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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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10. Writing a Rhythm

Grade 4 Music Theory Lesson 10: Writing a Rhythm

This question is no longer included in the grade 4 ABRSM music theory exam (as of January 2018).


Write a Rhythm to Fit Words

Stressed Syllables

Before you write a single note, you need to work out which syllables of the words are stressed.

The easiest way to do this is to read through the words quite slowly (in your head) and tap your foot at the same time. Do this several times, and your foot will normally "tune in" to the stressed syllables. Try with these words (by William Blake):


Tiger, tiger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night.


As you say the words, tap your foot roughly once per second. Take your pencil and underline the syllables which coincide with your foot taps (not the whole word).


Tiger, tiger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night.


These syllables will fall on the strong beats of your rhythm. The strong beats are the first beat of each bar, and the middle beat if the rhythm is in quadruple time.


Time Signature & Barlines

Next, you need to pick a time signature. There is no right or wrong answer to this - pick a time signature you are comfortable using. Draw a bar line before the word which will start each bar. Always aim to have either four or eight bars - a balanced rhythm will have four or eight bars. We'll choose 3/4 for these words:


Tiger, |tiger, |burning |bright,

|In the |forests |of the |night.||


We need to put a double barline at the end. No bar line is needed before the first note.



Note Values

Next, pencil in the note values you want to use for each syllable. The word "tiger" has two syllables, for example, so you'll need to write two note values for that word.

You will be given two lines of poetry; it's a good idea to re-use part of the rhythm you put for the first line, in the second line. This will give your melody some consistency - the two lines of poetry will have a connection through the rhythm.

Be careful though, you won't get good marks for this question if you are too repetitive. You rhythm needs to show "variety" and "musical imagination". (You can see the ABRSM's complete marking criteria here.)

The last note of your rhythm should be long (at least a crotchet (quarter note)) and should fall on the beat. It's fine to use one long note in the last bar. 

tiger tiger burning bright rhythm

Here, we have re-used the rhythms from bars 2 and 4 in bars 6 and 8. 

The rest in bar 5 not only varies the rhythm, it also allows the singer to catch his/her breath!

The long tied note in bar 7 forms a kind of climax, just before the end of the melody.


Writing out the Words

Words that have two or more syllables have to be split up and reconnected with a hyphen, when you write the words underneath the notes.

Look again at the above example - the word "Tiger" has two syllables, so each syllable is written underneath a note, and the hyphen is used to connect the two syllables: Ti-ger. 


Watch the video!


Complete a 4-Bar Rhythm from the Given Opening

In this question, you'll normally be given one complete bar, which means you have to write another three bars. 

You can expect to find some of the more tricky time signatures being used, or other less straightforward items like double dotted notes or triplets, for example.

It's useful to think of the rhythm as four phrases - each phrase will be exactly the same length. You'll be given a complete first phrase.

 Sometimes the music will start on an upbeat - it will tell you in the question if that's the case. You'll need to finish off the first whole bar. When there is an upbeat, the second phrase actually starts at the end of the first whole bar.


Here's a typical question:

Write a complete four-bar rhythm in 9/8 time using the given opening, which begins on an upbeat. Remember to complete the first whole bar.



  • First, double check the time signature and remind yourself how many/what type of beats there will be in each bar.
  • Next, look at the rhythms you've been given. They will set the "style" of the piece. You need to keep the rest of the rhythm in the same style, so decide which features stand out.

Our rhythm is in 9/8, so there are three dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) beats per bar. Each one will be divided into three quavers (eighth notes).

Two features that stand out in the opening are the dotted rhythm, and the semiquavers (sixteenth notes). 

  • If there is an upbeat, start by finishing off the first whole bar. (If there isn't an upbeat, start at the beginning of the second bar.)
  • If there is an upbeat, the value you'll need to finish off the first whole bar is the same as you find in the upbeat bar. 


In our example, the upbeat lasts for one quaver (8th note), so therefore we need notes equal to the same value to finish off the first whole bar. We could simply use a quaver (8th note), or we could put two semiquavers (16ths). This is the first beat of the second phrase.



  • The second phrase should be similar to the first, but not the same.
  • Re-use the original note values, but change their order in the bar.
  • Don't introduce lots of note values which weren't used in the first phrase.
  • In triple time, try not to write a short note followed by a long note - stick to "long + short" (e.g. crotchet + quaver (quarter note + eighth note) and not the other way round).

Here's our second phrase:



(We've drawn and numbered the phrase marks to help you - you don't need to do this in the exam though!)


Notice how the second phrase:

  • is EXACTLY the same length as the first (so it doesn't fill up the whole of the bar in this case),
  • uses some of the same blocks of rhythm as the first phrase, but in a different order, and
  • doesn't contain anything wildly different to the first phrase.


On to the third phrase. (Again, if there is an upbeat, this will start at the end of the second whole bar. With no upbeat, it starts at the beginning of bar 3.)

The third phrase can be a kind of "climax" to the piece. It's ok to put something a little bit more exciting in this phrase - you could use faster note values, or add something a little bit different (like triplets, for example). Don't go over the top though - less is more! Here's our third phrase:


Notice how the third phrase:

  • is EXACTLY the same length as the first and second (so it doesn't fill up the whole of the bar in this case), and
  • uses some of the same blocks of rhythm as the first two phrases, but also
  • has something a bit new in the second beat of bar 3 - the faster note values.


The final, fourth phrase needs to mark the end of the piece. If the third phrase is a kind of climax, the fourth phrase is much calmer. It's fine to repeat most (but not all!) of the note values you used in the first phrase here. The final note should be quite long - don't finish on a quaver (8th note) or semiquaver (16th). Make the final note at least as long as one full beat.

Don't forget that if you started on an upbeat, the final bar will not be a whole bar!

Here's our final phrase:


Notice how the fourth phrase:

  • is exactly the same length as phrases 1-3,
  • has an incomplete final bar, because there was an upbeat to the piece,
  • uses the block of rhythm from beat 1 bar 1, and
  • finishes on a long note - a crotchet (quarter note).

Click the play button to hear this rhythm.

 Here's my video lesson on completing a rhythm:


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