on beat makes them easier to read.
- Counting along with these will make you feel silly…
- …but it’s a massive help in consolidating the sound, count, & rhythmic notation in your brain.