The picture above shows the beginning of a song. After the 4 sharps that represent the key you see a symbol that is called the time signature or meter of the song. In this case it is the common which means that there are 4 quarter notes in a measure. A measure is the part of the staff between two vertical lines.
Any of these means there are 4 beats in each measure. Count 1, 2, 3, 4.
Both 3/4 and 6/8 have 3 beats in a measure. Count 1, 2, 3. This is a waltz.
2 beats in a measure. Count 1, 2. This is a march.
Other meters are rare and you can define how long they are if you know that the upper value represents the number of notes that fit in a measure and the lower value the type of these notes. So 12/4 means 12 quarter notes in a measure. That is a waltz with a lot of notes in each measure.
Each measure should be filled to it's full lenght with notes and rests. An exception is the first measure. As you can see in the picture at the top of this page, the first measure only contains a note 1 beat long. There are no rest symbols added before it.
To play the notes at the right time you should count as the meter implies. In a 4/4 meter you must count in each measure:
one - two - three - four
like you are marching. You can play a quarter note at each count (beat). If there are 1/8 notes then count
one -and - two - and - three - and - four -and
in the same length of time. If there are 1/16 notes then count:
one - po - ta - to - two - po - ta -to - three - po - ta - to - four - po - ta - to
also in the same time as you would count 1-2-3-4. So you will have to say potato very fast.
In the picture above you see how you must count two get the timing of the notes right. In the last measure you see how three notes are bundled in a triplet. That means three notes use the same time as two. I would add dal-da to the count to get the timing right. Usually the short flagged notes are beamed together into bundles that represent one count each. Each horizontal beam represents one flag like pictured below.
A bow between notes means that these notes are played as one. So in this case you play E-F-G-A. The first E is played only once and lasts 5 beats. You count 1 (play E), 2, 3, 4, 1, 2 (play F), 3 (play G), 4 (play A).
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