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12. Completing a Rhythm

Grade 3 Music Theory - Lesson 12: Completing a Rhythm

If you are preparing for the ABRSM grade 3 music theory exam, this is a question which you must prepare thoroughly, because it’s always included and it’s worth ten points, or 10% of the whole exam!

You need to write a complete four-bar rhythm using the given opening.

You’ll be given one complete bar including the time signature, so you need to write three more bars.

You don’t need to write a tune, only the rhythm.

Here’s an example:

Write a complete four-bar rhythm in 9/8 time using the given opening.

write a complete four-bar rhythm



  1. Notice the time signature and make sure that each bar you write has the right number of beats.
  2. Check that beamed notes (quavers, semiquavers and demisemiquavers) (8ths/16ths/32nds) are grouped correctly.
  3. Don’t just repeat exactly what you already have in any bar.
  4. Don’t write something that’s completely different to any other bar.

Tips one and two are straightforward, but tips three and four are a little bit more difficult to get right. You need to write something which is similar to bar one, but not the same and not very different. It can be hard to get that right, so make sure you do lots of practice!

Some ways you can achieve this:

  • As you write each bar, keep some of the rhythmic patterns from the previous bar, but
    not all of them. You can change half to three quarters of  the bar, for example:
    do not change everything


  • Change the order of some of the groups of notes:
    change the order
    (The groups are numbered to show you how the order has changed.)


  • Don’t write things like lots of triplets, dotted/tied notes or syncopation UNLESS there were some in the first bar. You need to keep the character of the rhythm the same all the way through.
  • Don’t feel that you have to “show off” by writing every single different note value/rests, or anything else. It’s more important to keep the character of the rhythm.
  • Make sure any long notes fall on the beat (see lesson 8 for more on this).
  • Use a reasonably long note to end the composition: don’t end on a quaver, semiquaver or demisemiquaver (8th, 16th or 32nd note).

Here’s a possible answer to the above question:
possible answer


Notice how the same patterns get reused, but not in exactly the same way. We used a dotted note in the 4th bar, but it’s not a “new” rhythm – it’s the same value as the tied quaver (8th) + semiquaver (16th) in bars 1 and 2.


Dealing with Upbeats

An "upbeat" is a part of the rhythm which occurs before bar 1. If the piece starts on an upbeat, the first bar will not be complete. For example, this rhythm in 4/4 starts on an upbeat - there is just one crotchet (quarter note) in the first bar:

The second G falls on the strong beat - the first beat of bar 1. It is played with a stronger stress than the first G. Think of the word "potato" - the stress falls on the second syllable of the word. If you set the word "potato" to music, you'd use an upbeat for the syllable "po-", so that "-ta-" falls on the strong beat of the bar. Even when there are no words set to music, rhythms still contain stresses in the same way.

If there is an upbeat, you must make sure the last bar of your piece is also incomplete.

  • The first bar and the last bar added together should make one complete bar. In our example, our last bar should contain 3 beats (not 4).



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