Lesson 4: Note Durations

In order for someone to play music, and not just the notes in a random way, they will need a kind of map to tell them which note to play, when to play it, and for how long. It is like a hiker on a trip. The hiker's map tells them where to go, how to get there, where to rest, and how long (or short) to stay if they want to get to the end of their journey on time. Reading a piece of music is a kind of hiker's map. And if more than one person is playing the same music with you, you will both need a map to tell you which note to play, where to rest, and how fast or slow to go so that you both end  your journey at the same time. This is what measures and beats do for you. They are the directions on a map to play music (a musical map).

These map directions are written on the "Staff." The staff is divided into very small parts of a journey. These parts are called "measures,"and the measures are divided into even smaller parts called "beats."

This is where the math of music begins. If you add all the beats together in 1 measure, they need to equal the size shown for that measure. Let's say that we have a measure size of 1. Let us also say that we have 4 beats divided equally within that measure. What size do 4 equal beats need to be to equal 1 when they are all added together?

1/4 each.

If you add 4 quarters together you get 1.


What size do 8 equal beats need to be to equal 1 when they are all added together?

1/8 each.

If you add 8 eighths together you get 1.


What size do 16 equal beats need to be to equal 1 when they are all added together?

1/16 each.

If you add 16 sixteenths together you get 1.


What size do 2 equal beats need to be to equal 1 when they are all added together?

1/2 each.

If you add 2 halves together you get 1.


What size does 1 equal beat need to be to equal 1?

1 each.

If you have 1 whole you have 1.

Musical notes are not all held for the same duration. There are long notes and short ones, and all others in between. Composers need a way of indicating to performers how long to hold each note. By making each note look a little different, this can be easily communicated.

Here is a whole note, a note you've probably seen before, sitting on a line:

The whole note is not normally found sitting on a line like this, of course. It's been placed there to help you visualize its length. This diagram is showing that one whole note takes up the entire line. If we divide the line into two equal parts, a whole note would be too big to fit in it. We need notes of shorter duration. These are called half notes:

You can tell with this diagram that it takes two half notes to make a whole note. Let's keep going. The next smaller note value is called a quarter note:

It takes four quarters to make a whole note. Also, you can tell that it takes two quarter notes to make one half note.

We could keep going, theoretically, forever! However, let's just do one more for now. Here are notes of even shorter value, called eighth notes. They look like quarter notes with flags:

So eight eighths equals one whole. It also equals two halfs. It also ....

Let's look at all the diagrams placed together. You can see the relationships between note lengths very clearly*:


Here's an equation that should now make some sense to you:

It shows that two quarter notes equal one half note in length. Here's another one:

This may look a little complicated, but take your time and figure it out: if you add together the lengths of one half note, two eighth notes and one quarter note, you will get one whole note. It's just the same as the following arithmetic equation:

2 +  + 1 = 4

No problem!



DOTTED NOTES

You know that in many time signatures a quarter note quarter note  equals one beat. When you add a dot to a note, you add half of its value to the note. What's half of one? .  If you add that to the quarter, you get a note that is 1 beats long.

A dotted quarter note looks like this:   The dot makes the note half again as long as a quarter note. (1 + ) = 1
Here is a dotted half note:   It is one half note plus half of a half note (one quarter). A dotted half note, therefore, is three beats long. (2 + 1 = 3)


Let's review.
We have beats that equal:

  • one Quarter

  • one Eighth

  • one Sixteenth

  • one Half

  • one Whole

When you describe a note in music, there are at least two parts to the description. The first part, as you have learned in previous lessons, is its "Melodic Name." Its melodic name is determined by its location on the staff. There are "C" notes, "D" notes, "F#" notes and so forth. And now we are going to learn its "Rhythmic Name." Its rhythmic name tells you how long (or short) to play a note you see written on the staff.

Rhythmic Names include (from our study about beats):

  • Quarter notes

  • Eighth notes

  • Sixteenth notes

  • Half notes

  • Whole notes

So when describing a note in music, we can have a "C" note that is a "Quarter note." Or, we can have an "A#" note that is a "Half note." Just remember that there are two parts to describe each note that you see written on the staff. And, when you add all the notes together in 1 measure, they need to equal 1 whole measure.


This is the stem for a Quarter note (quarter notes do not have any flag and have a solid black circle)-
This is the stem and flag for an Eighth note (notice it has a solid black circle)-
This is the stem and flag for a Sixteenth note (notice it has a solid black circle)-
This is the stem for a Half note (half notes do not have any flag and they use a black circle with a hole in it)-
This is a Whole note (whole notes do not have any flag or stem and they use a black circle with a hole in it)-


*British equivalents for these North American note values: Whole note = semibreve; Half note = minim; Quarter note = crochet; Eighth note = quaver

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